‘It’s a collection of freaks and geeks; it doesn’t matter where you are from and you may be seen as a completely different person in your work or school environment, but when you come here, we are all equal and respect each other’s backgrounds and perspectives. Everyone who comes in the doors of Spy Hop joins the family.’ – Quote from current participant in the annual Spy Hop Evaluation Report for the 2010-2011 year.
Since 1999, when Spy Hop Productions opened its doors in Salt Lake City as the Intermountain West’s first major center dedicated to youth media creativity, there has been a steadily growing number of cities with similar enterprises that empower the millennial generation to creatively apply their newly acquired digital media skills. In fact, as Kasandra VerBrugghen, Spy Hop’s executive director, explains, the field has grown so quickly that many college and university degree programs now offer emphases in youth media programming and development.
Yet, in its 13 years of existence, Spy Hop also has cultivated an exceptional portfolio of community engagement, an objective that frankly has bedeviled and stymied many other nonprofit organizations, especially in the arts. Not only do mentors at Spy Hop impart the essential media and digital skills to the students, they also give them, as VerBrugghen describes, ‘the 21st century skills’ that might not have been considered previously as essential to the artist’s training regimen. Those skills, of course, help organizations and their members realize the ideal of community engagement – by building creative teams and partnerships, understanding and appreciating diverse constituencies, and learning to work with community organizations, local businesses, and governmental departments, just to name a handful of activities.
‘We’re not just imparting knowledge but also guiding our students to discover their own truths,’ VerBrugghen explains. ‘And our evaluations consistently show that students go from the program with an enriched sense of empathy that gives value to every single creative voice.’
Engagement leads to enhanced quality
Likewise, the expectations for artistic and creative quality are high not only among the mentors but also among the students who take seriously the sense of duty to raise the bar every year. Many student-produced short films from the PitchNic program, for example, have ended up at Sundance, Los Angeles International Film Festival, Utah Arts Festival’s Fear No Film Competition, Barcelona Television Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and others as well as cable networks including HBO.
Films from the REEL Stories intensive documentary arts workshops have aired on HBO Family, the MNN Youth Channel National Series and PBS’ online youth media initiative “Listen Up!”, as well as at numerous film festivals including the Museum of Television and Radio Docu-Jam, the MNN Youth Channel National Series and the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival.
That rich appreciation of community engagement is found in every niche of Spy Hop’s programming. The Loud and Clear Youth Radio project works annually with KRCL-FM Radio 90.9 to host original programming along with a series of episodes on the station’s RadioActive show. And, the student broadcasters take on substantial topics that might include freedom of expression, transgendered teens, military recruiting in high schools, and teens who question their religious faith. Yet, they also display the same professional intensity when producing programs on such curiously entertaining topics such as supernatural beings and the art of couch surfing.
The Interactive Design Workshop encourages budding video and digital game developers to create entertainment with socially instructive and empowering messages. Open Mic becomes a sounding board for hundreds of individuals including international refugees from Africa who share their stories after having recently settled in the Salt Lake City metropolitan area. Sending Messages gives the youth at Utah juvenile detention and correctional facilities such as Decker Lake an opportunity to tell their stories.
Every social issue or concern becomes a potential Spy Hop project, whether it is giving a safe place for homeless youth outreach or for effectively communicating messages about civil rights, respect and affirmation, environmental sustainability, drug and suicide prevention, teen pregnancy, alcohol abuse or drunk driving.
Taking engagement to its genuine core
Indeed, Spy Hop staff members never dare to become complacent about engagement, according to Matt Mateus, programs director. Every staff member understands why the organization cannot afford to be narcissistic about its self-importance and value nor be willing to accept the ‘Field of Dreams’ approach – that is, build it and they will come on their own volition – sentiments that plague more than a few nonprofit organization in the creative and arts communities.
Trying to fit Spy Hop into a narrow category always is difficult, especially when staff members are writing requests for grants and foundational support, where applicants are asked to select the option box that best describes their organization. As Mateus explains, Spy Hop, separately and collectively, can be described organizationally as serving all of the following purposes: youth development, drug and alcohol prevention, vocational preparation, after school activities, technical skills training and literacy, youth in custody programs, youth at risk programs, arts education, digital media, visual media, engineering and entertainment arts, performing arts, music education, culture and the arts, media education and literacy, and, yes, youth fun and entertainment.
