Accelerators


All photos and stories were created by Youthprise Artist-in-Residence Nancy Musinguzi.

About this Issue

Nancy is a documentary photographer, visual artist and writer. This fall, she visited with four Youthprise grantees — our Accelerators — to learn about their work and capture images that will be displayed at the gallery at The McKnight Foundation beginning in January 2015. Our Accelerator Initiative supports established & emerging organizations that serve diverse youth to share best practices and spark innovation.

Ka Joog

After education, family is one of the most integral components to a healthy childhood. In between walks through hallways and bus rides home after school, youth constantly seek out additional networks of compassion and support, either through peers, teachers, administration, or others who serve as human resources for young people. Ka Joog is a community of Somali adults and young people who work together to build and maintain healthy environments for youth to thrive in during critical times of their early adolescence.

The organization views their participants as “little brothers and sisters,” and “peers,” developing intimate bonds and relations with, as well as educating, young people. As any family only hopes for the best from their kin, Ka Joog uses education as a vehicle “to inspire [youth] to pursue higher education, and to let them know that their community is here for them.” With an emphasis on cultural identity, belonging, familial structures and mentorship, the organization felt more like a family than a non-profit. Inspired, I began to rethink my approach to my evening’s photo shoot with the group for the McKnight Foundation exhibit.

Traveling alongside Mrs. Wokie Weah, President of Youthprise, in the passenger seat of her SUV on our way to the organization’s second headquarters in Eden Prairie, I felt stuck between concepts I wanted to use to capture the essence of Ka Joog and how to adequately represent Somali culture. A community of rich cultural customs and practices, I grew nervous about how to portray the organization without exoticizing my subjects, while still maintaining my creative edge and vision as a visual artist. How can I capture family without perpetuating stereotypes about the conventions of family in Somali culture? What if the youth don’t feel comfortable being photographed by me, especially the young girls? My anxiety slowly melted once I entered the building and saw a room full of young Somali boys and girls, wide-eyed with excitement and bubbling with enthusiasm to be tutored by the organization’s adult partners, who were also Somali. Greeted by Mohamed Farah, Executive Director of Ka Joog, further soothed my nerves once we began the shoot. I wanted to make sure that both genders were represented properly in the photographs I took, to contradict the common misconception that cultures rooted in Islam are believed to be sexist and misogynist. I actively reduced these possibilities with my stark contrasts and witty juxtaposing of images that would help make the portraits dynamic and engaging.

Positioning Mohamed and Ka Joog youth in a family-style portrait was more natural than I thought it would be. Mohamed and the youth sat stoically on handmade chairs made from cardboard and painted with brilliant color, staring into my lens with a comfort that communicated trust. The energy in the room was warm and flowing, familiar and family-like. While we spent only an hour together, I left with a new perspective on the definition of community. Whether it is an American or Somali flag, the subject still holds the agency to incorporate many types of cultures into their own and develop individual identity while challenging others on how they, too, can imagine themselves in a community. And with community, Ka Joog consistently empowers young people to strive for the best versions of themselves by serving as a home away from home.

Ka Joog consistently empowers young people to strive for the best versions of themselves by serving as a home away from home

Migizi

Youth are blessed with some of the most brilliant, hard-working and profound minds. They have a gift to create, manipulate, and interpret. Imagination – the might to transform the tacit into the explicit – is such a powerful thing; adolescents are able to live in a world, within a world. I grew up with no limits on my own imagination; my parents and peers always encouraging me to allow all ideas to come to fruition, no matter how great they seem. The role of technology and social media has significantly impacted my perception of my self, my environment, and my own power in influencing the world. The Internet has drastically transformed the way in which youth socially and emotionally develop. Its technologies have replaced afterschool programs, sports, and clubs that traditionally engaged young people outside of the classroom. I remember being one of those youths that grew up on digital platforms that facilitated relationships between my peers, however, my parents always forced me to log off, go outside and interact with my physical environment through sports and community activities. Migizi, an organization built for local youth to engage with new media and tools for communication and ways to express themselves, intervenes where parents and mentors cannot. The youth participants that partake in the organization’s activities utilize these technologies to express opinion, perspective and thought about their worlds that typically make young people estrange from their immediate environments. Director of Programming Graham Hartley, discusses how his staff incorporate youth voices in the work they do:

