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April 6, 2018

Young person looking at artwork
The AjA Project is a nonprofit organization headquartered in San Diego. Their mission: transform youth and communities through artistic expression. Since its founding, the AjA Project has been a highly organized, resourceful and effective arts education nonprofit that uses participatory photography to transform lives and break cycles of marginalization. Participatory photography is a practice that involves providing (often marginalized groups of) people with cameras to record their realities and perspectives.

What makes the AjA Project unique is their focus on participatory photography aligned with an assets-based model that helps facilitate people and communities to come together to achieve positive change using their knowledge, skills and lived experience. This is essential because AjA is working in areas that are historically underrepresented and facing systemic barriers and these models give individuals space to advocate for social change within their communities. AiA believes putting youth at the heart and center of driving social justice efforts for their communities.

The organization has a variety of programs varying from short workshops to month-long programs, which help young adults find their voice, use their voice and raise their voice. The focus of developing individual voice helps participants form self-identity, understand and impact their community and use their art to tell stories and create important dialog. The AjA Project also has their own Youth Advisory Council, made up of teenagers from ethnically diverse backgrounds, which uses the same model of voice amplification. These young adults live in City Heights and report on critical community issues, which continues to elevate their voices in the public sphere and give the narrative back to the individual to advocate for change.

One such program, AjA’s Civil Liberties Project, funded by the California State Libraries, is rooted in studying the social and political context of the Japanese American Internment. AjA participants have been analyzing the archived images and effects of Executive Order 9066 on the Japanese American community. Currently, AjA participants are developing photo responses to the photos studied to make connections to their own lives and communities and the overall issues of civil liberties violations in the United States.

“The Civil Liberties Project is essential as our participants represent communities that are impacted by the current political climate and rhetoric around immigration and national security,” said Programming and Artistic Manager Diana Cervera. “The program is giving youth a toolkit with which to speak about their experiences while having a historical reference to look back upon.” Diana, also believes the young adults have deepened their understanding of history, but have also been inspired to “take action through their photography and create images that cause others to think critically about their own relationship to the idea of civil liberties.”

At the San Diego Workforce Partnership’s Opportunity Summit 2018: Initiate, AjA will be capturing photos of the event from the perspective of young people in their programs. The young photographers will also be providing professional headshots for the 175 young adults who will be in attendance.

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