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  • Steve Goodman

The Roots of EVC

Updated: Apr 30

by Steve Goodman, founding executive director emeritus

It was a hot day in July. I was at a block party in the Bronx. The flier read: Tenants Association Presents: Our Children are in Danger! Come See a Movie on Grant Avenue About Youth Crime, Unemployment, and Gangs in our Community. The organizers invited local political leaders to speak. And they invited me to screen a documentary. People milled around in the street, and the DJs played the latest hip hop songs from the Bronx. (It was 1981, and while we didn’t know it at the time, hip hop would soon become a global phenomenon with Grandmaster Flash and other Bronx DJs leading the way.) 

To play the video, my colleague, Maryann DeLeo, helped me set up the Sony portapak deck and portable monitor we had brought.  We inserted the reel and threaded the ½” tape around the spools in the deck.  Someone had removed the cover plate at the base of a nearby street light, so that’s where we plugged in our extension cord. That is what people did in those days to get electricity in the streets. 

When the time came, Brenda, the Tenant’s Association leader, called people away from the music, food, and piragua shaved ice cart to gather around. I sat on the hood of a car and cradled the portable monitor in my arms. The screen flickered with scenes familiar for this audience: grainy images of children playing in rubble-strewn lots and women filling buckets with water from the fire hydrants because the gangs had stolen the plumbing pipes from the abandoned buildings where they were living. Many had seen the buildings burning throughout their community, and experienced the forced displacement from their homes, the lack of jobs and youth centers, and the overcrowded, underfunded schools with nearly 40% dropout rates.  Many also knew of youth depicted in the film: the young man named Shotgun, his fellow gang members, and the 14-year-old victims who had been murdered on the block—Vanessa Topping and Evelyn Dingle. Vanessa’s mother had spoken about her daughter’s struggles in school. She had been suspended seven times in one year, but Bea hadn’t been able to transfer Vanessa to a better school.

The transformative potential of video was evident on that hot summer day in the Bronx. I was part of the community media movement. My idea to produce and screen videos with and for the people who were in them was rooted in community media collectives and centers that had sprouted up in the 1970s across the U.S., Canada, Latin America, and beyond. Community media-makers were using video as a catalyst for grassroots dialogue and organizing, affording audiences like never before the chance to see their lived experiences and the injustices they faced with fresh eyes, and to take action in response. 

One of the guiding principles of these movements was to insist that documentation of and research into injustices be collaboratively conducted by those in the community most impacted by those injustices. The collective demand was: “No research about us, without us.”

I was also inspired by the literacy campaigns and teaching methods of liberation theology and of Participatory Action Research and Popular Education, which I’d learned about through my travels to Mexico and Cuba, study-group readings of Augusto Boal and Paulo Freire, and solidarity work with the liberation struggles of the time in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Southern Africa. One of the guiding principles of these movements was to insist that documentation of and research into injustices be collaboratively conducted by those in the community most impacted by those injustices. The collective demand was: “No research about us, without us.” And if community members should be their own researchers and claim their data, then community members should also be their own documentarians, filmmakers, and journalists and be in charge of the telling of their stories. Community members should hold the cameras, ask the questions, and shape the narratives about their communities.  

These ideas brought a contradiction into sharp relief for me.  I was a white middle-class kid with a camera, living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, not far from Columbia Journalism School, where I had studied and learned how to tell other people’s stories. I was asking critical questions, but still holding on to the tools of documentation and expression for myself alone. The video I screened at the Bronx block party had documented a slice of life where the youth had been failed by all the institutions around them—government, youth agencies, and schools. But Bea Topping’s perspective went deeper: she saw things firsthand. She saw how interconnected the systems of schooling and incarceration were and how they had treated her children as disposable. She called for systemic change. “The sad thing about it is– they keep tearing the buildings down, they really don’t have no place to go, no place to be. It’s no centers or anything in this area where the kids can go and have fun.…If people would get together it would be better for the children. And maybe this thing wouldn’t have happened.”

What Bea Topping had said increasingly resonated with me. The young people who I had documented in the gangs and in the streets, the kids who came to watch the screening on that hot day in July, they should have cameras in their hands. Yes, they should have a place to go, where they could feel safe and supported, empowered to question, investigate, document, create music and art, and have fun together; a place where their ideas, concerns, voices, and dignity were front and center. They should have an alternative to gangs and to the dehumanizing schools, and in some sense, a way to honor the two Bronx girls whose lives ended at the hand of gang members.

I began to heed that call by teaching video at Forsyth Satellite Academy, a small alternative school (now called “transfer school”) for students who had not succeeded in the large traditional schools. Many were struggling learners like Vanessa and Evelyn had been, and also Shotgun who had dropped out of school and joined his first gang by the time he was 15. Working part-time for DCTV at that time, I walked back and forth between the DCTV firehouse in Chinatown to the school in the Lower East Side, with cameras and portapaks in hand. These walks gave me time each day to plan and reflect on the churn of community and student-centered projects that were taking shape. 

In my first class, co-facilitated with English teacher Liz Andersen, I proclaimed, “There are no teachers or students in this class. We’re all teachers and we all will learn from each other.” I proudly put the cameras in the students’ hands. I noted in my journal that things didn’t always work as planned: “The equipment utterly and totally failed to work properly.” 

The biggest lesson for me was my students’ resilience, inspiration, creativity, and willingness to tell their stories: 

To my surprise and delight the students were undaunted. They didn’t give up or lose interest…. We decided to talk about what kind of projects might be pursued.  A loud and at times frantic brainstorm session ensued.… Among the best ideas was Lisa’s: a project on group homes and institutions for kids. She had lived in one and knew several of them around the city.

The film the young people ended up making about group homes. “Memories of Mandelay” was the first student video project that I facilitated. Shot with black and white ½” tape, it included re-enactments of students smoking in the school bathroom and arguing with the school principal (played by a student wearing a tie), as well as scenes shot in a group home in Queens, where a staff member and group home residents also participated, after some encouragement. We screened the film at a group home, and afterwards the students led discussions on the mistreatment of youth in such facilities.  

In later semesters, the students helped teach English classes by writing and recording their own raps and skits, such as one called the “Double Negative Lesson.” In after school and weekend classes, called “NY Newsreel,” students produced short portraits of people they met on the streets on their way to school—people struggling to survive the drug epidemic, rampant alcoholism, and homelessness in Reagan’s America. In my notes from a teacher study group on Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed led by site director and mentor Stephen Shapiro, I jotted down:

The teacher must trust and respect the student enough to learn from him/her… and then true dialogue and learning can take place.... Every word we utter in the classroom must insist that change is possible…. [Our teaching must connect]  “school” with community, learning with living, thought with action.

Working with these young people, my worldview as a documentary journalist transformed into the lens of a radical teacher. I was coming to understand what it took to create a student-centered documentary workshop, a space where students could truly be co-creators of knowledge and art. At the same time, I searched for funding, wrote proposals “to establish an Educational Video Center, serving inner-city high school students...[providing them with] the skills and equipment they need to collectively make documentary projects about the day-to-day problems they face at home, in school and in the streets of their communities.” By 1984, just three years after I had cradled a portable monitor in my arms for an audience out on the streets of the Bronx, I had laid the groundwork to bring out into the world this place called EVC, a place rooted in youth-centered principles and practices of documentary teaching, learning and action for social justice.


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