Beyond Vassar

If Walls Could Talk...

By Jessica Winum

Some in the Poughkeepsie area might tell of good things happening for area teens under the aegis of a very Vassar-connected education program.

Talking Walls, a community development project created just over a year ago by new Vassar graduates, has its young participants "explore, facilitate, and document transformation and community issues . . . through documentary filmmaking." Lessons in videomaking and media literacy are complemented with exercises in spoken word poetry, drumming, public performance, and other exercises intended to develop creativity and confidence. During this past year, Talking Walls, which is directed by Ben Kalina '98, grew from an idea into a fully funded program serving 30 students in three Dutchess County high schools.

Talking Walls began in the summer of 1999 when Kalina co-directed its six-week pilot with Athena Desai '98. Several at-risk students from Poughkeepsie took part in the program, working with the two directors and Vassar student interns Takeasha Henderson '01, Josh Cohen '00, and Nikhil Kumar '01, to learn more about themselves and the power they have to make positive choices in their lives.

In December, Desai and Kalina's project received a big boost from the MacArthur Foundation, which announced a $20,000 grant to the program for an expanded 2000 summer program. At the same time came the bittersweet news that Desai would be accepting a job offer at the campaign desk at National Public Radio's main office in Washington, D.C.

Kalina became the sole director and has not looked back since. "It's kind of a dream job for me because I get to be my own boss, multi-task like crazy, and it all relates to my Vassar education," he said. Kalina majored in American Culture.

In March, Kalina began Talking Walls programs in three Poughkeepsie-area schools-Poughkeepsie High School, Oakwood Friends School, and the Alternative High School at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES). He not only directs the project, but co-teaches the classes with program coordinator Timothy Sutton, an Americorps volunteer, and Maria Marewski, an adjunct professor in Vassar's urban studies program. Marewski founded the Children's Media Project (CMP), a Poughkeepsie-based nonprofit that supported the development of Talking Walls. CMP aims to "educate and empower children by teaching them to make films, videos, and computer based multimedia." Two Vassar interns, Gina Gayle '02 and Elyse Neiman '00, also assisted with classes last year.

Talking Wall students help mold the curriculum and determine the subject of their documentary. This spring, Poughkeepsie High School students focused on anti-vandalism and graffiti. Oakwood Friends students created senior video portraits. At BOCES the students were on a public relations mission to let their peers know that just because they are attending a nontraditional school doesn't mean that they are bad kids.

As this magazine went to press, Kalina and his colleagues were preparing to teach an intensive Talking Walls program on Vassar's campus during the summer. They were also looking forward to the opening of a Talking Walls media center in downtown Poughkeepsie to provide "after-school programs, access to equipment, and a safe space for students to explore themselves and their community through creative media."

When Kalina is not working to expand and develop Talking Walls, he is working with a variety of other community organizations. He sits on the Criminal Justice Council's new Community Involvement Committee; is a teacher and producer for the Poughkeepsie Institute, a local consortium of five colleges which studies issues of concern to the Poughkeepsie community such as homelessness and crime; and creates promotional documentaries for local nonprofit organizations such as Potential Unlimited, which helps musically gifted mentally and physically disabled to perform professionally.

It may seem an overbearing work load, but Kalina loves it. "My work is incredibly fulfilling," he said. "I love the community of Poughkeepsie. It's great to be in a community where you can see change happen."