Many professional journalists will tell you they grew up seeing their parents absorbed in the pages of newspapers, which showed up at their doors with predictable regularity.

That was not my experience.

My parents occasionally bought the newspaper, making it an inconsistent guest in our home.

It wasn’t until I was 14, and happened to sign up for a high school journalism class, that I felt any connection to those pages or understood what went into them. That year, I held my first real camera, filled my first notebook with interviews and realized for the first time stories didn’t have to be told about people in my community; they could (and should) also be told by people in it.

I saw a potential space in an industry for me.

The other day, I found myself thinking about those types of moments — when hands-on exposure to something new suddenly changes the course of a person’s life — as I spoke to Marley McDonald.

Before August, the 17-year-old senior at D.C.’s Benjamin Banneker Academic High School had never held a professional-quality camera or considered the work that went into making a movie. Her camera experience was limited to capturing images with her cellphone of sunsets and people dancing.

Now, the teenager plans to attend Georgia State University and major in film and media. She has already been accepted, and she is excited about the possibilities.

“Atlanta is where the film industry is popping off,” she says. “In 10 years, my goal is to be a successful filmmaker, a successful Black filmmaker.”

What changed her course was a pilot program that occurred quietly over the summer in the District, involving six teenagers, a D.C.-raised comedian and a team of adults, including an actor and a former NBA player.

Comedian Rodney “Red” Grant said he was working at BET in 2003 when he thought about finding a way to allow kids to produce shows. Then in 2015, his nephew, Keaway Lafonz Ivy, a rap artist, was shot and killed in the District while filming a music video.

Those events ultimately led Grant to dream up a program called, “Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Cameras.”

The plan, Grant said, was to work with D.C. public schools to make it available to many children. But after the pandemic left students learning from home, he partnered with the Hustlers Guild, a nonprofit that works to “develop and empower” young people from underrepresented communities, to launch a smaller pilot program over the summer.

They recruited six D.C. teenagers and guided them through the process of writing a script, shooting scenes and editing.

“Being from D.C., being from Southeast and Northwest and a couple other places, and being an entertainer who was able to get out and see things, I wanted these kids to have that experience,” Grant says. “I just feel like a kid with nothing should have opportunities to have something.”

Five of the six teens live in Southeast Washington, where gun violence has killed, injured and traumatized many children. In December, a 15-month-old boy named Carmelo Duncan was shot and killed in the city while riding in a car. His death followed the fatal shooting of 11-year-old Davon McNeal, which followed the murder of 13-year-old Malachi Lukes.

Andrea Smith, who was one of the program’s instructors, said in the past year gun violence has claimed three people she watched grow up in the city. She was in the same class at a vocational school as Cyhneil Smith, a young mother I told you about in an earlier column, who was shot and killed in October.

“She came to school and tried to make a difference, and yet the streets took another mother,” Smith said. “There’s another kid who is going to have to go through this.”

Smith describes seeing the pandemic leave many young people standing around, saying they have nothing to do, and watching the children who participated in the program come excited to learn.

“I feel like we don’t have that many opportunities for the youth in this city, for them to see people actually care about them and will help them,” Smith said. “All it [takes is] for someone to say, ‘Look at this’ or ‘Try this’ or ‘How about this?’ ”

That sounds simple. And yet, if you ask children in certain neighborhoods what they want to be when they grow up, it’s clear they don’t know the breadth of their options. They only know what has been put in front of them — and too often that is not enough.

The title of the “Don’t Shoot Guns, Shoot Cameras” program speaks to its main goal: to give young people an alternative to violence.

But the instructors describe seeing the pilot program achieve more than that.

“It educates, and it gives kids exposure and experience,” Yasmin Salina, one of the founders of the Hustlers Guild, said. And it does that for children who probably wouldn’t get that chance otherwise. Salina said the people picked to participate in the program ranged in age from 13 to 17 and were picked in part because their schools don’t offer that type of programming or their families aren't in a position to afford a camp.

In that way, the program holds the potential to pull new faces into the field and diversify an industry that has come under much scrutiny for its failures in that area. During Sunday’s Golden Globes, Helen Hoehne, the vice president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which determines the awards, addressed the association’s lack of Black members: “We recognize we have our own work to do. Just like in film and television, Black representation is vital. We must have Black journalists in our organization.”

Together, the teenagers worked via Zoom to write a 10-page script and then gathered in person to film it. During the filming, they were assisted by a group of adults that included actor Anwan “Big G” Glover, who starred in the “The Wire,” and former NBA player Matt Barnes.

In the end, they produced a short film, titled “The Store,” that starts with a young woman in D.C., having no food at home and no money to buy anything. Several days ago, it premiered online to a select audience.

Among those watching was Marley McDonald.

“I’m very proud,” she says. “It’s really fascinating to see how a collaborate effort can create a beautiful masterpiece.”

Grant, Salina and others behind the effort are now trying to raise money to expand the program. Their hope is to put more cameras in the hands of children in the District and in other cities.

Marley said when the program ended, she felt eager to do more projects and would have enjoyed having a camera available.

At the same time, she said, she left knowing this: “My time would come where I could use it to 24/7.”

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