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Leaders of Today program teaches youth they can be agents of change through digital storytelling

‘We hope to create space where youth realize that power,’ says artistic director for Agitate Productions, Kavya Yoganathan

A local program is teaching young people that through digital storytelling their stories can be a catalyst for social change.

Leaders of Today is a program that teaches youth storytelling skills through the use of photography and video. It began as a pilot project in 2019 and was offered at St. Joseph’s Catholic elementary school. The program is offered by Agitate Productions and is supported by community non-profit organization, Art Not Shame.

The program aims to create creative spaces for youth to recognize their individual and collective power and exercise their collective responsibility to create change.

“This program came about because of my fundamental belief that young people have meaningful stories to share and tell,” says Kavya Yoganathan, artistic director of Agitate Productions who runs Leaders of Today. 

“They have opinions and a consensus about what is happening around them, and there are not enough spaces for them to express their thoughts ... nor are they ever given the opportunity where they’re asked about these things.” she continues.

This semester, the program is working with 13 students from Wellington Hall Academy. Their assignment is to focus on one issue within Guelph that they would like to change.

“It could be their school community, their families, their neighbourhoods, or any other communities they’re a part of, and photograph something they would like to see changed,” says Yoganathan. Some topics chosen by students include environmental activism, water conservation, homelessness and the system of policing. 

On Dec. 11, the photos will be displayed at the 10C shared space on Carden Street from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Yoganathan says it will be a small, in-person event, and all those interested in attending will be required to register online for a time slot to visit in order to manage the number of people gathering. To find out more, click here.

After this exhibit, students will then start to focus on how they can help change these issues, and will make a video of their efforts. These videos will be shown in a film screening in April.

Yoganathan adds that all human beings have an innate capability for telling stories, and that young people especially have meaningful stories to share on different issues.

“They don’t sugar-coat. They are extremely honest,” she says about their stories, “It is the purest form of storytelling.”

“When they’re told these things, I think there is sometimes an assumption that they don’t receive it, or hear it, or don’t understand it, but they do understand it,” she says.

Too often, Yoganathan says adults put pressure on young people to solve global issues, leaving them feeling overwhelmed and frustrated about where to start.

“One student said, ‘There are many different definitions of changing the world, so which one do you want me to pick?’” she recalls from asking this question to participants within the program.

“Our job is to create spaces to educate them (on social issues),” she explains, “They are a product of the environment we create.” 

Yoganathan said while youth cannot possibly solve all the bigger problems within the world, they can help solve problems within their communities through the power of storytelling to create social change.

“If they exercise their power, there’s people that will listen.” 

Raúl Alvarado, member of Agitate Studios and a part of Leaders of Today, says the program can also increase young people’s interest in community participation.

Currently, the pandemic has created a larger need for nonprofit organizations and charities, but Alvarado says they lack the volunteers needed to support this demand.

“(It’s) life lessons about community engagement, “ he continues, “(It) shapes the youth into more involved citizens within their community.”

To learn more about the program, go to agitateproductions.com.