Young people get a feel for Durham

Young people get a feel for Durham

Staff WriterJune 24, 2005 

Sometimes you have to listen to what spills from the mouths of babes to get the real pulse of a place.

So all you grown-ups out there, take note.

Durham, youngsters say, is a city of conflicting images -- crime-ridden, racially divided and a haven for gangs, yet funky, inclusive and a pretty all-right place to be for young professional families.

That's the spin from 32 tweener and teen philosophers who spent the past three weeks in Youth Document Durham, a summer program put on by the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies.

"Durham could actually be a pretty good community, but it has bad stuff," said Victoria Webster, 13.

"The whole Durham isn't bad, just some of it is," said Devin May, a 13-year-old middle school student with dreams of playing in the NBA.

With cameras, tape recorders, curious minds and eyes wide open, children from a diverse sampling of Bull City neighborhoods set out to address some heady topics -- race, politics, language and generation gaps.

They sought out people in inter-racial and same-sex relationships.

They asked adults on Ninth and Main streets their feelings about the Iraq war.

They saw empty buildings and grand plans for a revitalized downtown.

They met reformed drug abusers and heard about lives turned upside down by gangs.

The results

On Thursday, they shared what they learned with parents and friends. They showed off photos, played taped interviews, performed monologues and reeled video.

Alex Revelle, a 13-year-old middle-schooler and aspiring photographer, was moved by some of the stories he heard. He took a photo of a man's bulging bicep and explained that the tattoos, for people in jail or out of jail, often cover up heroin tracks.

"Sometimes the biggest influence could be a person just like you who took the wrong path," Alex posted on a caption beside another one of his black-and-white photos.

War is unpopular

The young documentarians found few supporters of the Iraq war on Ninth and Main streets.

"Most people think the president's father told him he needed to win a war to be a good president," said Devon Davis, 13. "We didn't find anyone who thought we needed to go to war."

Spencer Washington, 13, also interviewed people about the war. He got a few surprises.

"You can't, like, judge a person by how they look, you know," Spencer said. "You might look at somebody really, really rich, like an old white dude or something, and you think, 'OK, conservative.' Then he says, 'Democrat,' and you're like, 'Dude.' There was only one conservative that we interviewed, she was this old lady, and she was kind of, like, 'Well, that's what we should do.' "

Barbara Lau, director of the program, said it was interesting each year to see what the participants did with their assignments.

"I don't know that our goal is to create the next generation of documentarians," Lau said. "We want them all to come out as critical thinkers who have the confidence to speak to others who are not just like them."

Leah Sell-Goodhand, 12, said her travels through the city taught her that it was more diverse than she had realized. "I didn't know that there was so much diversity in this community," she said.

Small town

Others were surprised by Durham's size.

"It's real small," said Shyahna Mills, 12. "It looks like the country or something."

At their impressionable age, it was visits with reformed drug-abusers and criminals that got the young minds thinking. Few would choose drugs, gang life or one drag of a cigarette in this city that tobacco helped build.

"I ain't trying to smoke," said Devon Davis. "I ain't trying to cut my life short."

All that pithy debate, though, wore on the young minds.

Before anybody asked them to take on the meaning of life, they were on the basketball court, tossing a football and drawing with colored chalk on the sidewalk. The next generation was doing what they do best, being kids while taking in a whole lot more than any grown-up might think.

Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or

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