November 5, 2014

In Washington, D.C.'s public schools, African-American students are almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white classmates. Students with disabilities are also disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

But a group of local students is hoping to use their artwork to change that.

Students participating in a program with the nonprofit group Critical Exposurecontend that disciplinary practices in the District's public schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes minority and vulnerable students out of school and into the penal system.

For the past two years, Critical Exposure has brought students together to document the problems in their school district through more than just data and numbers. The students use photography and multimedia projects to depict the difficulty their peers face in finishing school as a result of tough disciplinary policies. Some of the student photographers have been suspended at some point during their educations, and many have seen friends and peers suspended for minor infractions.

“They see what happens when students get 10 days out of school with suspensions, how students get in trouble with the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system and how it snowballs from there,” said Adam Levner, the executive director and co-founder of Critical Exposure, in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.

Scroll down to see the students' photos.

Levner said that members of his organization's 2012-2013 after-school fellowship class identified the school-to-prison pipeline as a problem they wanted to document. The 2013-2014 fellows then chose to continue the project, while other program leaders brought the idea to individual schools as well. (The current class of fellows has not yet decided what it will be documenting.)

Since then, Critical Exposure students have testified at public hearings about the issue and had a series of meetings with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. They also successfully worked this year to establish a pilot restorative justice program, which emphasizes discussion and conflict resolution over suspensions and expulsions, at a local high school.

Malik Thompson, 19, was involved with Critical Exposure throughout his high school career. He has experienced firsthand the impact of "school pushout." Following his older brother's death several years ago, when Thompson was in the ninth grade, he says he stopped going to his citywide, application-only high school. After several months of truancy, and what he describes as “minimal efforts” from school administrators to draw him back in, Thompson says he received a letter from the school informing him that he was no longer enrolled.

“Basically, I was kicked out,” Thompson told HuffPost.

The next year, Thompson became involved in Critical Exposure after seeing a flyer at his new school. He is now an intern at the Gandhi Institute in Rochester, New York, a nonprofit that helps promote racial justice and nonviolence education. There, he facilitates workshops for young people in schools while leading photography and videography efforts.

Thompson, who ended up finishing his high school career in a home-school program, also advocates for the expansion of restorative justice programs in schools.

Restorative justice, he said, "creates [a culture] where the entire student –- like what happened outside the school and during school -- is acknowledged and taken into account."

Thompson continued, “I think more programs like Critical Exposure should exist where young people have avenues to begin to experience their own power, to work collaboratively together with adult supporters in order to make change in their world."

"Critical Exposure was essential to me becoming the person I am today," he added.

Below are photos from Critical Exposure’s students, representing how they see the school-to-prison pipeline in their everyday lives, provided to HuffPost by Critical Exposure. All photo captions were written by individual photographers, but have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Click the article's link to see student photos.

September 23rd, 2014

When most D.C. teens take photos—likely with their smartphones—images tend to go only as far as their social media networks. However, youth who participate in programming run by non-profit Critical Exposure learn documentary photography and have taken their photos as far as the D.C. Council.
Since 2004, Critical Exposure has partnered with D.C. public high schools and after-school programs to engage kids whose voices often go unheard. At the end of the program, CE says, participants become fully engaged civic leaders.
“We teach them how to use photography to document particular issues that impact them and then teach them how to use those photographs to advocate to get the problems fixed,” says Adam Levner, executive director of Critical Exposure.
Students at Eastern Senior High School, H.D. Woodson Senior High School and Luke C. Moore High School have identified and campaigned around issues such as racism in the classroom, declining graduation rates and a lack of arts education and extracurricular opportunities.
The students photograph themselves, their peers and friends, and their surroundings. They learn how to write captions that contextualize the perspectives of youth who yearn for justice and change. Through the power of images, students have secured over $500 million toward making crucial improvements to their schools, such as building a new library, adding relevant curriculum, improving security processes and building community gardens.
Most recently, says Levner, students have rallied to tackle the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend where students' petty transgressions that would once have led to a warning or detention now lead to long-term suspension or police enforcement.
“Having the students arrested at the school often leads young people into the juvenile justice system, which can lead to the adult justice system, and that creates a pipeline where students are pushed out of school and into the criminal justice system,” he explains.
In 2013, participants in Critical Exposure’s fellowship program, housed at the Thurgood Marshall Center in northwest D.C. pushed to implement Restorative Justice programming into all D.C. public schools. This model of discipline has been successful in gathering victims, offenders and community members in safe environments to address the root causes that lead to disruptive acts.
The teenaged fellows attended workshops and meetings, met with city officials and the chancellor and testified at D.C. Council hearings—experiences they never dreamed of having.

