Give a 10-year-old a camera and what do you get?
Photos of graffiti. A water tower. School crossing guards. A flooded yard. Potholes. An inviting, green lawn. A burned house. The historic train depot.
Scenes of South Kelso shot by a fifth-grade Wallace Elementary School class are on display in storefront windows along three blocks of South Pacific Avenue for the next two months. The children, parents, teacher Julie Toney, city staff and mayor took a tour of the posters in the rain Friday afternoon following a presentation at Kelso City Hall by the Portland State University urban planning graduate students who coordinated the project.
“I think kids are a good way for a lot of folks to start thinking about citizen empowerment and involvement,” PSU student Kate Williams said.
The youth photojournalism project is part of a five-month project called ASK! (Activate South Kelso) the six PSU students are doing in place of a master’s thesis. They’re talking to residents and conducting a citizen survey to help develop a “South Kelso Revitalization Strategy” that the city hopes to incorporate into its updated comprehensive plan later this year.
They chose fifth-graders for the photo project because they’re old enough to have developed critical thinking and analytical skills but still are imaginative and creative in figuring out solutions, said Williams, 30. Talking to the youngsters and getting an understanding of their lives in South Kelso “sort of took the project to another level for our group and got us invested and excited about the possibilities,” said PSU student Ashley Harris, 29.
“We knew kids would find things that adults wouldn’t think about,” said Beth Otto, 28, another PSU student.
The graduate students talked to groups of fifth=graders about their photos and wrote short narratives to accompany them. A picture of graffiti on a wall prompted the youngsters to suggest covering bare walls with murals. An open lawn in front of a church looked like a great place for people to gather, the kids said.
A photo of a run-down playground by a student named Naya was accompanied by the comment, “I call this junk park because it’s such a mess. It needs to be mulched and there’s mold all over. ... I would organize a cleanup day for this park.” The spirit of volunteerism Naya displayed shows the level of ownership kids are willing to take on to have a quality recreation spot, the PSU students noted.
A student named Kyona shot a photo of an unpaved alley by a boarded up house painted with gang graffiti. The caption, by a boy named Tyson, said, “We should be able to bring dogs to school so they can protect the playground and protect us when we walk home.”
As part of the ASK! campaign, the PSU students are conducting a survey of Kelso residents. The survey may be taken online at www. kelso.gov/ask. It’s offered in Spanish as well as English. Paper copies have been distributed around town in places such the Kelso City Hall lobby and the Kelso Public Library at Three Rivers Mall.
From 4 to 7 p.m. May 7 at Wallace Elementary School, the PSU students will present their recommended revitalization strategies and other research at an open house with free child care, pizza and door prizes.