Personal Story: Juan Devis

Personal Story compiled by Whitney Burke

LA is a very complicated city.

Juan Devis would know. The young Colombian moved to the city nearly two decades ago and was immediately thrown into its disjointed lifestyle.

Devis eventually became “burnt-out” from climbing LA’s entertainment ladder, and even after seven years in the City of Angels, he still found himself tied up in a perpetual search for a place he could call home.

KCET Departures, for which he serves as senior producer, is a direct reflection of that search.

A highly interactive, explorative series on Los Angeles neighborhoods, Departures is a hyper-local online documentary that can be likened to the slow food movement.

“Slow media” he calls it.

***

Devis is coming from a weekly staff meeting. The halls are overflowing with boxes, signifying an imminent station-wide move. He pushes one aside and shuts his office door.

“It’s public art for the 21st century.”

He goes on to explain that Departures is not only a collaborative multimedia series, but also a civic engagement tool and a community-based digital media literacy project, giving voice to the people and places that make up Los Angeles’ neighborhoods.

He pulls up an online mural of the Chinatown community and begins to glide through various time periods — click, click — the first wave of immigration from China — click — the formation of new Chinatown — click, click — the post war years — click — a second wave of immigration in the early 90’s — all the while uncovering captivating homegrown experiences.

Once the Chinatown neighborhood had been identified, Devis and his crew embarked on a yearlong deep dive into the community. A visible parallel began to surface as a result. It wasn’t just him; LA youth, as a whole, seemed to be missing “that deep sense of place.”

It was then that he realized that in order for young people to begin to develop any sense of civic responsibility, they first needed to better understand the surroundings in which they lived.

“We looked at how we as producers build a script and we thought, what would happen if we take this Departures process and shape a youth curriculum around it?”

Devis did just that. Now in its third year, the Youth Voices curriculum has grown into a twelve-workshop program that enables students to objectically recognize the place they are studying and subsequently understand their relationship to it while developing key multimedia literacy skills in the process.

At the end of the program, KCET producers choose a series of student portraits to include in the Departures series, making the students accountable for a final “professional” project.

***

He’s mid-sentence when a video pops up on the screen of longtime Richland Farms resident Marie Hollis. Two minutes go by — click, click — and a second interview appears. This time it’s of Andrew Johnson, a horseshoer from Richland Farms.

“See, as told by student producer.”

The two interviews are nearly identical, the sole variance being a small “Youth Voices” emblem that’s displayed in the video lead-in.

“We templated the series in such a way that the student content can easily merge with professional content.“

In fact, the production process in-and-of itself is identical for both producers and students. Just as the producers are responsible for identifying a subject, completing a time-based portrait, and editing their final material, so too are the students.

Where to next?

“Let’s head to Venice,” Devis says.

Click. Click.

It was here that his crew teamed up with students from Venice High’s New Media Academy. Devis decided to publish every single piece of student content produced that year so outsiders could get a deeper understanding of the Youth Voices program. The curriculum has since been tied to the California Common Core Content Standards and is now completely accessible and modular on the KCET Departures website.

Ultimately, Departures + Youth Voices is a civic project. Drawing from the capacity of local communities, its purpose is to find linkages between people and place. Its intention is to lead youth on a path to finding that very sense of place Devis has been looking for his whole life.

“It’s very important for me to take the pulse of that generation. There’s no better way to do it than to be actively creating with them.”

***

Blurring the lines between student and producer is very purposeful on Devis’ part. Youth Voices is intended to be an authentic mentor experience. A simple mapping exercise marks the beginning of the students’ entire journey. This first layer gives Devis a context for the work that will take place in the coming months.

“Look at this.”

A hand-drawn, personal map appears.

“BAR, BAR, BAR. I live in a place where there are five bars in a row. Well then you as a producer ask them, what do you think about this? You really begin to understand how this city is a narrative that is defining who they are.”

Devis describes the Youth Voices program as a three-step civic engagement sequence that is developing organically.

Inspiration + dialogue → first level civic engagement → tangible action

“It starts local, but it’s a beautiful thing when you see these kids translating larger political trends into things that are going on in their own communities,” he says.

“When the kids themselves go out and interview the mayor of Compton — a place that 10 years ago was characterized as so incredibly dangerous by the media — and they turn that story around, it exemplifies the goal of the program, which is to create a curriculum that eventually leads them to this deeper civic engagement.”

At first it’s puzzling why a grown man from Colombia would care so deeply about Los Angeles and its youth constituents, but after speaking with him, it makes perfect sense.

“I tell my kids and my colleagues, I do this because I am always learning. If you start to crack something, all of a sudden you can’t leave it. It’s that sense of lifelong curiosity and journey.”

Image credits: KCET Departures Flickr photostream and KCET Departures

To learn more about the Youth Voices curriculum:

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