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The Baltimore United Viewfinders: A Long History in a Short Time


Liberatory education is fundamentally a situation where the teacher and the students both have to be learners, both have to be cognitive subjects, in spite of being different. —Education theorist Paulo Freire

Long before I decided to attend the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), Ken Krafchek, director of the master’s program in community arts (MFACA), and MICA graduate student Natalie Tranelli had been engaged in discussions about the new MICA-sponsored East Side community arts center. When I arrived, I was eager to learn and could sense the beginnings of something truly special. Coming to Baltimore from the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast, I was familiar with a landscape of destruction and desolation. But this environment was unique and jarring. Around every corner, miles and miles of once vibrant row homes lay vacant, occasionally reclaimed by nature as overgrown weeds engulfed buildings and buckled sidewalks. Manipulated by politicians, overlooked by City Hall, this part of the city, ironically enough, is known as Middle East. It is here, in the shadow of the goliath-sized buildings of Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, that I witnessed the resiliency of these often forgotten people. While some blocks may look derelict and uncared for, good people call them home and their story is worth sharing.

Programmatically, this community arts center was to stand as a bridge linking the institution of MICA and the people of the neighborhood, elevating the creative voices of both college students and the residents of the community. This building, MICA PLACE, would symbolize the brick-and-mortar commitment to a long-term relationship between MICA and East Baltimore. Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” The plan of action for the MFACA program was clear: focus on the youth of the community, strengthen their creative and leadership abilities, offer technical skills and build the capacity for ongoing arts programming in and by the community.

Hailing from different local youth organizations, backgrounds and talents, a small group of teenagers along with community folks, mentors and local artists began to gather in the basement of MICA PLACE. For their first project, the young people were charged with determining their own name and logo. Natalie and I invited a MICA student from the Design Department, Allison Fisher, to help the youth vet their ideas and develop an identity mark. Utilizing a visual brainstorming process, the name and branding of the Baltimore United Viewfinders emerged. Not only did the youth come to consensus during their discussions, inviting, listening to and respecting each other’s opinions, they also created a name that metaphorically embodies the soul of the program.

The mission of the Viewfinders was to “tell the story of East Baltimore through photography,” but as for the end product, that would be for the youth to determine. From the beginning, we filled our workshops with examples of activist art, public art and art in the service of community organizing. Our goal was to expose the Viewfinders to many different artists, both local and international, with hopes that they would develop their own ideas about creating art and how it could be used as a tool for communicating their own voices and the hopes of the community. Part of the process was convincing this talented and smart group of young people that what they had to say was worth sharing. "In the liberating moment, we must try to convince the students and on the other hand we must respect them, not impose ideas on them." (Freire and Shor 33).

The first major milestone for the Baltimore United VIewfinders came in March of 2011 as the Viewfinders diligently prepared a presentation and exhibit for the Project Convening at MICA PLACE. The focal point of this presentation would be a short video introduction to the Viewfinder’s brief history, creative process and indomitable spirit. As part of this developmental process, the youth researched a variety of music videos and film clips but the song choice was unanimous, “The Time (Dirty Bit)” by the Black Eyed Peas. As the youth shot footage and developed their ideas, I would make edits to the video and bring it back to show them so they could discuss as a group, develop a consensus and make changes. The whole collaborative process was happening so naturally I could feel the group coming together, growing stronger and rallying around one another and their video.

In the weeks prior to the Convening, it felt like magic in the air. Things were moving at such a fast pace that Natalie and I barely had time to eat! But as the Black Eyed Peas say, “I had the time of my life.” When the day came for the Baltimore United Viewfinders to present at the Convening, the energy was that of an NFL Game Day. The youth were excited, glowing and dancing around in traditional Viewfinders style. In a sea of purple Viewfinders T-shirts, the room filled with family members, representatives from partnering organizations and community leaders stretching all the way to the back wall. Standing with those amazing young people that day is a moment I will never forget. It has seared a permanent place in my mind — proof of the irrepressible exuberance and unlimited potential of young leaders making their mark. And this was only the beginning.

Following the convening, the Viewfinders were on fire. They immediately focused their growing energies on creating a “big book” of their own photography, writings and thoughts. Paralleling the ideas of Ira Shor, Natalie and I encouraged the youth to think critically about their community. “...liberatory classes illuminate the conditions we’re in to help overcome those conditions, offering students a critical distance on society in place of an uncritical immersion in the status quo, to think of changing it.” (Friere and Shor 14). The young artists did not want to ignore the occasional ugliness of the neighborhood, such as the abandoned buildings, but they were very adamant about showing their community in a positive light. This was their home, after all, and while there may be trash on the ground, broken windows and boarded-up doors, there are neighbors who help each other and store owners who watch after them. This was the east side they wanted to tell in their story about.

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Our book, Eastside Views, is a tangible embodiment of a creative, courageous and dedicated group of young leaders. What the Baltimore United Viewfinders accomplished in such a short amount of time speaks volumes to the capabilities of arts-based, liberatory educational programming. As the landscape of East Baltimore continues to change, buildings are pulled down and youth grow up, the Viewfinders will remain strong, initiating new members and introducing them to a set of cooperative values and practices that support the needs and interests of both the youth and community. Built on a foundation of respect for one another, the Viewfinders is more that an arts-based program. The Baltimore United Viewfinders, including youth, facilitators, MICA mentors, relatives and community members, is a family. By way of the camera lens, we are all able to see our past, present and future a little more clearly.

Anne Kotleba is a multimedia artist with a passion for promoting social justice and equality. She is an advocate for youth leadership, arming young people with the freedom and courage to define their own identity. Kotleba’s life adventure has led her all around the country. She currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is seeking an MFA in Community Arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

Natalie Tranelli is a community-based artist and educator. She studied photography at Pennsylvania State University and received her BFA in 2005. In 2011 she completed her MFA in Community Arts at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Tranelli began her career working as a teaching artist at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her work has now expanded internationally: She has collaborated with communities in Brazil, Nicaragua, Azerbaijan and most recently N’Djamena, Chad, teaching with National Geographic Photo Camp. Tranelli utilizes her passionate energy as she continues to work on art-based projects grounded in the principles of social justice.

Works Cited

  1. Black Eyed Peas. “The Time (Dirty Bit).” The Beginning. Interscope Records, 2010.
  2. Freire, P. and Shor, I. A Pedagogy for Liberation: Dialogues on Transforming Education. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1987.
  3. Print.
  4. Mandela, N. Mahlamba'ndlopfu, Pretoria, South Africa. 8 May 1995. Speech.