Cameron Zohoori: Stories of UTEC, 2012-2013
Introduction by Cameron Zohoori
The United Teen Equality Center (UTEC) in Lowell, Massachusetts is an innovative nonprofit youth center committed to serving the most disconnected youth in the city, working with them to trade violence and poverty for social and economic success. UTEC runs a variety of programs that target the educational, professional, and personal development of criminally involved youth, school dropouts, and young parents. The young people are employed in social enterprises and work towards high school diplomas or GEDs while also getting involved in civic organizing work and a variety of enrichment activities. A framework of highly individualized and relentless support acknowledges the need for multiple chances over multiple years in working with proven-risk youth.
As soon as I arrived at the Center, I knew that I was surrounded by both staff and youth with remarkable stories. At the same time, the overall practices and culture of UTEC were clearly an important story in and of themselves. In consultation with the transitional coaches – who work one-on-one with individual youth from their first day in the center – and other staff, I came up with a list of UTEC youth to approach and begin to work with. This is when my education truly began.
Having gained permission from youth to film them in the Center and interview them, I still had to gain their trust and cooperation. I also began to understand something of the complexity of their lives. Ambitious plans of bi-weekly interviews were left in the dust when I discovered that I would be lucky to schedule and carry out a single interview in a week. How to reschedule an appointment with someone who doesn’t have a consistent address, phone connection, or internet access? How to tell a teenage mother balancing two jobs with trying to get her diploma that I “needed” to do an interview with her as soon as possible? In retrospect it should have been obvious that there would be challenges working on a documentary project with subjects who are systematically among the most “disconnected” members of their communities, at a Center that includes relapse as a core feature of its model. But it was also in this model, in the values that UTEC enshrines on the walls of their building, that I found the tools to use in telling these stories. “Assuming goodness” behind the actions of the young people I worked with was the only way to maintain perspective and gain their trust. I had to cultivate my own “contagious passion” for my work, and the stories and progress of young people, if they were to share in it and collaborate with me. And I would have to “chip away,” creatively making progress as I could without being derailed by setbacks and challenges.
Along with the struggles and learning came gratifying personal connections and successes. I connected strongly with several of the youth I was following and began to understand their lives in more detail. A few started to internalize the reasons for the work I was doing and saw the value in sharing their stories. As I spent time with the youth of UTEC, I saw patterns repeated in people’s stories – the challenging childhoods and family histories, the unstable personal lives, the need for belonging, the dramatic events catalyzing change. I realized that to make honest stories about these lives, I had to abandon my preconceptions, and instead let whatever I created try to mirror the complexity of what I was witnessing. I gradually became an expected and less visible presence in the classrooms, offices, and warehouses where these young people’s daily lives took place. By the conclusion of my fellowship, I had collected the material for a series of short films that pulled from these individual stories to demonstrate the tangible and intangible aspects of UTEC’s work. These films are now on display at UTEC and available online.
However, the most significant product of my fellowship emerged from my friendship with Riqie, a young man from Kenya who joined UTEC around the time I arrived there, and quickly became a leader among his peers at the Center. In his remarkable story, and his enthusiasm for sharing it, I began to see how an individual’s story might take shape on its own, and help to flesh out the larger story of UTEC’s work. Having followed his ups and downs over my months at the center, I created a 40-minute documentary exploring his story in depth, which has subsequently been screened at film festivals around the country. My hope is that it gently provokes interesting questions about youth, family, immigration, and other topics important to the health of communities around the country and world.
The challenges I faced as I undertook this project felt immense at times, and I had hard lessons to learn. But I was continually humbled by the people around me, young and old, and inspired by the stories I experienced through these encounters. I am incredibly grateful for their willingness to share with a young stranger, and for the growth as a creative professional and as a person I was able to undergo as a result. I look forward to continuing to share their stories in the future.
Lewis Hine Documentary Fellow 2012-2013
Cameron Zohoori graduated from Duke University with a B.S. in Neuroscience, having taken several film and photography courses at the Center for Documentary Studies as a Robertson Scholar at Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.