Org Partner Spotlight: Outside the Lens

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This month, Emily Bailin Wells of the Student Leadership Council interviewed Lucy Eagleson, Program Manager for Outside the Lens.

When did your organization launch and why?

As our 21st century society becomes increasingly connected, digital, and tech-savvy, we risk an even greater disparity between those who have access to tools and information – and the skills to use them – and those who don’t. Outside the Lens (OTL) was launched in 2001 by a group of dedicated educators who saw this digital divide and decided to step up to bridge this divide and ensure all students had the opportunity to develop the skills for success in 21st century. Providing students with guided instruction in photography and digital media goes far beyond developing the skills they need to be successful in school and career. It gives our students the chance to flourish creatively, to collaborate with each other on innovative, real-world projects, to be critical consumers of media, and to develop their voice as global community members.
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What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?

The core work of Outside the Lens is putting cameras in the hands of kids. We believe that when youth are given the tools to tell their own stories they can change the world. Outside the Lens (OTL) provides access to enriching photography, filmmaking and digital media education to at-risk and under-served youth. Through weekly classes, after-school programs, summer sessions, workshops and teacher training, OTL has delivered its innovative and adaptable curriculum to more than 15,000 students. OTL’s mission – to empower youth to use digital media to create change in themselves, their community, and their world – is increasingly realized as we deepen our work with current students and reach out to new populations.

In addition to our flagship Cameras in Classrooms program, which teaches digital literacy, photography, and filmmaking skills, OTL offers arts integration programs tailored to local community needs and interests, including:

Innovation InSight: This program connects youth to the STEM sector and engages students in the science, technology, engineering, and math innovations being developed in their own communities. Students use digital media skills to explore this community and find their place within it.

FILM (Finding Identity, Living Memory): Youth from the East African Community Center in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego learn photojournalism skills to explore, understand, and share the culture and traditions their parents and grandparents—East African refugees and immigrants—brought to America, and how these legacies shape their own lives.

Picture it Healthy: A photovoice project that asks students to identify access and barriers to living a healthy lifestyle within their community. Students are trained in photojournalism skills and create advocacy projects that are shared with those who can help create change.

Water in Focus: A digital media project that calls students to action as they examine environmental issues centered on the theme of water. Students document the use, waste, conservation and pollution of our most precious resource through words and images.

Cameras Across Cultures: Our international link combines OTL ambassadors throughout the world with OTL curriculum and materials to run our programs across the globe. This summer we’re sending media educators and students to Bosnia-Herzegovina!

What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?

Our curriculum and our gifted media educators seamlessly weave the twin purposes of media education: developing the technical skills to sophisticatedly consume and create media, and building self-efficacy and personal storytelling ability among youth participants. It is this second component that makes OTL truly unique. We believe that the stories and voices of youth, especially those from under-served and at-risk communities, are crucial. By equipping them with 21st century communication skills, we support them in becoming active shapers of not only their own lives, but also the trajectory of their communities.

 What are recent projects or new resources that your org would like to share with other NAMLE members?

We have our teacher training program, a dynamic, responsive, hands-on professional development opportunity for teachers and afterschool providers, fully preparing them to implement OTL programs in the classroom. Led by OTL Media Educators, participants learn OTL methodology and are guided through some of the same curriculum that they will use with their students, giving participants a first-hand understanding of our programs. Participants learn digital camera and editing basics, using free, user-friendly online editing software. Following the training workshops, participants are provided with collections of OTL curriculum, as well as access to our online portal: a tool for resources and support exclusively for OTL-trained educators.

Outside the Lens has also recently expanded its international work, including a recent project with young Syrian women in an Emirati-Jordanian Refugee Camp, and an upcoming student project in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The program in Syria was especially powerful because it offers an opportunity for refugee women to frame and tell their own stories. The public typically hears the story told by journalists, governments, and NGOs, but this program allows all of us to see the life and journey of Syrian refugees through their own eyes and images. For the full story and selected photographs, check out our recent blog post on the project. We look forward to continuing this international work this summer when we take a group of San Diego teenagers to Bosnia-Herzegovina where they will engage with local youth to expand their digital media skills and gain new insight into the international language of image.

 What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy?

We believe that the best way for youth to understand the constant flow of media available to (and sometimes thrust upon) them is to learn how to create it. By integrating digital media development with film and photo analysis, students develop a strong understanding of how messages are conveyed through these visual mediums. In this way students become capable not only of how to communicate their own stories, but also how to understand and contextualize what others are communicating to them through media. The ability to critically consume and analyze media enables students to confidently navigate 21st century communication, rather than being at the mercy of this powerful tool.

 Why is media literacy important to you?

Photos and videos are incredibly powerful. They have the ability to inspire, educate, and convince in an instant, and they are the language of the 21st century. Without media literacy these tools can be turned against young people; with media literacy and the skills to create their own narrative, they enable youth to engage their communities, tell their stories, and shape what’s next.

 Feel free to tell us anything else about your organization, your mission, your staff?

Outside the Lens is fueled by the dedication of volunteers, Board Members, Advisory Board members, and community members who teach, mentor, and support youth participants, and by the passion of our youth participants. If you, like us, believe that digital literacy is crucial to youth empowerment, we’d love to get you involved. Check out to learn how to get involved today.

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