Camps and Summer Fun | Local

Tucsonan helps youth find their voices

Josh Schachter: photographer, educator, environmentalist, storyteller
Josh Schachter: photographer, educator, environmentalist, storyteller

It’s a big deal when any organization wins a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grant. In November, Pima County Public Library learned that it did just that, receiving $100,000 from the foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services to design a mobile media lab, youth media space downtown and online youth digital media-arts community in Pima County. PCPL is one of only 12 museums or libraries in the country to receive this prestigious grant. The library also will offer three summer programs for middle and high school students.

Behind the scenes in procuring funds for programs to help Tucson youth is Josh Schachter, 42, a photographer, visual storyteller, educator and community activist who holds a master’s degree in environmental management from Yale University.

“The inspiration for the work I do, with values around social justice, environmental protection and art, is my Jewish grandmother. She spoke her mind and painted till she was 97,” says Schachter. “I did digital storytelling around her. I didn’t know my own history and I learned a lot about being Jewish from her. [I discovered that she] was discriminated against in nursing school for being Jewish in the 1930s in New York.”

Schachter’s images have appeared in books, films, magazines, websites and publications from the Navajo Times to the New York Times. He has taught photography and digital storytelling to youth and artists in a variety of locales, including India and Nigeria.

Schachter, who grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., “somehow found the Sonoran Institute while a student at Yale in 1996-97. They offered me a job in 1999.” The institute promotes conservation in the North American West. He later branched out to become a freelancer and has worked on more than 50 projects in Tucson.

Although he was trained as an ecologist, Schachter strove “to be an observer of relationships, finding empathy. I was super shy in high school. I didn’t feel comfortable speaking. I wanted other kids like me to find a vehicle for expressing who they were.”

The impetus for the library’s current grant emerged from his photography and digital storytelling programs at Voices, a Tucson-based nonprofit organization where he co-managed 110 Degrees, a youth-produced magazine. “We created a smaller-scale media center that served 20 youth,” but that was only an after-school project, says Schachter. “The need is huge in the world we live in. There wasn’t space [there] to apply skills in the real world,” helping youth who haven’t been able to express themselves or may have learning challenges.

In 2007, Schachter co-founded the Finding Voice program with Julie Kasper, an English language development teacher at Catalina Magnet High School. The program uses photography to develop the literacy skills of refugee and immigrant teens. The Finding Voice class created two collections of images and writings by students from around the world, “Home: Teen Refugees and Immigrants Explore Their Tucson,” edited by Kasper and Schachter, and “The Cover is Not the Book,” edited by Kasper. The two

educators took six of their CMHS students — including one whose home was bombed by the Taliban in Afghanistan before her immigration to Tucson — to tell their stories at a U.S. House of Representatives’ briefing on immigration and refugees in June 2008. CMHS student photographs were also on exhibit in the rotunda of the Russell U.S. Senate building.

For the current media lab project, “according to the funders,” Schachter told the AJP, “one of the main reasons they liked our proposal is because of the [youth participation] from day 1.”

The “Create It” program offering youth digital media and technology classes through PCPL started in June 2011, says Jennifer Nichols, senior librarian directing the newly acquired grant. “We received 250 applications for the youth design team to create a permanent space downtown,” she says. “We hired 15 in February who will receive a monthly stipend from the grant.”

Summer classes for youth will include “Publishing an Online Magazine”; “That’s My Take 2013,” creating a short film based on a book, with professionals from Pan Left Productions; a “First Filmmaking Workshop”; and “TV Studio Production” classes with Access Tucson.

Essential to the projects he’s worked on, says Schachter, is that they “spoke to the power of teens being able to change the lives of adults, recognizing that students are first people to treat with respect and listen to; and also to the power of storytelling.”

Plus, he says, “99 percent of youth centers are created by adults. That’s why they don’t succeed. Adults [in the current grant] act as resources, not leaders.” This project will also encourage “a sense of community, learning from others through professional mentoring. Teens will work on real vocational and avocational skills.”

And it’s a sense of community that drives Schachter, although, he says, “my real passion is pie. It’s based on being born on Thanksgiving, family and food. Inherently community activity is something you share. You don’t eat it yourself; that’s basically how I move through the world.”

For more information on PCPL summer classes for youth, contact Jennifer Nichols at 594-5562 or