After nearly a decade of art and media production and social justice activism, OSI-Baltimore Community Fellow alumna Rebecca Yenawine and the young people with whom she works continue to breathe new life into an organization as organic as their grassroots ambition. Kids on the Hill, an after-school arts program that Yenawine established during her OSI-Baltimore fellowship in 1999, has grown and evolved into New Lens, a youth-driven, social justice nonprofit.
Yenawine does more than talk about youth engagement—she believes in it and practices it. That’s why New Lens is, and always has been, a youth-led operation. “I’m elected every year,” by the New Lens students, she says. “They could decide not to bring me back. These young people are learning how to be business owners and managers and thinkers.”
Since launching the organization, New Lens’s enterprising young videographers have developed training videos for the Baltimore City Police Department to encourage empathy and positive interactions with youth in the community—a need that became abundantly apparent in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death.
They’ve reimagined how educators might teach other young people about healthy relationships. And they’ve disrupted the narrative around conventional youth employment with their work-for-hire model; New Lens’s participants get paid for video work they’re hired to produce for outside clients—a non-traditional youth employment strategy.
Now, they’re tackling the local economy in their new series, “Blackonomics.”
“We want to explore how we build economic infrastructure and structure in black communities so we can create thriving economies, and the students are taking it even further,” Yenawine says. “They’re saying, ‘Well, we can’t look at economic strategy without looking at culture, so how do you build an economy if you feel that nothing else binds you other than oppression?’”
Out of that question, “Blackonomics: Black Identity” was born. The video is the first episode in the “Blackonomics” series. In it, residents across age groups and socioeconomic backgrounds are asked how they define black communities. The larger goal of these young people is to spur dialogue and ignite ideas about advancing truly authentic economic development. Through this process, they hope to discover what this idea can look like and how it can be attained.
“I can have an idea, but then the students come back to me with something else, and it’s always smarter than what I have in my head,” Yenawine says.
Facilitating a youth-led organization can be difficult, she admits, but she says more traditional structures don’t interest her. This kind of advocacy is different than trips to the Maryland State House or direct lobbying. New Lens, she says, starts with a conversation.
“What we do best is get people together. We’re a convener of smart people and community people, and we create spaces where everyone can share really great ideas,” Yenawine says. “With young people, if their voices aren’t in it, then it’s just a mistake.”