Critical Exposure fellows testify at the D.C. Council about the school-to-prison pipeline
“For almost all of them, its the first time that they've ever spoken publicly or ever testified around an issue,” says Levner, who works to prepare students with written testimony before hearings. “They get excited about having their voices heard and realizing that they have the ability to address issues, not just experience them.”
The fellows’ efforts secured funding from the city council to implement a pilot program at the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus during the 2014 school year.
Teen pregnancy prevention has also been an issue of high concern for participants. In 2013, a partnership between the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative and the DC Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy allowed youth from the Kenilworth and Parkside neighborhoods of northeast D.C. to create public service announcements and other educational collateral around the issue.
The program culminated in a multimedia exhibit at Busboys & Poets with Ward 7 Councilmember Yvette Alexander in attendance.
“There’s definitely a lot of excitement when students walk into an art gallery [for] the first time and see their work on the walls and see people from the community not just seeing their work, but really looking at it, reading their captions and trying to understand the stories behind it,” says Levner.
A number of students who leave Critical Exposure go on to pursue photography and remain civically engaged in their communities, creating lasting impact.
“Having the students be able to change a policy or a practice that directly impacts them in their schools or communities is the most exciting—seeing the ownership that they have over that change and knowing that the change is not just going to impact the students who participate, but all of the students who go to that school and will go to that school in the future.”

This article has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Adam Levner's name. Elevation DC regrets the error.

District of Columbia Youth, Parents, Teachers and Advocates Call upon D.C.’s State Education Agency to Reform School Pushout Policies

October 22nd, 2014

Mayer Brown’s DC office launches multi-pronged community service and pro bono campaign – “Making the Case for Kids” – in support of children and education

September 15, 2014

Firm will kick-off the campaign with a September 23 reception featuring the extraordinary photography of inner-city high school participants in the Critical Exposure program 

Mayer Brown, a leading global law firm, announced that the firm’s Washington DC office has launched “Making the Case for Kids,” a multidimensional community service and pro bono campaign aimed at supporting children and education. The firm will host a kickoff reception in partnership with Critical Exposure on September 23, 2014, at 6:00 p.m. at its Washington DC office (1999 K Street, NW). The event will feature the extraordinary photography of talented inner-city high school participants in the Critical Exposure program, which trains DC high school students to use photography and advocacy to make changes in their schools and communities. Mayer Brown will host the Critical Exposure exhibit in its DC office from September 15 through October 10. 

The “Making the Case for Kids” campaign includes initiatives to:

  • Bring focus to existing pro bono and community service activities and engage a large cross-section of the Mayer Brown community under one targeted campaign;
  • Expand the firm’s existing partnerships with community service and pro bono organizations and forge new partnerships with additional organizations in the DC community whose focus is benefiting children and education;
  • Facilitate connections among partner organizations that share a commitment to children and education but that have not previously worked together, to create new types of programs that leverage their mutual strengths; and
  • Enhance the operational efficiency of partner organizations through increased involvement of Mayer Brown personnel at the board level and in other consulting capacities.

“Although Mayer Brown has a long history of partnering with organizations in the DC community to benefit children and education, ‘Making the Case for Kids’ allows us to expand our efforts under one targeted campaign,” said Dan Masur, partner-in-charge of Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office. “Quality education is vital to the overall success of our District’s youth, and it’s incredible to think what we can accomplish by engaging a large cross-section of lawyers and staff, while bringing together community service organizations in the District to achieve the mission of providing broader access to educational opportunities for at-risk children.” More information on the campaign.

In addition to Critical Exposure, Making the Case for Kids partner organizations include:

With more than 180 lawyers, Mayer Brown’s Washington DC office has experienced substantial growth in 2014, adding more than two dozen lateral partners and other lawyers in top-tier practice areas, including Intellectual Property, White Collar Defense & Compliance, Securities Litigation & Enforcement, Employment & Benefits and Government Relations. Lawyers in the office are routinely recognized as leaders in the Washington legal scene by such publications as the Washington Business Journal, The Washingtonian, Legal Times, Benchmark, Chambers and Legal 500.

