Forest Lane Academy and Aiken Elementary PhotoVoice students at Dallas City Hall

On a regular basis homeowners, city officials, law enforcement experts and press discuss the Forest-Audelia area and its problems related to crime, poverty, density and code compliance.

This is the first time I know of that children who live in the neighborhood’s apartments have addressed City Hall about their experiences.

Students, along with volunteers such as Suzanne Massey, wait to talk to Dallas City Council about things in their neighborhood that make them feel unsafe

It began late last year when Kids-U, an afterschool program in northeast Dallas, teamed with Parkland Hospital’s Injury Prevention Center and Southern Methodist University (including a grant from its Embrey Human Rights program) to document parts of the neighborhood in which the children feel safe, and where they do not.

From our December story:

Volunteers teach students photography and social action through PhotoVoice. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Volunteers teach students photography and social action through PhotoVoice. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Children from the beleaguered Forest-Audelia area, armed with cameras, are documenting and speaking up about the everyday things that frighten them. If they go about it the correct way, they could make their neighborhood safer, say the adult volunteers who are helping them.

The photo in one boy’s hand, slightly out of focus, displays a crowd loitering in front of double-glass doors. A penciled caption reads: “This shows people not following the law at the general store on Forest Lane. Sometimes I do not feel safe in the neighborhood.” British, the 10-year-old boy who captured the image, points out the alleged rule breakers. “This guy is smoking something,” he says. “This one has a gun, and that is even worse.”

… British and his classmates are not strangers to guns and violence, they say. British is among 10 students who live in The Vineyards Apartments at the intersection of Forest Lane and Audelia Road taking part in a 12-week project called PhotoVoice, which combines photography with social action.

The idea was to teach the children how to identify problems where they live and convince them that they — and their parents and neighbors — can make a difference.

“They are people, just like you and your parents. In fact, they work for us, for you, and if they do not respond, your parents — and someday you — can vote against them,” Katherine Yoder, a former aide to Gov. Rick Perry who now works as Parkland’s government relations vice president told the kids. She explained the process of asking local government for change.

“You have a voice,” Yoder told the kids. “It’s even stronger when you come together with multiple voices, backing an issue, and evidence. Your pictures are evidence, proof.”

SMU outreach coordinator Suzanne Massey helped the youngsters plot problem spots — on a map, green dots mark areas they like, yellow represents areas in which they do not feel safe, and red dots signal student-identified “do not go here at all” areas, Massey explained. This will help prioritize safety issues they eventually would implore the city to tackle.

Last week the group finally had the opportunity to meet the mayor, show their photos and speak before the Dallas City Council about dangers they experience, a main objective of the project. The visit to City Hall helped the children learn basics about city government — how many members on city council, who the mayor is, who represents their neighborhood, how to speak and engage in community action, notes District 10 Adam McGough’s office.

“I learned the mayor’s name is Michael S. Rawlings. And that some neighborhoods also don’t feel safe here in Dallas … I also learned that the city council has 14 members … and our city council representative is working for district 10 and his name is Adam McGough. #AllinD10 :)” wrote Victory in a letter about what she learned, which Massey had each student write following the field trip.

“I was nervous to speak to the city council. I felt happy after I spoke and everyone clapped. Ms. Massey told them I was from Iraq and I had only been here for 9 months,” noted student Ameer.

Sixth-grader British, a resident of The Vinyards at Forest and Audelia, discusses his photos, which portray potentially perilous situations.

Sixth-grader British, a resident of The Vinyards at Forest and Audelia, discusses his photos, which portray potentially perilous situations. Photo by Danny Fulgencio

“I learned teamwork. How to help people. How to make a mark on the world. I learned how to speak up. How to make a difference,” wrote British, the remarkable 10-year-old we met in December.

Photographers Hillsman Jackson and Jennifer Crenshaw donated time to teach the children how to use cameras to photograph their desired scenes and subjects. After walking the Forest-Audelia area, snapping photos, students wrote about what they saw.

Following the appearance before the horseshoe, the students attended Wednesday’s Dallas Police memorial service.

See the kids letters and photos from the field trip below:

Letters and Photos Fieldtrip City Hall by Christina Hughes Babb on Scribd

In her letter to the principals of schools whose students participated, Massey wrote “thank you again for helping to provide an opportunity for your students to experience what it means to advocate for themselves and to learn about city government. I hope this this is knowledge that they will take with them and use in the future … We do so appreciate the work that you do and want to make sure you know that you are not alone in this challenge to propel children forward in their educational and work careers.”