Step in to the shoes of homeless youth with Media Design Practices


Performing their song, "The Road I Walk," at the gallery are from left, Marlon "Mr. Stranger," Kevin "Lil' Krazy aka Ghetto Boy" and Lorenzo "Mr. L.A."

Performing their song, “The Road I Walk,” at the gallery are from left, Marlon “Mr. Stranger,” Kevin “Lil’ Krazy aka Ghetto Boy” and Lorenzo “Mr. L.A.”

The road I walk every day, it’s no game,

I try to make my way.

 People see what they want to see.  

But that person is not me. 

Look at me, look at me…

I might surprise you. 

Who am I?…

Lyrics by Kevin Lil’ Krazy aka Ghetto Boy from the song The Road I Walk

The assignment for the first term Graduate Media Design Practices Field students was to use design to tell a story that reframes preconceived ideas of homelessness. One of the results was a powerful collaboration that asks viewers to “step into my shoes” to explore homelessness through stories told by youth who have been there.

In partnership with Jovenes, Inc., a nonprofit organization that provides housing and support services for homeless youth in Boyle Heights, three Art Center student teams got to work.

The theory is that by asking questions and investigating those questions, students enter much richer and more productive territory.

“I studied media design as an undergrad, then I worked in media design, now as a graduate student, I learned more by doing this project than I did in the last eight years,” says Cayla McCrae, a member of Team Caminemos Juntos, loosely translated as “let’s walk together.”

“What I’m especially proud of is the degree to which the students really connected with the guys, and moved beyond a desire to address “homelessness” per se, and instead worked to create something that highlighted the creativity, humanity, and energy of the guys themselves,” says Elizabeth Chin, core faculty member and anthropologist.

Throughout the eight-week course teams worked to build trust and break down stereotypes through different exercises such as “Pass the Mic.” Ultimately, the teams were able to create a safe space for self-expression. The groups engaged in writing, poetry, photography, verbal expression and teamwork.

In response to misconceptions about homelessness, the three youth each wrote a verse about their life, struggles, goals or perspective. When the song was ready, the creative team spent a full day in a professional recording studio. The song also features R&B artist D’Angelo Lacy, who lent his voice to the track.

Foot sensors trigger the song heard on headphones and images of the songwriters that are projected on the wall.

Foot sensors trigger the song heard on headphones and images of the songwriters that are projected on the wall.

Visitors listen to the original song and watch images of the songwriters.

Visitors listen to the original song and watch images of the songwriters.

Team Caminemos Juntos collaborated on The Road I Walk, a musical collaboration with Kevin “Lil’ Krazy a.k.a. Ghetto Boy,” Marlon “Mr. Stranger” and Lorenzo “Mr. L.A.”

“It’s hard to survive,” says Jovenes resident Kevin in a quote included in the accompanying Caminemos Juntos booklet.  “You have to be strong. Participating in this project was really positive for me.  I used my art to speak the truth and speak out against injustice.”

“We’re not problem solvers, we are more like problem seekers, reframing the issue, allowing personal stories to emerge over time using ethnographic methods,” says graduate student Morgan Marzec who worked with teammates McCrae and Tina L. Zeng on the project.

“This is about giving a message to young people, letting them know that there is another way out,” says Marlon. “You don’t have to do drugs or gangbanging. This experience was cool. I liked working in our small group.  It was tight.”

The audio installation literally asks visitors to “step into my shoes” by standing on foot sensors that trigger the song heard on headphones hanging from the ceiling and images, lyrics and video of each of the songwriters that are projected on the wall.

The Viewfinders team created a project that illustrated their personalities through photography and the ARTifacts team exhibition featured youth sharing original poetry.

The interactive gallery show featuring all three projects was open to the public for just one evening in August before the term ended.

That night, the young men who wrote The Road I Walk spontaneously performed the song live and have continued to perform the song elsewhere.

Marzec, McCrae and Zeng have applied to present the project at the Applied Anthropology conference in Albuquerque New Mexico in March 2014.

“We know that experiencing the arts and having opportunities for our youth to share their stories has a profound impact,” says Eric Hubbard, development director at Jovenes, Inc.

“This collaboration works because the projects were developed in conjunction with our youth,” says Hubbard. “Instead of being told how to tell their stories, the youth were able to decide the terms and what they wanted to share. It made them feel like superstars and reinforced the truth that their lives and experiences matter. We are very excited to continue this collaboration next summer and beyond.”

For more, check out LA Streets blog’s coverage of the exhibition.

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