Column: In a digital space, young people learn life-changing skills for the real world

Emilee Geist

Cali Liu is a 17-year-old La Jolla High School senior who uses photography to help her manage the stress of her busy student life. Adrian Prado is a 16-year-old junior at John F. Kennedy Middle College High School in Norco whose love of taking photos and making videos is what […]

Cali Liu is a 17-year-old La Jolla High School senior who uses photography to help her manage the stress of her busy student life. Adrian Prado is a 16-year-old junior at John F. Kennedy Middle College High School in Norco whose love of taking photos and making videos is what gets him out of the house and keeps him in touch with the outside world. Earlier this week, both students came together on Zoom to help shape the digital space that will give each of them room to make the art they want to make for all of the reasons they need to make it.

Cali and Adrian are members of Youth Tellers, a new online program from San Diego’s Outside the Lens, a 19-year-old nonprofit organization that helps young people learn how to use digital media to tell their stories and illuminate the issues they care about.

“In today’s society, it’s hard for young creative people to find a place to belong and express themselves,” Cali after she and Adrian wrapped-up a Youth Tellers Zoom meeting. “The fact that we are able to have a platform built on our stories and our art that we can share with the world is really incredible.”

In non-virus times, Outside the Lens offered in-person classes and workshops on various aspects of photography, filmmaking and digital media. It brought photography and filmmaking education into schools through its “Cameras in the Classroom” program and to underserved communities through its “Cameras in Communities” program. The “FOTO TJ” summer camp gave students from San Diego and Tijuana the chance to explore Tijuana, border life and their own multicultural identities through their photographs.

With the organization’s Liberty Station facility closed, the Outside the Lens mission is being pursued online. There are virtual classes in digital photography and old-school film photography. There were online summer camps devoted to photography-based crafts, making music videos and creating art for social change.

And now, there is Youth Tellers.

When it launches sometime within the next two weeks, the free program will provide young people ages 8 to 25 with a virtual place to acquire new skills, make and share their work, and communicate with other program members about life, art, social justice and the pursuit of creative fulfillment.

For for Cali, Adrian and the other members of the Youth Teller Architects, the learning, engagement and fun is happening already.

Youth Tellers Architects is the 16-member group that has spent the last two months creating and building the Youth Tellers platform. The architects dreamed-up content for the platform and worked on how to brand it. They made videos and figured out how to work with Discord, the Slack-like platform where much of the Youth Tellers activity will take place. Like the Youth Tellers members of the near future, they made pieces of digital art that introduced themselves to the world through the images that speak to them.

And through trial, error, multiple online meetings and many Discord exchanges, they made a creative world where other young people like them will feel at home.

“To see them building out this space is so exciting,” said Outside the Lens staff member Luke Grigg, who is the Youth Tellers’ project director. “Their conversations are getting deeper all the time, and people from different places and backgrounds are getting to know each other better. It is so encouraging to see students who are so willing to take on these bigger roles to build this platform for their peers so that everyone can have a place to come and use their voice.”

When students join Youth Tellers, they will have the chance to learn everything from graphic design to illustrating and video editing. They can work on group projects devoted to social-justice issues, LGBTQ life and border stories. They can work with people like former Outside the Lens student and current mentor Barbara Bubalo of Boznia-Herzegovina, who is running the Youth Tellers’ virtual writers room, where students will be learning how to create stories for short-form films and videos.

And perhaps most importantly, joining Youth Tellers means joining a global community of other creative young people who know what it’s like to be growing up during this very weird time. In Youth Tellers, the art of survival is a group project, and your best collaborators are just a click away.

“Youth Tellers is led by youth. It’s for youth, and it’s by youth. And since I’m a youth, it’s relatable,” said Prado, who became the Youth Architects’ go-to Discord wrangler. “You get to come here and grow as an artist, and then you get to meet all of these other people and see what they’ve been doing. My dream would be to see us with thousands of members, just a big community of artists helping each other and being engaged.”

For information on joining Youth Tellers as a student or mentor, go to outsidethelens.org.

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