 For years, MIGIZI has valued the voices of our clients, whether they are 7 or 70. Our earliest work in radio broadcast journalism had a goal of countering the misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and falsehoods promulgated about Native Peoples in the major media. Today, our work with high school students brings their voices to the fore through documentary film production and through the development of their voice as part of the leadership training and engagement within our Gathering of Sacred Voices activities. Our young people are involved in student government within their school programs, district-wide Native and broader governing and leadership bodies, and through a national community leadership effort focused on youth-adult partnerships. 

The youth who participated in the photo session with Migizi were some of the most outgoing, enthusiastic and dedicated young people I’ve ever met. From the moment I turned on my camera to discussing concepts and themes of family and community, they were always one step ahead of me in creativity and imagination. One of them took a microphone and placed it in her ponytail to create a fashionable accessory, another placed a camera on their shoulder and pretended to record me. The session was incredibly participatory, engaging and energized, all of us never losing sight of what images we wanted to capture. What I loved most about our time with one another is how empowered the youth were, in control and driven to position themselves in a way that accurately depicted their relationships between each other. I was virtually hands-off with the youth, all of them taking turns in directing and instructing each other in how to position themselves and utilize props the best way possible. With dimensional personalities and perspectives, these young people have taken the opportunities that Migizi has offered them and transformed them into platforms to express and voice belief on how their environments should be depicted. Proud does not begin to describe these youth.

The Sanneh  
  Foundation

Environment and space have played a significant role in my development as a youth and young adult. Where I was able to play, interact, and engage with peers determined who I related to and who I embraced as my friends. Living in the suburbs made this process easier than most, as neighbors and those who rode the bus home after school with me became the people I saw and interacted with the most. However, once I went to high school and my zip code no longer determined these opportunities of connection, I was left with a culture shock I would never forget.

Literally marginalized outside of opportunity, youth in the city adjacent to my town were left without safe spaces to play and grow up. Shuffled from bus stop to door step, parents and guardians of youth living in urban areas of my county were kept prisoner to the playgrounds around their block because community dynamics were determined by street name rather than a zip code. But in parts of the nation that do have resources for youth to participate safely in their communities, youth philanthropy is used to transform the journey young people take through adolescence. Located in Minnesota’s capitol of St. Paul, The Sanneh Foundation operates with a unique agenda to promote the wellness and health of its youth participants. “We help youth face the emotional and academic challenges that are a consequence of living in an under-resourced population. But the young people we work with still face transportation obstacles, hunger issues, and housing problems, ” Jennifer Martin, Sanneh’s Marketing and Communications manager states. She continues, “ultimately, the more the kids can have their basic needs met, the less energy they need to spend on their day-to-day survival, allowing our programs to more successfully serve their intellectual and emotional needs.”

Founded upon the pillars of wellness and health, The Sanneh Foundation’s “Dream Team” of outgoing community members works collaboratively to provide young people with the necessary tools to sustain individual and community wellness in the form of mentorship and global philanthropy. Soccer being its specific approach, founder Tony Sanneh champions his organization on the basis of “empowering kids with leadership-skill development and mentoring, along with access to a safe and healthy environment to learn and play,” “improving lives by supporting and promoting educational attainment through in-school and afterschool programming, tutoring and college prep training” as well as advancing diversity, promoting community service and fighting racism through individual training and institutional change.

 advancing diversity, promoting community service and fighting racism through individual training and institutional change. 

