|Fall/Winter 2007||Volume 23, Number 1||Findings Magazine|
Hope in the Click of a Camera
Angie Reyes knows just how tough things can be for kids in Detroit. “You ask teenagers where they’ll be in ten years, and 80 percent say they’ll be dead,” she reports. Her own son nearly died at age 20 after a neighborhood teen stabbed him outside their home one night, and Reyes doesn’t ever want to see that happen to another young person. “Any hope you can give them makes a difference.”
A 1998 graduate of the School of Public Health and founder and executive director of the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation, Reyes spends most of her time these days generating hope in her southwest Detroit community.
Last year, she teamed up with SPH researchers to bring a program called Photovoice to two-dozen Detroit teenagers—kids like Tomas Acosta, who grew up in the shadow of Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge but never really thought about the impact its truck traffic might have on his health.
Thanks to Photovoice, he thinks about it now. First developed in 1992 by SPH adjunct faculty member Caroline Wang, Photovoice puts cameras in the hands of ordinary people and teaches them to look more closely at the communities where they live. The methodology has been used around the world, from rural China to urban San Francisco. It lets people capture images of what’s good and bad about the places they inhabit, and then use those images to discuss community issues with policymakers as a strategy for policy change.
Part of the Healthy Environments Partnership, a community-based participatory research project that involves SPH, last year’s Photovoice program focused on healthy living in Detroit, with an emphasis on cardiovascular health. Over the course of six weeks, the 24 teens in the program learned about factors that contribute to cardiovascular health or disease, such as levels of particulate matter in the air and access to fresh produce. They learned how to work a camera and how to use photography to help policymakers see problems and potential solutions from a grassroots perspective.
The teens explored the ethics of taking pictures and got basic training in how policy works.
“I knew all about the problems, but I didn’t do anything about it until Photovoice,” said 18-year-old Acosta. Together, the young people took more than 1,900 photos showing factors they believed contributed to cardiovascular health disparities in Detroit. They snapped pictures of smokestacks and fast-food joints, of trash-strewn playgrounds and trucks belching fumes along Ambassador Bridge. They also photographed community assets, such as parks and new housing.
“The kids learned to appreciate stressors for cardiovascular disease—violence, abandoned homes, air quality,” said Reyes. They accompanied their photos with “freewrites,” or short explanations of what the images signified.
They then discussed their photos in a series of presentations at community forums and town hall meetings throughout Detroit. The teens talked about the need for more grocery stores and fewer liquor purveyors in their neighborhoods. They stressed the scarcity of recreation centers and clean-up programs in Detroit, and they called for cleaner air.
Acosta admits the presentations were “nerve-wracking” but said he “just spoke from the heart,” because he’d learned that “these are real problems going on in the neighborhood, and I should do something. It’s not going to change with just me sitting there, waiting for something to change.”
Reyes points out that policymakers get plenty of hard data from other sources, but Photovoice—and the kids behind it—gave them “more qualitative” data. “They were quite moved by these young people going to them.”
As a result of their initial presentations, the teens have received invitations to take part in ongoing efforts to address environmental health concerns in both Detroit and Wayne County.
Crystal Sims, a high school senior who took part in the project, said she expected policymakers to dismiss her as “a little girl” trying to tell them what to do. But that wasn’t the case, and she came away believing in her ability to help bring about change. “My point was, this is affecting youth in the city, and there’s no one better to tell about that than the youth.”
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The Detroit Youth Photovoice Project was a project of the Healthy Environments Partnership (HEP), which involves several Detroit-based health-service providers and community-based organizations, including the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation (DHDC), and SPH-based researchers.
HEP is directed by SPH Research Associate Professor Amy Schulz and SPH Professor Barbara A. Israel, and managed by Sheryl Weir. DHDC is directed by Angela Reyes. Sicari Ware of DHDC coordinated the Photovoice project. Funding for the project came from the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities.