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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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.