As a community-based program created through a desire to bring media creation to unfamiliar communities and where people can learn from one another through the oral tradition, SLB Radio Productions Inc.’s Crossing Fences program connects young Black males with Black role models in their community, while also teaching them skills that they can carry with them throughout their education and careers.
SLB Radio, located in the Children’s Museum, announced that Crossing Fences, its summer oral history program that is expected to commence in June 2014, will take place in three new local communities–East Liberty, Wilkinsburg and a third neighborhood that has yet to be determined.
“A lot of kids think the pathway from where they are in life to success is this smooth, clear road, but in reality it’s a road with lots of twists and turns, and ups and downs. And we think it’s good to hear about that directly from someone,” said Larry Berger, executive director of SLB. “A lot of authentic, natural information comes out and kids realize there are role models all around them. We want the community at large to read these stories and appreciate them and recognize that there is life in the communities, men and boys (that are involved in the community) and stories to be celebrated and understood.”
Crossing Fences, sponsored by the African American Men and Boys Initiative of The Heinz Endowment, partners with local community organizations to convene a group of African-American male students and teach them the process of digital audio recording. They then help the young men identify African-American male community role models and mentors to interview. The boys then conduct and edit those interviews into five minute pieces. Once completed, the histories are published in a full-color book that includes a CD and is distributed in the fall at the neighborhood and citywide celebrations. To date, Berger said there have been approximately 6,000 books distributed. The interviews are also accessible within each community through a StoryBox unit, a device that is installed in public locations and delivers the audio on each of the men.
Since its commencement in the summer of 2012, Crossing Fences has conducted oral histories in neighborhoods such as Homewood, the Hill District, Hazelwood, Hill Top, McKeesport and the North Side, and connected approximately 70-80 young males with more than 65 mentors and role models. Richard Carrington, John Brewer, State Rep. Jake Wheatley, Pittsburgh Councilman Daniel Lavelle, Elwin Green and Rev. Johnnie Monroe are just a few of the men featured in the oral histories.
When asked why programs like this are important, Chanessa Schuler, multimedia specialist at SLB, said, “While working on the North Side, some of the boys, when we asked them to think of mentors or role models in their community, they couldn’t even identify any. So it’s our goal to lead them to those mentors so they can get guidance and ask those questions.”
Berger added, “All of these skills-meeting people, working as a team, being taught about a process to work with, having to sift through a 45 minute interview with a man and having to cut it down to an authentic 5-6 minute profile, and having to meet a deadline–these are all skills for life, for work and for college. These are transferable skills that will be with them for life.”
As part of the project, at the conclusion of the program, the young men are rewarded for their participation and hard work. In 2012 they received laptops and in 2013 they received tablets.
Desmone Stanford, a 16-year-old sophomore at East McKeesport Area High School and participant of the Crossing Fences program, said the project taught him communication and technical skills, and that this was “a different experience. It touched my heart, hearing about their experiences, their struggles and how they overcame them.”
Thaddeus Mosley, a local sculptor who was interviewed for the oral history project, said this project was important to him because a lot of young men don’t have interactions with males, especially father figures, and that this was an opportunity for them to learn and for him to talk to young men and pass on his experiences and how he became what he did, despite the struggles.
Mosley also said, “There is so much negativity when it comes to the image of African-American boys; it isn’t what is portrayed and there are many African-American youth, both male and female, that are eager to participate.”
Berger said a huge part of the program’s success depends on its community partners. “While we know these neighborhoods and are comfortable in them, these are not neighborhoods our studios are located in. So we come out with our methods and equipment, but we must have a strong community partner. These organizations provide a space for us to work, a structure that allows us to work well with the kids, and a tight connection to the community that we can hopefully strengthen and become apart of.”
While the project connects youth with mentors within their communities, DeVon Madden, executive director of Shadow Student Athletes and an interviewee for the oral history project, said he would like to see it and connect young men with mentors and role models outside of their neighborhoods. “This was one of the best projects that I’ve been apart of. It was refreshing to work with young men and teach them vital skill sets. I would like to see the project expand and the boys interviewing people outside of their neighborhoods. So students from Beltzhoover interview people from the Hill District. It’s a way to start building relationships.”
(For more information on SLB Radio Productions Inc. or its Crossing Fences program, visit www. slbradio.org or www.neighborhoodvoices.org.)
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