(HN, April 24, 2012) - Maura Minsky's life changed in 1998 after a friend returned from a trip to Africa.
Having worked for years at ABC News she'd been confronted with the stark reality of how many voices were missing from the media, and she decided to do something about it. She left to work for the SHOAH Foundation, saving the voices of the Holocaust which were being lost to time.
Meanwhile, her friend Kristen Joiner, visited Africa on her own sabbatical. There, she learned about a bold and fearless film project called `Scenarios From The Sahel' - (referring to the West African mid-continent swath of desert stretching across the north of the African continent between the Atlantic Ocean and the Red Sea); currently experiencing another avoidable famine as coups and crisis continue.
Upon return, Maura's friend - and ultimately co-founder of `Scenarios USA' - Kristen Joiner, reported she had seen the project and wanted to replicate the model in the US. `Would she do it?' "Yes", of course.
(VIDEO: A young woman is looking for a man to have a serious relationship, but not just any guy. Idea: Salimata Sy, aged 11 (Senegal) / Directed by: Kidi Bebey (Cameroon)/SCENARIOS FROM AFRICA film.)
What Joiner had seen take place in Africa, was replicable. Not just as a film project, but as an active contribution to the self development of young people at a critical time in their lives, supporting and enhancing the education system.
"For us then" she says, "it was about giving marginalized young people a chance to do something school didn't originally offer."
Minsky and Joiner just started making phone calls and found teachers willing to bring this idea into their classrooms.
The history of the Scenarios project is a story of global partnership.
At its heart, `Scenarios' is a project of community mobilization, education and media process. Launched in 1997 by the UK charity Global Dialogues `Scenarios from the Sahel' was revolutionary - and drew its inspiration from a film project entitled "3,000 Scenarios Against a Virus", carried out in France between 1992 and 1994 by producers CRIPS and partners including Médecins du Monde, UNFPA, DFID and Comic Relief.
When the first efforts began in Africa, the topics of the stories and films were focused on HIV/AIDS - through the lens of young people.
In the first `Scenarios' competition students from Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, up to age of 24 contributed ideas for short films. Ministries of Education were involved in organizing the contests through schools, as were community-based NGO'S, along with internationally acclaimed directors.
13,000 young people, most between the ages of 15 and 19 across the Sahel entered; including 5,300 girls (an unexpectedly high rate of 41% of participants) - it was a huge success.
Today, more than 145,000 young people from 47 African countries have taken part in the contests. Over 1,500 local and international partner organizations are involved and select the winners. Thirty-five short fiction films are currently available from the effort; and in February 1998, `African Scenarios' aired during television coverage of the South Africa World Cup.
THE REAL DEAL
Off to the races, in 1999, with support from `Scenarios from the Sahel', Minsky and Joiner started `Scenarios USA' in 2 high school classrooms: one in New York City and one in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, focused on AIDS as a topic (as had been the case in the Sahel). Those stories became `Scenarios USA’s' first films.
Since then, Scenarios' has grown from from two classrooms of 50 students to over 100,000 students in its first decade bringing its holistic REAL DEAL program based on the components of Education, Films, Youth and Leadership Engagement to transform curriculum, and indeed the lives of young people by exploring issues of gender, race, and class in relation to themselves. Young people discover their talents, strengths and develop skills and relationships - to access a world of opportunities in the process.
Students have responded with an outpouring of their stories - dramatic, comic, and sometimes tragic. Those stories have gone on to engage award-winning screenwriters and movie directors who have collaborated with the young writers to produce a growing library.
(Video: `Don't Dance With Death', based on the Mexican myth, Devil in the Dance Hall. A night at a dance club turns serious for four chicas when an unwanted image appears.)
"We’ve been told that for teenagers to learn, you must talk to them. But at Scenarios USA, we do something just as important as talking. We ask, Who are you? Who do you want to be? Then, we listen. It's a conversation," says Maura.
The curriculum is standards-based, multi-disciplinary for grades 6-12; and uses youth-written films and professional development to help teachers create safe and supportive learning environments, fostering critical thinking and engaging students around topics that resonate with them, and spark meaningful dialogue, writing, and advocacy.
"We ask them a single question about an issue relevant to their lives in each film contest," says Minsky. "We learn from the kids and the teachers too."
The Process? The students start with diaries, which then turn into stories. This work becomes part of curriculum for school and teachers throughout the process. Then, `Scenarios' invites 1000 people from around the country to review and select submitted stories, and rank them. From there the semifinalists are chosen - and sent to 16 people - half young people, half thought leaders.
(Video: The world though Samantha's eyes. A teenage girl tries to make sense of the world around her when she finds out her best friend is pregnant.)
Teachers have told the `Scenarios'' team that they are able to get students to participate who never did before - turning the education experience into a `facilitating classroom instead of a solo classroom'. Teachers become trusted advisors and students are able to explore their own personal narratives.
The REAL DEAL films are seen by an estimated 15 - 20 million students a year in classrooms with lesson plans in all 50 US states. They've aired on Showtime, BET, mun2, MTV, Oxygen, Telemundo, ABC's World News Tonight, NYC Media’s Channel 25, The Today Show, NPR’s On the Media as well in outlets such as The New York Times, USAToday and about.com. Films have won numerous awards, including The Paul Robeson Award for Excellence in Independent Filmmaking twice, as well as two Emmys.
This year the contest had 5000 young people participate nationally in the competition, and 500 who submitted. stories. The question, "What's the real deal about gender, power and relationships?"
Since 1999 Scenarios USA has received 13000 story submissions, producing 22 films in its library. Two new films set to be announced tonight as the 2012 Winners are featured at the organizations REAL DEAL Awards Gala in NY. Awardees, Roxanne Lasker-Hall from Cleveland and her film “Speechless” and Luis Hernandez from New York City for his film “Timmy Two Chins” will share the stage with luminaries.
(Video: `Scenarios USA' team announcing the winning scripts! Cleveland - "Speechless" by Roxanne Lasker-Hall/ New York City - "Timmy Two Chins" by Luis Hernandez)
The short films will be shot in May and September along with a professional film director.
`Scenarios USA' youth producers speak at national events, give interviews to major media outlets, are elected to student government, apply and get accepted to college, launch their own blogs, become writers and filmmakers, and become activists in their communities.
"Using media to teach students kids can relate to the kids on screen. They look like them, sound like them, they talk about characters on screen. The stories then and the films after are very authentic and relatable," Maura says, "Young people sharing life with young people, and with us."
"In the last 4 or 5 years we've seen children talk about violence in the home, bullies are all over the front pages of newspapers. We must include young people in the conversation."