The group of teens in the program Urban Matters

What’s going to get young people involved in the future of their neighborhoods and help them become active citizens?

How about art?

The art of documentary video-making was the focus of the pilot session of a new program, Urban Matters, which taught kids from lower-income neighborhoods, many with majority African-American populations, how to understand neighborhood issues and become active in them.

The program, created by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), brought together teens from 15 to 18 years-old from the Hill District, Beltzhoover, Homewood and elsewhere for six weeks on the North Side at YouthPlaces. There, they teamed with teaching artist Alisha Wormsley and project coordinator Jamie VanderMolen “to do things that young people don’t know about,” says the program’s creator, Karen Abrams, the URA’s manager of diversity and community affairs.

The program was designed to help young people find out “what is their responsibility as residents and citizens of the city in the development of their particular neighborhoods.”

So they focused on the city’s land bank legislation, designed to put vacant and abandoned properties in the hands of new owners and developers more easily and quickly, particularly in neighborhoods with a lot of empty land and buildings.

The teens interviewed community members about the idea and importance of land banking, as well as people involved in advocating for the issues, such as city council members and community activists. They learned how to edit videos and include still photograph and animation in their production. The finished short film, which will debut October 7 at the Hill House Kaufmann Center, includes an animated illustration of how some properties become abandoned and hard to recover. It depicts a happy couple buying their Pittsburgh home in the 1950s, raising kids and watching them leave the nest. But then, as the couple ages, they become unable to care for the house, and it is abandoned after they die.

“That makes it more relatable to people who don’t understand the process,” says Abrams.

Overall, the experience is intended to take the mystery out of urban policy and planning issues that affect these kids’ communities and make them part of the decision-making process for the future of their neighborhoods.

The program is based on a successful model used by the Center for Urban Pedagogy in Brooklyn, which Abrams toured as part of a Heinz Endowments arts program in 2012. The Endowments, the POISE Foundation, Neighborhood Allies, Surdna Foundation, The Pittsburgh Foundation and others are now supporting Urban Matters.

Abrams saw kids in the program who hoped to be architects, engineers and journalists, and she hopes the program encourages them to lend their talents to improving the city. “We’re trying to figure out how to bring them back to be more involved” in their former neighborhoods and in Pittsburgh as a whole, she says. “We really do want them to take that next step, learn what they have gotten out of this project, and plug them into what they might be interested in. We’re hoping that when community planning happens or when legislation goes through city council or even at the state level, they become involved in advocating for things, or even against things. This is all about civic participation.”

Marty Levine

Marty Levine's journalism has appeared in Time, Salon.com and throughout Pennsylvania and has won awards from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, The Press...