No matter how one might characterize Spy Hop, every single facet and element of this organization’s programming always returns to the objective of engagement. Spy Hop recently redesigned its Web site, using the more personal second person voice to speak directly to its potential youth audiences. And, even when students might be interested, they might not be immediately motivated to sign up for a Spy Hop class or program.
‘Sometimes, the biggest challenge for students is committing to a demanding program after a long day at school,’ Mateus says, adding that it understandably isn’t always easy to walk into a new place and figure out the culture.
The most powerful belief at the core of Spy Hop’s commitment to engagement is the simple yet profound acknowledgment that everyone in the community matters. And, to think otherwise would not only be a drag on the sincerity of the organization’s dedication to engagement but also would trigger an inevitable draining impact on the whole artistic capabilities and quality of Spy Hop.
One of the strongest demonstrations of Spy Hop’s resolve arises in the Sending Messages program that began more than two years ago with young people at Decker Lake. Led by Adam Sherlock, a long-time professional in the mental health field, the award-winning program, which also has received a grant from the Utah Humanities Council, has generated an internationally distributed series of radio shows and podcasts written, edited, and produced by the young people at the center.
While officials initially hesitated about the plausibilities of the program’s anticipated virtues, Sherlock has mentored the residents, encouraging them to express themselves in art forms they believe best suit their stories. One narrative focuses on memory and the experience of heading to a detention facility for the first time while another is a poem about the ingredients that might lead to ending up in a place such as Decker Lake. Some express their hardship in song while others create meditative pieces.
Although some, at the outset of the program, tell Sherlock that they see art as the way to becoming rich and powerful, or they have romanticized visions of being a radio DJ, many begin to see how their creative voices can be used for healing, rejuvenating, and being instructive not only for themselves but also for others who are at risk for making less-than-ideal decisions. Sherlock is careful to ensure that the stories are not sensationalistic merely for the sake of bragging or glorifying ‘war experiences’ from the streets.
Instead, the outlet, at least for some, illuminates the promise of a creative passion or hobby that, if someone had instilled or shared it with them earlier in their lives, they might have chosen a different path. The hopeful postscript, of course, is that once they leave the center, some of them will continue nourishing their passion in school and in programs such as Spy Hop.
Assuring benefits with no strings attached
Similarly, Mateus says that selling the virtues of the organization’s programming isn’t always an automatic clincher especially for those who think that being involved in Spy Hop must come with strings attached, fees or restrictions. He recalls ‘Big Joe,’ a naturally gifted teen rapper from Salt Lake City’s west side who only came on board after a year of patient yet persistent recruiting. ‘I met all these kids who talked about this rapper who didn’t go to Spy Hop but was making lots of money,’ Mateus explains. ‘I knew our programs would benefit his skills but he kept asking ‘What’s the hustle.’ I had to assure him that there was no hustle and, in fact, we even would pay him a stipend.’
Many students – including those who are homeless or those who worry that learning disabilities, for example, might preclude their involvement – find their first job at Spy Hop through the multimedia apprenticeship program. This gives students hands-on education and real-world career application in film and video; sound engineering, music and radio, and digital design, animation and games. And, their involvement can be virtually limitless, as one student indicated in the annual evaluation: ‘How many kids can say “I’ve done 50 recordings, sound engineered, recorded a movie?” Not very many! I can’t believe I actually did that.’
Koffi Sessi, who oversees the sound engineering, music, and radio portion of the apprenticeships, says his objective is to demystify the foundations of the industry. He’ll talk about the ethical and legal ramifications of sampling, borrowing, and remixing as well as practical concerns about controversial forms of expression and the use of profanities, from regulatory as well as artistic perspectives. ‘The biggest challenge is helping them turn their most original ideas into music,’ he explains. ‘I’ll have students talk about driving a Cadillac even while they took TRAX [the light-rail line] or rode a bike or skateboard to get to Spy Hop. I encourage them to talk about their actual lives which always will be much more interesting.’
