Sessions with neighborhood men inspire their young interviewers
Poet Kevin Wells of Homewood inspired 17-year-old Dayvon Staton to follow his dreams.
Photographer Carl Truss of the Hill District gave Terron Jackson and Chazz Daniels, both 17, the idea that work can be fun.
And soon after Shyheim Banks, 15, interviewed entrepreneur Neil Martin of Hazelwood, he was tweeting his message: "Get to it, through it and do it."
These boys and men were among 71 in three neighborhoods who took part in the oral history project "Crossing Fences," a Saturday Light Brigade Radio production funded by the Heinz Endowment's African American Men and Boys Initiative.
Four events have been scheduled to release the resulting booklet and CD. (They are listed at the bottom of this story.)
The 35 youths -- most in their teens -- interviewed the 36 men, whose ages range from 23 to 80, over the summer after training sessions in each neighborhood.
"We brainstormed about what makes a man a good role model, talked about the men in their own lives and about who we might like to interview," said Larry Berger, founder, director and host of "The Saturday Light Brigade." "We had a list, but we wanted the kids to have some ownership in this."
They were advised on the art of the interview and how to use equipment, but creating budding radio journalists and oral historians was not the intent, Mr. Berger said.
"We stressed skills that will be useful in life: how to ask good questions and listen; how to sift through a 30-, 45-minute interview and condense to five-10 minutes; to figure out what ethically and honestly portrays the man; what most matters; what is essential; and then meeting deadline for publication.
"It's amazing how rich the totality of this is when you bring it all together."
The men include writers, educators, ministers, a cameraman, a historian, politicians, public safety officers, entrepreneurs, a social worker and musicians. The boys take part in outreach programs in their neighborhoods -- the Center of Life at Keystone Church in Hazelwood, the YMCA Lighthouse program at Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood and University Prep at Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12 in the Hill.
Demetrius Allen-Green, 17, found common ground with George Webb, an educator and artist.
On the "Crossing Fences" audio, he said, "It's always good to see a black man doing something successful, so we can look at him and say, 'Wow, he grew up in Homewood; I'm growing up in Homewood. He's successful. Maybe I'll be successful.' "
John Brewer, a historian from Homewood, said his interviewers were "surprisingly inquisitive. They asked about my childhood experiences. Their interest made me more prone to open up more."
Born in 1944, he was in grade school when a seed was planted that would influence his career.
"Ladies from the Harriet Tubman Association pressed for a Negro history class when I was in grade school. The seed was watered over the years. It doesn't happen overnight, but later on in their lives something will come out.
"When it happened to me, I caught on fire: I was going to be a history major."
Carl Allen Truss told his interviewers about his career as a cameraman that had him filming the Pirates, Steelers and Penguins. "I had the sounds, the smells and the emotion right in front of my eyes. I saw their eyes light up. They said, 'That seems like play.' I said, 'Yeah, it was fun.' You hear kids talk about things that seem hard, and I tell them, 'Let's define what hard is. If you really love what you're doing, it's not hard work.'
"I used to listen to my father get up in the morning and put on the coffee pot. He worked in the steel mill and never turned down overtime. When someone says 'hard,' I think of my father getting up at 3 and walking through the snow to chip iron fragments.
"Let's not tell kids something's hard. Let's tell them it takes an effort but the effort is going to be rewarded because they will be doing something they enjoy."
Describing himself as a champion of the underdog, Robert Bowden, who was born in 1946, became a social worker.
"I fell for the same messaging that all young men of color receive in regard to who you are and how the system prefers you to define yourself," he told Isaiah Brice-Pickens, 16, and Terrell Truss-Moore, 10. "You and I don't have privileges. There are some who do by birthright. We have to try harder. Put the work in now while you have the energy, the time and support."
A lot of the men were known to the youth from their neighborhoods, but the interviews provided more dimension.
"We basically got a whole new side of Pastor Tim," Shyheim said of the Rev. Tim Smith, who operates the Center of Life at Keystone Church in Hazelwood. "All we knew was the cool Pastor Tim. We didn't know the sensitive or wise Pastor Tim."
Rev. Smith told the boys about his father's decline and wish to die without further intervention. "He didn't want to be on life support. He wanted to go when it was time to go." He told the boys that he was in the room for his father's last breath. "I grabbed onto his foot."
His advice to the boys was to "keep track of the stuff of your life, the things that you love, because things do change over time."
First Published November 12, 2012 12:00 am