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Elsie Allen students aim for change through a camera lens


Sometimes a picture can tell a story better than words.

That’s the message Vince Harper with the Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County delivered to 15 students from Elsie Allen High School last week before they set out to document the needs of their southwest Santa Rosa neighborhoods using digital cameras and smartphones.

“Instead of just saying it, you have a picture to prove it,” Harper said. “Photography is very powerful.”

The project aims to empower the kids and bring positive changes to an area that historically has struggled with poverty and gang-related crime. It focuses on the Moorland neighborhood where several of the students who are participating live, Harper said.

He said it’s inspired by PhotoVoice projects around the globe that have given people in disadvantaged communities a voice and power to push for social change through photography. For example, they’ve been used to tell the stories of Syrian refugees and human-trafficking victims from Africa.

Harper plans to enlarge the images and help the Elsie Allen students write captions later this week. He said the students are planning to present their pictures to local government officials and agencies that can bring change in southwest Santa Rosa.

“This is about you presenting what you see in your world,” Harper said while meeting with the students on campus Aug. 25. He gave them tips on conveying their feelings through a camera lens.

Moorland resident Elizabeth Cruz knew exactly what she wanted to express in her pictures: Roads stink in her neighborhood. Potholes plague the streets and sidewalks are lacking, argued the 17-year-old senior, who has spent most of her life in that neighborhood.

To get to a nearby convenience store, Cruz said she’d need to walk on busy roads just west of Highway 101.

“Otherwise, you have to walk in a ditch,” she said. “But you don’t know what’s in there.”

Cruz hoped the project would encourage county officials to fix the roads and address other concerns in her neighborhood. Despite its bad reputation, she said, “It’s home.”

And they may listen, she added, “if they see that we’re interested in these things, that the streets suck, that there’s graffiti, that when my little brother goes out to the bus stop in the morning, he’s not safe.”

Moorland, an area that’s been plagued by gang activity — and where 13-year-old Andy Lopez was killed last October by a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy who mistook the boy’s airsoft BB gun for an AK-47 — sits just south of the city limits.

The Community Action Partnership, along with county health and regional parks officials, has been working with residents in Moorland since May to outline the community’s needs and challenges and create a neighborhood plan aimed at improving health and quality of life in the area, according to Harper.

They’ve done focus groups and one-on-one interviews with residents, who have raised concerns about safety, transportation and the lack of youth activities and parks. They also formed a neighborhood advisory group.

The photo project allows kids to take part in shaping their neighborhood, Harper explained.

He added, “What would be better than to have kids guide that project?”

Most of the students involved are in Lisa DeCarbo’s college prep and Advanced Placement language and composition classes. Some of her students already sit on the Moorland advisory group and are part of Lobo Unity, a community-service organization she started on campus six years ago that has held numerous family events, including movies in the park.

Not only can students earn extra credit in class, DeCarbo said, but projects like these also encourage them to reach out to local decision-makers and push for changes in their neighborhoods. The projects also serve as training for future careers, she added.

“I use this as an opportunity to provide my students with soft skills, job shadowing, internships and possible employment,” she said.

Elsie Allen junior Erick Tinajero, who wants to study criminal justice in college, has lived in the Moorland area for about five years. Although his neighborhood recently made headlines for a wave of shootings, likely gang- related, he said it’s not a bad place to live. It’s a close-knit community where neighbors know one another and get along, the 16-year-old Tinajero said.

Last week, he walked down Moorland Avenue, snapping pictures of gang graffiti along wooden fences and on a car.

It was parked near a well-maintained home, which shows the ongoing struggle that residents face trying to keep their streets clean and beautiful, he said.

“What I was trying to get at,” he said, “it’s a good neighborhood with a bad reputation.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez @pressdemocrat.com.