With this in mind, the concept for our photo shoot was primarily based in teamwork, solidarity, community making and family building. Being the second to last organization left to photograph for the exhibit with McKnight, I wanted to incorporate the theme of family, belonging and refuge into the images I captured. The finished product displayed friendships developed during Dream Team training in the summer, a highlight of the commonalities felt between members and unbreakable bonds. These themes became apparent by the way everyone oriented themselves in the circle I had them huddled in. I virtually had no strict direction for the shoot, rather, I allowed for them to do whatever they felt was natural, capturing these organic, high-energy moments as they unfolded. To encourage the consistent flow of energy between all of them, I had some of them dance battle one another, and that proved more helpful than anything. I appreciated the experience with the Dream Team and Mr. Sanneh, feeling almost a part of their training with the organization and embodying the spiritedness that made a beautiful home for the young people they served and embraced.

 Tamales Y   Bicicletas  

Growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I was surrounded by nature. Living in a county filled with country roads, farmers’ markets and family-owned greenhouses, my parents would take me and my sister to local farms to pick fresh fruit and produce and buy new flowers for our garden. When I went to college and studied environmental justice and food deserts, I learned that not all places in the world looked like my backyard. In a state with a strong agriculture sector, Minnesota is booming with good and accessible food for its citizens. Yet there still exist parts of the state where residents are left without access to good or affordable food. Tamales Y Bicicletas, a neighborhood initiative launched by residents to provide where the state has failed, is a prime example of how the role of community impacts the health of a society and the development of its younger members. In addition to good food, Tamales also provides youth with access to bicycles to encourage and promote healthy living needed to maintain wellness. While simple in concept, the impact the organization has had on the neighborhood extends beyond belief. “The Youthprise Accelerator program has impacted our work in connecting and learning from other youth-of-color serving organizations in the Twin Cities, ” Jose Luis Villasenor, founder of the organization, states. He also believes that “through participatory research, hands-on activities in partnership with adults, youth are able to work through activities that encourage their peers to identify their assets and envision themselves as a solution to the inequities in their communities. ”

Like watching the human body heal itself from the inside out, the neighborhood was alive with activity, bikes flying everywhere, the garden soaking in sun, residents helping one another with things they couldn’t do by themselves.

 The founder’s love for his community,   his children and neighborhood peers   truly inspired the creative   direction of our  photo shoot. 

As the second organization I photographed for the McKnight Foundation exhibit, I continued on with the theme of community as family and alternative systems for support. I went into my afternoon with Tamales with a sharp sense of what I wanted my images to look like. With a membership made up of adults, youth, neighbors, families, friends, and peers, Tamales’ community garden is maintained, operated and owned by the people it serves. Luis and his twin sons, both zooming on identical bicycles on the sidewalk of their South Minneapolis neighborhood, welcomed me with a love only a family could provide. The founder’s love for his community, his children and neighborhood peers truly inspired the creative direction of our photo shoot. Beginning with a family portrait in the garden that these residents cared and tended felt appropriate both to the figurative and literal meaning assigned to terms like “growth” and “wellness”. Afterward, everyone dispersed, going either direction toward bikes or a BBQ grill cooking food for an outdoor movie screening later that evening. I decided to wander around the neighborhood for the rest of the afternoon and photograph the area since I completed my mission in capturing the main image for the exhibit. I witnessed the community in motion during this exploration around South Minneapolis. Like watching the human body heal itself from the inside out, the neighborhood was alive with activity, bikes flying everywhere, the garden soaking in sun, residents helping one another with things they couldn’t do by themselves. The level of proactivity between everyone was thrilling, I wished I was five years old again! I wanted a bike and responsibilities to tend to a community garden!

With the sun setting quietly in the background and the Sunday evening film rolling on the rib of the Tamales Y Bicicletas house, I said my see-you-soon’s and take-care’s, capturing the last bits of light that my camera could take in as I drove back home.

Nancy Musinguzi

See more of Nancy's photography See her work online

Nancy uses her skills in photography to engage young people in conversations about social justice, community engagement and the power of visual art in media