Osiris Castañeda, Youth CineMedia, and the Reeducation of Wayward Kids
by India Allen
Like life, the path to learning is not always straight and steady. Just ask Osiris Castañeda, founder of Youth CineMedia, a program that teaches at-risk youth how to create and develop mixed-media projects. Tucked away from the outside view of La Colina Junior High, the small, fenced-in, and somewhat neglected classroom is one of many La Cuesta continuation school sites. With no flowers or grass and just a chain-link fence and makeshift basketball court, the place looks more like a prison yard than the exterior of a classroom. It’s hard to conceive imagination taking flight here. But nevertheless, creativity soars with its limitless faculties.
Officially started in 2003, Youth CineMedia’s mission is to provide youth with the tools, knowledge, and relationships that foster self-expression and the creation of media — namely films and photographs — that promote dialog and positive social change. The program teaches teens to work with Apple computers, Adobe PhotoShop, Final Cut Pro, and other mixed-media computer software. They also learn how to operate video and digital cameras, camcorders, and lighting. The results are high-quality films and documentaries that are often screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The operation provides a much-needed service to uninterested S.B. high school and junior high students, and from the outside looking in, seems a simple enough formula for success. But looks can be deceiving, and when the going gets rough, the pressure falls on Castañeda. With chaos as his strategy and disorganization his vice, he reaches these troubled youth on a level that their parents cannot, exposing them to new technologies and providing them with a safe haven from the streets.
“All right, guys — get to work and stop playing with that basketball in the classroom,” says the 31-year-old, demanding the attention of two 17-year-old Latino boys. As he runs his rowdy and noisy classroom, full of minorities and disadvantaged youth, it is clear that Castañeda’s unconventional teaching methods and close relationships with the students play a role in the success of their projects. “I started Youth CineMedia because I felt empowered as an artist and I feel like I have a responsibility to my community,” Castañeda said. “I thought to myself that there must be other Latinos who feel the same way. Plus I used to be a student at La Cuesta and now I’m back as an educator. It feels good.” Castañeda isn’t the only one singing Youth CineMedia’s praise. “This program is awesome,” said Mwei Banks, a teacher at La Cuesta. “It gives students the opportunity to work and make their own video projects, which is an opportunity that is not always available to this student population.”
And slowly but surely, the program is working. One group of kids at a time, Youth CineMedia continues to open the minds and hearts of teenagers who may feel they have no alternative to the streets. “I feel special because I have the support of Osiris and Banks. Since they have faith in me, I feel like I have faith in myself,” said Gonzalo Rios, a senior at La Cuesta. “I think the program is helping me. I stay busy with my project and I don’t have time to waste gang-banging or getting into trouble.” Adam Muñoz, another senior at La Cuesta, said that the program allowed his father and him to connect on a level they never had before. “Like everyone in my family, my dad is an artist and we both worked on this project together,” he said. “But he can’t tell me what to do because it’s my show.”
The response is clearly overwhelming, and Castañeda is excited about the program’s recent growth. In 2005, they received the federal government’s $250,000 Community Technology Center grant for La Cuesta, and have acquired seven G4 Macintosh computers, seven video camcorders, nine digital cameras, and lots of software and new staff members. With these improvements, the future is only looking brighter for Castañeda and his students. And this summer, Castañeda went to New York City to train with hip-hop culture entrepreneur Russell Simmons’s Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation. “The bottom line is this, these kids aren’t just telling stories, they are presenting solutions to many of the problems they face, and that is exactly what this world needs,” he said. “Youth CineMedia is only a facilitator for their greatness.”