For Josh Schachter, winner of the PhotoPhilanthropy 2010 Activist Awards, photography is a vital language with which he observes, documents, and engages the world. “As a teenager I never felt like I could express myself, but when I discovered the camera it became a conduit for my voice,” he says. “Since then, I have felt driven to create opportunities for youth to explore, discover, and share their own voices and perspectives.”
In partnership with ELD/English teacher Julie Kasper, Schachter co-founded Finding Voice, an innovative literacy and visual arts program dedicated to helping refugee and immigrant youth at Catalina Magnet High School in Tucson, Arizona. The students develop their literacy and English as second language skills by researching, photographing, writing, and speaking out on crucial social issues.
The photographs in the winning essay were part of a semester-long Finding Voice project, during which the students explored the themes of war and immigration. They produced personal essays and portraits of each other that reflected their identities and experiences. The synergy of words and photographs is key for each Finding Voice project. For many students, taking pictures channels their priorities and motivates them to develop their writing skills. As they develop their final pieces, Finding Voice also supports them in identifying strategic audiences for their work. In the case of the winning essay, the students’ portraits and excerpts from their essays were showcased at over 22 bus stops throughout Tucson during one year.
PhotoPhilanthropy: Three years have passed since you won PhotoPhilanthropy’s Activist Award in the category for community-based organizations. Do you think the award has been effective in increasing exposure for your nonprofit?
Josh Schachter: I shared the grant information with our primary funder, the Tucson Pima Arts Council (TPAC). TPAC announced the grant to the arts community and many other audiences in our region through their newsletter. As a result, it did increase awareness about Finding Voice. We received many emails from the community in response to TPAC’s announcement.
Have you kept in touch with the subjects of your photography work?
Finding Voice has worked with over 600 refugee and immigrant students, and has kept in touch with them over the past seven years. Many of our students are successful in college and university settings. While we certainly cannot attribute this success solely to Finding Voice, regular emails and visits from alumni indicate that this program has had a significant impact on their academic careers, their ability to integrate into the Tucson community, and finding their way in their new homes.
Many alumni of Finding Voice regularly visit the campus and return to help current students. One alumnus formed a refugee youth coalition for the Phoenix area, another formed a debate club, and yet another has become the President of the African-American Students Association at the University of Arizona. Another alumnus was later hired with me by the Tucson Museum of Art to teach photography to other refugee youth.
What projects have you completed since you won the grant?
In 2010 and 2011, Finding Voice collaborated with different community partners to galvanize change in schools, the refugee community, and Tucson at large. One group of students worked with the International Rescue Committee to document the challenges facing refugee youth and their families. They created a city-wide Refugee Youth Coalition, which continues to address these challenges to date. Another team worked with the regional organization called Imagine Greater Tucson (IGT) to gather input from refugee and immigrant communities as part of a regional visioning process. Finding voice students worked with IGT to document their vision of Tucson and produced a large-scale exhibition in the middle of Park Place Shopping Mall.
During the 2011-2012 school year, we organized a student project on identity, which resulted in the publication of a 170-page book titled “The Book Is Not The Cover.” Through photography and poetry writing, students examined the complexities of their identity though the lenses of culture, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sex, gender, and religion.
Last year, our students selected and examined social and environmental issues. We then brought in over 30 community experts to discuss these issues with them, ranging from deforestation to sexual assault. Pam Simon, survivor of the January 8, 2011 Tucson shooting with former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, explored with the refugee students their shared experiences with gun violence, mental health, and the complexities of gun control policy. A police officer and a former drug addict spoke with another group of students about drug abuse, dealing, and motivations behind crime. These experiences made what they had been researching in the classrooms feel “real,” and connected them to important resources in our community. As a culminating experience, the students produced linocut social justice posters that visually and metaphorically represented different aspects of their research topics.
How do you see your role?
As an artist and community organizer, I see myself as a sort of visual acupuncturist. I strive to illuminate points of constriction, tension and opportunity in a system through creative, community-based experiences. And through this process, I work with communities to implement strategies that transform these “blocked areas” into points of connectivity and possibility.
Do you think your project triggered some sort of social change?
Julie and I see a direct correlation between language development and social change. Any immigrant or refugee who learns to use the dominant language of the society in which he or she lives, has greater potential to become an agent of social change. That is the reason we do this work – to support the development of a critically thinking, articulate, engaged citizenry – and especially the reason we work with student populations who are generally disenfranchised because of language barriers, immigration status, poverty, racism, or other related factors.
As I mentioned earlier, there have been specific projects that have brought about concrete changes on a local level, such as the establishment of a Refugee Youth Coalition in Tucson. However, we have also strived to have impact on a higher policy level. In 2008, the offices of Senator John McCain, Congressman Raul Grijalva, and our city councilmember helped us exhibit student work in the U.S. Senate. They also arranged for six Finding Voice students to present their photographs and testimonies at a Congressional briefing on refugee and immigration policy in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Furthermore, Finding Voice has led to the reconsideration of district policies regarding mental health services in the Tucson Unified School District. This occurred after students held a forum on health issues with local community and district leaders. Many audience members were deeply moved and troubled by the students’ photographs and written texts, which focused on issues of depression and substance abuse. As a result, representatives from the district visited classes to discuss what kind of health services the students needed.
In general, I believe there is increased visibility of the diverse immigrant and refugee community in Tucson. In addition, I’ve observed a greater willingness of local leaders and social service agencies to find solutions to the most pressing issues these communities are facing. While there is much work yet to be done, our students and their families are no longer invisible or silent. Many have become active leaders in schools, sport associations, and clubs. It would be false to attribute this solely to Finding Voice, but we have seen very significant shifts since the project started. Each year, we find new ways to engage our students and the community in a positive, productive dialogue.
To see more pictures of Finding Voice’s winning photo essay watch PhotoPhilanthropy’s slideshow Voices of Tucson’s Youth Refugees & Immigrants.
The PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards identify outstanding work done by photographers in collaboration with nonprofit organizations worldwide. Since the Activist Award’s inception in 2009, PhotoPhilanthropy has received work from over 500 photographers in 88 countries, representing 435 nonprofit organizations.