The skills and impacts of multidisciplinary collaboration
Cross-pollination and cross-fertilization are critical to the multidisciplinary apprenticeship projects. Chris Manfre, who supervises students in the interactive design group, not only goes through the options for students to decide whether this might be a viable career path but also the value of working with teams especially where members have many different personalities. ‘The kids come from all backgrounds. Some are cool, others are quiet and introverted, and then there are others who are hyperactive,’ he adds.
Likewise, Josh Samson, who oversees apprentices in film and video, says their aim as mentors is to steer away from cliques and encourage students to think first about working as a team. ‘We want them to decide how they should approach the problem because in real life they are not always going to have an instructor.’
No doubt, digital media is a rapidly growing industry in Utah as state officials expect it to top the $1 billion mark and generate 3,000 jobs. It already is approaching the $500-million level and video games, for example, already represent more than a 40 percent chunk of the total. Add in the recently established bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in entertainment arts and engineering at The University of Utah. Similarly, Spy Hop also is fortifying its ties with major digital media industry players that include Adobe, EA Games, eBay, Twitter, and others.
The apprenticeships are just one way that staff members are extending Spy Hop’s social entrepreneurship mission, especially as the economy has finally recovered from the deep recession that began four years ago. Its Phase 2 Productions project, which gives Spy Hop alumni the opportunity to expand their professional portfolios, capitalizes upon the rapidly growing acknowledgement that nonprofits must diversify their revenue streams.
With an average of 30 client projects each year representing corporations, organizations, governmental agencies and educational institutions, Phase 2 is yet another precise application of the “spy hop” metaphor — when a dolphin rises out of water scouting out the horizon and watching for other dolphins in the pod – which has been so effectively used to describe the organization’s work with students throughout its existence.
The project has been perfect for Spy Hop students who ‘refuse to leave,’ says Colby Bryson, Phase 2 director and a Spy Hop alumnus who graduated from Cypress High School in Magna in 2005. ‘It’s been a great way for alumni to reconnect,’ he explains, adding that many are in their middle 20s or who have been away from Spy Hop for four or more years.
The services match those of a full production company, including documentaries, commercials, training videos, seminars, conferences and even narrative films. One of the biggest productions was a variation on the hit cable TV Project Runway show that featured six student designers who had 48 hours to create clothes for a three-day competition sponsored by the Outdoor Retailers Association, which holds two meetings annually in Salt Lake City. Other projects have included a collage video for The University of Utah College of Fine Arts, an alcohol abuse prevention public service announcement, and a promotional documentary about the local Alliance House, which provides community services and job training to individuals dealing with mental illness.
Cultivating the art of creative kinship
The alma mater dynamic of Spy Hop is inextinguishable for some. Another alumna who has returned as a mentor is Shannalee Otanez, who oversees the Loud and Clear Youth Radio program as well as the junior high community activities. Just barely a half dozen or so years older than many of her students, Otanez follows her colleagues’ cues and lets her students make the creative decisions that would be commonplace in any other professional radio setting.
Participants go live on KRCL to play music, interview guests, host live local bands, present documentaries and highlight calendar items pertinent to the youth community. The students work as bona fide radio professionals, learning audio production skills, the craft of story packages, Federal Communication Commission rules and regulations, writing skills, interviewing, ‘DJing,’ voice training and media literacy.
‘Often, I’ll give the students topical prompts and then they workshop their scripts,’ Otanez explains. ‘When the Occupy movements started last year, many of them didn’t know about it and I asked them why. They immediately took up the responsibility of finding out what this movement was about so they could speak on behalf of their generation.’
The students take to heart the significance of the appropriate time and place for their discussions. For example, while Otanez believed that one of her students who produced a piece about a fellow student at his high school who committed suicide handled the topic maturely, the student team decided not to air it out of concerns for privacy and sensitivity. On the other hand, a first-person piece about teenage pregnancy – in which the student decided to give the baby up for adoption – was aired to many voices of solid approval and the agency that handled the adoption now uses the segment in its educational programs.