August 25, 2014

As we wrap up blogs for Artist Awareness Month, we welcome Adam Levner, Executive Director of Critical Exposure to 7 Questions. Critical Exposure trains youth to use photography and advocacy to make real change in their schools and communities. Previously, Adam worked as a fifth grade teacher and then as a community organizer with Stand for Children, where he led successful reform efforts that resulted in over $20 million annually in additional revenue for Prince George’s County, MD school district.

  1. What motivated you to begin working with your organization?

I co-founded Critical Exposure in 2004 with a friend and colleague, Heather Rieman. The idea for the organization was born from our shared experiences seeing firsthand the disparities that existed in public schools and our shared frustration with the lack of public demand and political will to address those disparities. We believed that educational inequities were due in part to both innocent and willful ignorance of their impact. As a society, we tacitly accepted the reality that students in low-income communities did not have access to the same level of educational opportunity as students in wealthier communities. Our theory was that we could begin to chip away at the disparities by (1) injecting the voices of the students who lacked access to a high-quality education into the policy conversations that determined the allocation of resources that their schools received, and (2) forcing public officials and community members to recognize and confront the need to close this opportunity gap. Our shared passion for photography led us to choose it as our primary tool for empowering youth and engaging adults.

  1. What exciting change or innovation is on your mind?

I am excited by innovative advocacy campaigns, particularly those using art and digital media, and by new strategies for providing youth with opportunities to shape their schools and communities. Critical Exposure is constantly trying to learn from the ways that other organizations have been successful in creating change. We are currently looking to participate in the world of pop-up exhibits, especially ones that incorporate new technologies for displaying images and provide ways for people to interact with the work, as a tool for engaging community members in advocacy efforts.

  1. Who inspires you (in the philanthropy world or otherwise)? Do you have a hero?

I don’t have a particular hero, but there are lots of people who provide different types of inspiration for me. I always admire leaders in the nonprofit world who are able to look past their individual organization’s self-interest and see the bigger picture–leaders who share funding opportunities with other organizations even though it might mean more competition for them; leaders who invest in their employees’ long-term skills and health even if it won’t benefit their organization directly because it benefits the field; leaders who find time to support causes other than their own; etc. I admire my co-workers, who show up every day energized and eager to get going. Most of all, though, I admire our students, many of whom have already faced more challenges in their lifetime than I can imagine but who somehow find a way to keep smiling, keep taking advantage of every opportunity they’re given, and keep trying to make the world a better place for everyone, not just themselves.

  1. What was your most interesting recent project/partnership?

This summer, all of Critical Exposure’s programs were led by former and current students. It was amazing to watch their transformation from being the recipients of training to becoming the providers. In particular, I enjoyed witnessing the moment when the student facilitators stopped thinking of the experience as just their own leadership development exercise and began thinking in terms of what their students were getting out of the program. Not surprisingly, that moment translated into a much more successful and meaningful opportunity for everyone.

  1. What is the single greatest challenge that your organization faces (besides finances) and how are you dealing with this challenge?

Critical Exposure’s greatest challenge is figuring out how to continue working on particular issues where our students have made progress and established themselves as valued stakeholders while still enabling new students to have ownership over the issues they are working to address. For example, our Fellowship students have been working for the last two years on issues related to the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative justice, and overly punitive school discipline policies. In this time, they have developed substantive partnerships with local and national advocacy groups, been recognized by City Council members and the Chancellor for their involvement around these issues, and amassed an impressive amount of issue-specific expertise (in addition to the broader political education and skills they gained). Critical Exposure is working with current students to identify related issues that they are passionate about that would enable them to capitalize on the work of the students who came before them.

  1. What advice do you have for other people in your position?

Surround yourself with people who are talented but who also make work as fun as possible. This includes staff members, board members, mentors, colleagues, consultants, office neighbors, anyone. Build an organizational culture that you enjoy–it’s a lot easier to do good work when you and the people around you give each other energy and motivation instead of sap them.

  1. What’s next/coming up for you?

September 1st marks the beginning of Critical Exposure’s 10th year, which is an opportunity both to celebrate the impact that we’ve had on youth, schools and communities to date, and to assess how we can have an even greater impact moving forward. This spring we’ll be hosting a retrospective exhibit highlighting the work of our students over the last decade and laying out our vision for the future. Critical Exposure started out as an organization focused on education policy. Over time, we have become an organization that remains committed to systemic changes that benefit low-income youth, but now has equal focus on developing the leadership of the individual youth that we serve directly. We now know that our approach provides our students with the tools, skills, and confidence they need to improve their own futures, even as they work to secure broader change at the school and community level.

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