S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth was built on the belief that the cure for Long Island’s gang epidemic lies in youth empowerment programs, support, and counseling. Through photography and storytelling, teenagers from Brentwood’s white community and young immigrants with MS-13 gang affiliation share their perspectives on gang violence, and options to it.
Olivia Ildefonso, Board member for S.T.R.O.N.G Youth
We have tried many strategies to empower our kids and give them the tools to realize that even though they were dealt a difficult hand of cards, they can persevere and make positive changes in their lives and their communities. Out of all the workshops that I’ve been involved with to date, I can honestly say that none have been as effective as the workshop that Saskia led with our kids.
While these teenagers have seemingly come from entirely different worlds - some have fled poverty and violence in their home countries, while other have grown up in the most affluent zip codes in the U.S. - the cameras gave them a way to be seen by each other and develop common understandings.
Saskia skillfully created a safe and welcoming environment that allowed the youth to be vulnerable with one another. During the first day, no one wanted to talk at all, but once they were given the cameras and were told to take each other’s portraits the tension quickly started to dissipate. And the portraits that they produced were stunning!
More importantly, throughout the workshops, they also reflected on the aspects of themselves that the photos were able to capture and the sides of themselves that remained hidden from view.
We were often brought to tears by their reflections and their deep sense of self. To say that these workshops were powerful, would be an understatement. We look forward to working with Saskia more in the future!
Alison Davis Curry
I was present for the workshops, supporting Saskia in her work and documenting the workshops. I watched the kids as they entered, fearful, self-contained and distracted. They used their cell phones as shields from the group. Many spoke only Spanish and through translators. The kids subdivided in groups, not into two groups from different communities, but into sub-groups within those communities, in pairs, and in isolation.
During our collaborative sessions, working with their partners and the camera, the kids came to see their own fears and facades, and to recognize their mutual similarities. Simples acts engaged the children: looking through the camera, posing for the camera, selecting and sharing photographs with the group. Challenging tasks: creating a narrative around the photographs, and consideration for the “masks” they wear to project the face they want the world to see, and the “selves” they hide behind that mask.
An introspective act to create, an extrospective act to share, these exercises broke stereotypes the children identified as creating their personas in the world, vs the inner-selves they hide beneath their masks.
The fourth session, when the work was shared, was joyous and harmonious. A hugely different mood from the one we walked into just a month before. A recurring motif of concern from the children was the negative images of Brentwood, and the way they are stereotyped based on where they live and what they look like.