Den’Marice Chambers was 21 years old the first time she touched a MacBook.

She learned how to use the Apple computer through Baltimore Youth Film Arts workshops, in a program that trains and empowers young people to tell their stories through film, animation, photography and writing. The program is where Chambers could take as many animation courses as she could, chasing her goal of creating a cartoon someday.

The workshops helped her express herself and tell the stories of her daily struggles, such as not caring so much about what people think, through different art forms. As the middle child and self-appointed problem solver for five siblings, she had plenty to say.

“It just allowed me to open up and share a lot of things that I kept inside,” Chambers said.

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But that outlet for storytelling in Baltimore could be in its final chapter.

The Baltimore Youth Film Arts program, historically funded by the Andrew F. Mellon Foundation and the Johns Hopkins University’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, will not see that funding renewed next year. Without investment from new donors, the program, which has worked with nearly 700 fellows since its inception in 2016, will come to a close this fall. Instructors and fellows see the end as capping a pipeline to creativity and expression for young people, including that of work by current and past fellows at the recent Maryland Film Festival.

The Mellon Foundation decided last year not to renew the grant for a third time, communications director Kate Pipkin said in a statement. Pipkin added that “grants such as this rarely exist in perpetuity” and that the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences cannot fund the program alone and was unable to find other sources to assist.

“We are grateful to those involved in managing the program and to the Mellon Foundation for their visionary support of this program and of higher education in general,” Pipkin said in a statement.

Chambers, now 29 years old, was hoping to age out of the program, which works with Baltimore’s 16-to-29-year-olds. She is sad to see it go because it benefited young people in more ways than one. A stipend through the program, which typically ranges from $210 to $370, depending on the length of the workshop, helped Chambers several times when she “was in a bind” and needed to help out a sibling or was backed up on rent.

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More than 1,800 stipends have been given to students in 206 workshops, said Chrissy Fitchett and Lucy Bucknell, an associate director and principal investigator for Baltimore Youth Film Arts.

Skills in front of and behind the camera were explored in various workshops throughout the Baltimore Youth Film Arts program.
Skills in front of and behind the camera were explored in various workshops throughout the Baltimore Youth Film Arts program. (Courtesy: Somer Greer)

Workshops have included training on producing video diaries and documentaries and photography. The students have also helped with community projects, including Inside Stories: Perspectives on Incarceration,in which students interviewed formerly incarcerated people and those with jobs in the prison system. The project also has a podcast that still lives on the program’s website. Gregory Carpenter, a past an instructor for the workshop, said it was important for students to learn to ask the right questions, especially to those who spent decades behind bars, so they could get to the root of their stories. Often, those testaments of past mistakes and struggles with reentry into society get overlooked, he said.

Fellows have taken what they have learned to produce projects outside of the workshops as well. The Maryland Film Festival had at least two screenings with ties to fellows. “Faidley’s: The Center of the Universe,” a documentary about the family-owned crab restaurant and staple at Lexington Market, was created with help from fellows who interviewed family members and tasted and talked about hallmark items on the menu.

Myron Higgins, a former fellow, also had a screening of his film “Got Lead?” — which he started six years ago through Baltimore Youth Film Arts to document his experience getting lead poisoning as a child, having to learn what it was and how it impacted him, and blowing through a $250,000 settlement because of a lack of financial literacy.

Sarah Georgiou, a fellow who helped with the Faidley’s documentary, said she feels like a professional videographer after the program’s workshops.

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The full-time freelance photographer joined two years ago and wanted to be more well-rounded by adding videography to her visual skills. As someone who can’t afford film school, Georgiou believes she lucked out with Baltimore Youth Film Arts.

“I feel very happy that I was invested in … getting to learn all these professional things for free gave me more opportunity than signing up for a class,” she said.

The teachers were also “super knowledgeable and they work in the industry so they know how to teach,” Georgiou added.

Annette Porter, a teacher within the program and director of the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund, was impressed by Baltimore Youth Film Arts because the classes were designed to meet fellows where they were.

Porter, who started a film production company in London, taught fellows how to create video diaries, a reflection of their day-to-day lives, and turn them into short personal films in some of the first workshops. Porter recalls a young man’s video about spending a night in prison and another fellow who talked about living in a house with no running water.

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“I hope they’ve come to understand how important it is to have their story and their perspectives told and out there and recognized,” Porter said.

Porter added that she noticed a huge growth in confidence in how the fellows communicated.

Alfonzer Harvin, an animation instructor, often noticed a transition from newcomers in the program.

Harvin enjoyed witnessing the “ah-ha moment when they come in and they’re brand new and they’re interested in topics and they get shown the reality of the work that it takes to get there.” he wishes there had been a program like this when he was growing up in Baltimore.

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Animation fellows often repeated Harvin’s courses, which included traditional animation with pencil, paper and light boxes and combining 2-D with live action. Fellows even had to voice their own characters, storyboarding and script writing.

Organizers are not yet ready to give up on finding another donor and have hope someone will come through.

When an email about the looming end to the program dropped, Harvin said his phone blew up with disappointed students. But he tried to convince them to stay dedicated to what they started and hone their crafts.

“They can stop the funding, but they can’t stop the arts,” he said.

Jasmine Vaughn-Hall is a neighborhood and community reporter at the Baltimore Banner, covering the people, challenges, and solutions within West Baltimore. Have a tip about something happening in your community? Taco recommendations? Call or text Jasmine at 443-608-8983.

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