Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the Off/Page Project, The Center for Investigative Reporting’s collaboration with San Francisco literary nonprofit Youth Speaks. Representing the intersection of youth voice and civic engagement, Off/Page integrates the analytical lens of investigative journalism with youth-centered storytelling.
Off/Page director José Vadi has spent the past year managing a project that’s produced a 30-minute original documentary, 20 town halls at the Brave New Voices poetry festival (the global youth poetry event and competition produced annually by Youth Speaks), five online videos, three short films and a one-act play.
Julia B. Chan: Take us back to this time last year – tell us a bit about how you got a project like Off/Page off the ground.
José Vadi: Off/Page launched on Aug. 7, 2013, at last year’s Brave New Voices festival in Chicago. During the event, we premiered our website and released “Whispers From the Field,” a short film produced in English and Spanish featuring 19-year-old artist Monica Mendoza performing a poem inspired by CIR’s Rape in the Fields investigation. The video was featured by The Daily Beast, Mashable and Colorlines.
We also released a Behind the Off/Page Project video on launch day. And as that film reached new audiences online, on the ground at BNV, we curated 10 town halls on five different topics at the University of Chicago.
Chan: So you’re a poet among journalists. What’s it like working in the CIR newsroom?
Vadi: It’s pretty amazing watching investigations develop in real time at CIR. Through Off/Page, we’re able to put poets and journalists in the same room at different points of an investigation. We joined several key CIR investigations, most notably the Subsidized Squalor investigation which looked into failures of the Richmond, California’s public housing authority. We took three poets from Richmond into the field with CIR reporter Amy Julia Harris to interview sources, tour the Hacienda and Nevin (Plaza) housing complexes, and put them side by side with Harris as she investigated the story. This access is rare.
The experience resulted in the short film “This is Home,” filmed at the Hacienda complex, which was released in conjunction with the investigation online and in print with the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED and CIR.
Chan: “This is Home” was also expanded into a play through StoryWorks, CIR’s collaboration with Tides Theatre. How did this come about?
Vadi: It was a quick turnaround. When we finished producing the film “This is Home,” an idea was born with the folks at Tides, and the next thing we knew the play ran for five nights – all within seven weeks! Our poets from Richmond had seen previous installments of StoryWorks productions and pretty much jumped right into the process. We also recruited a fourth poet, Tassiana Willis, for the play. Jennifer Welch, Tides’ producing artistic director, co-directed the production and provided an amazing space and crew to make this happen. The play was performed in front of sold-out crowds and was covered by the San Francisco Chronicle and KALW. A live theatrical film of the play will be released later this year.
Chan: Off/Page is a program for young poets and journalists alike – how do you reach young people?
Vadi: Off/Page has used social media as a means to educate, engage and impact young people. In celebration of April’s National Poetry Month, we provided writing prompts through Instagram, challenging young people to write a poem every day for 30 days. This was inspired by an earlier campaign in January honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through the hashtag #MLKSpokes (which was featured on Mashable).
Chan: You recently returned from the 2014 Brave New Voices festival in Philadelphia. What went down?
Vadi: We had a great time in Philadelphia, and I feel like Off/Page had a strong presence throughout the festival. For the second consecutive year, we curated 10 town halls – this year at Temple University. We also screened “This is Home” and our documentary “Broken City Poets” to a capacity crowd at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg theater. Five hundred copies of CIR’s graphic novel on juvenile solitary confinement, “The Box,” were also produced and distributed to all BNV participants. We also left some copies with our friends at Philly Youth Poetry Movement to distribute to local youth throughout the school year.
In the last two years, through the festival, we’ve engaged over 500 young people on issues related to gender-based identity, economy, immigration, bullying and armed violence.
In the coming year, Off/Page aims to expand its activities nationally and continue to develop work related to CIR’s investigation on juvenile solitary confinement. If you haven’t already, follow Off/Page on Twitter and Instagram.