And, as The Selective Echo has noted before, one of the most endearing features of PitchNic program is how the kinship among the young filmmakers is so plainly observable and emotional. After 13 months in a program that culminates in the premieres of their work, the students share a wonderfully refreshing collegial sense of confidence in each other’s creativity. It is the joy of realizing others, indeed, are following the same dream of making their own film.
At the start of each new PitchNic cycle, even as the previous year’s crews are putting the finishing touches on their narrative and documentary films, Samson and his colleague, Frank Feldman anticipate how the incoming corps of young directors, producers, and cinematographers will answer the call to improve continuously upon a program that sends films to international youth and professional festivals every year.
Feldman encourages students to ‘reverse engineer’ the documentary film’s structure while Samson, who works with students on narrative fiction projects, asks them to write a five-page script treatment on their least favorite film genre. ‘Here, we teach them the formula and then let them decide how they should bend or break the rules,’ Samson adds.
Jeremy Chatelain, a professional musician who has played with many bands and now oversees Spy Hop’s musicology program, similarly challenges his students to be specific about why they dislike or, even more strongly, hate a particular musical style or genre. This, of course, is the crucial pretext to writing and recording music and songs for Spy Hop’s recording label, an approach that Chatelain describes as ‘our answer to the School of Rock model without doing cover songs.’
In addition to engineering recordings for local musicians, including the 801 Sessions offerings that include videos and liner notes, Spy Hop students also produce an album featuring the musicology class’ band.
This year, ‘Mystique,’ which will perform at the annual Spy Hop benefit in May, is a testament to all the glorious diversity that young people’s musical preferences bring to the table. Represented in the six members are influences and preferences including hip-hop, rap, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, punk, meat-and-potatoes rock, Judas Priest, jazz, Sixties folk, blues, and Adele. As a result, Chatelain says the band can do a fast-tempo punk rock songs and transit smoothly into a sweeping almost cinematic style ballad with piano.
Among recent noteworthy album releases produced by Spy Hop was last year’s original song collection titled ‘In Retrospect’ by Joel Brown, a University of Utah music major and the 2011 winner of the statewide VSA Arts Access competition. Brown, who was paralyzed from the chest down as a result of an auto accident when he was nine, has the use of his arms and hands for singing and playing acoustic guitar.
An ubiquitous community presence
Few local organizations maintain as constant and broad a presence in the community as Spy Hop. Earlier this year, the organization created ‘Sonic Squeeze,’ a digital media experiment, for the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. The installation was essentially a mashup of video games, drum machines and tone makers and spectators were invited to play the game, create sounds from one of three stations, and collaborate with other participants to involve all three games in creating a unique song.
Spy Hop also has collaborated with youth services agencies in projects for Christmas Box House and Kearns Junior High. The organization also will be participating in the Urban Arts area of the Utah Arts Festival in June.
Earlier this month, Spy Hop’s newest program Watch This!, premiered on UEN-TV, a statewide educational broadcast outlet that reaches more than three-quarters of a million students in Utah at all educational levels. The monthly 30-minute show is an experiment in citizen journalism that features student hosts and short films produced in house. Last summer, Spy Hop received $50,000 in support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Utah to develop the program.
Not surprisingly, Spy Hop’s national reputation continues to expand. In 2010, it was a finalist for the 2010 National Arts and Humanities Youth Award given by the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. Last November, it also received $20,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to support its various youth documentary arts programs.
Thirteen years ago, Spy Hop was just one program and operating from a 200-square-foot office. Its first production involved co-founders Rick Wray and Erik Dodd working with 12 kids who produced a documentary called ‘Hourglass’ on an annual budget of $20,000. Always thriving on a culture of innovation, independence and risk-taking, Spy Hop, in its location near Gateway and the city’s Old Greek Town historic district, has become one of Salt Lake City’s best models for community engagement.
Spy Hop’s major annual benefit will be held May 10 at the Gallivan Center in downtown Salt Lake City, beginning at 6:30 p.m. For tickets, see here.
For a portfolio of Spy Hop’s film, design, music and radio work, see here.
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