Alumni Spotlight: Marisa Stubbs, Critical Exposure

Posted in News Story Spotlight

Marisa Stubbs is the Director of Development and Communications at Critical Exposure. The Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership spoke with Marisa about the work Critical Exposure does with youth in the DC area, as well as her experience in the Certificate Program.

CPNL: The nonprofit sector is vast with many important causes to champion, what led you to pursue a career in your particular field?

Stubbs: I wouldn’t say that I pursued the field, I would say that the field found me. A couple of years ago, a friend of mine invited me to meet with her and a couple of high school students that she knew. Not long after, she asked me to volunteer with these young people and their friends, so I did that for several years. There was always something that got to me about young people who graduated high school where college wasn’t in the cards for them. They graduate high school, and then they lose their social safety net after turning 18. There’s nothing magical about the age 18. It isn’t some sudden change where you are completely ready to be an adult. Turning 18 doesn’t change who you are, but it changes the expectations everyone has for you. It also alters the resources you have access to.

I’d been working in the nonprofit sector for many years. I went to culinary school, and after culinary school I started Food for Life. It was a social enterprise nonprofit that taught culinary skills for DC residents 18-24 years old. It was the best and hardest thing I had ever done. I did that for about seven years. I’m really proud of that work and amazed by the young people who were so committed to figuring out the next steps in their life. They were so appreciative of the environment that Food for Life provided for them. There are three things from my time at Food for Life that led me to Critical Exposure. I wanted to continue working with youth to develop their skills and increase their sense of agency. I also wanted to be a part of a team: Food for Life was a tiny staff of three people. As Executive Director, I was doing too much…it was very overwhelming and at times very lonely in daily decision-making. I really was looking for a collaborative team environment. The third thing was recognizing that I was really passionate about sharing dreams, telling stories, and communicating impact. Putting all of this together, joining Critical Exposure as the Director of Development and Communications was a good next step for me.

CPNL: Critical Exposure teaches youth how to use the power of photography and their own voices to become effective advocates for school reform and social change. Why is it important to empower youth to create social change in their communities, and how does the unique medium of photography help to accomplish this?

Stubbs: I want to clarify something first. It is pretty common to talk about how we “empower people” in organizations and in the nonprofit sector. At Critical Exposure, we never say that we empower young people even though people understand that term. No one can give power to another person. We say that we provide space and training so that young people are grounded in the power they already possess. It’s not about anyone giving anything to you. It’s about being in a place to discover that you are already powerful. And in this collective of other young people and adult allies, together we are powerful. So that’s the first thing.

But to answer your question, I want to use the movement for police-free schools as an example. Too often when schools think about safety, they think about order, discipline and keeping threats out. That means cops, or sometimes what is referred to as school resource officers (SROs). SROs and metal detectors often lead to a violent pattern of normal youth behavior being criminalized by cops. So in paying for cops and SROs to be in schools, districts are investing significant financial resources. And this often means that there isn’t enough money for counselors or nurses or school psychologists and social workers. Sometimes the schools that Black and Brown students attend lack extracurricular and enrichment activities. So not only are schools creating a hostile environment by having cops there, they are also diminishing a school’s capacity to nurture young people. It’s important to understand that these young people have real experiences in their own communities where police have not kept them safe. In fact, the police have been the ones to cause the harm. So when adults say, “we are keeping youth safe” and make these decisions at the really high levels, it’s important that youth are involved in that conversation because they are the ones most impacted by how it plays out on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, what we believe about youth impacts how youth are treated. We need to ask ourselves if we trust young people, if we trust their voices, their experiences, their power. These are important questions.

How is photography a part of all this? When we think about photography in this past year, anti-racist movements have grown because there is power in visual media. People saw something that moved them. As an artistic form, photos capture immediate experience and allow for those experiences to be shared. Photography helps young people to document their stories and share them out. In our experience, that has looked like police in schools, the school-to-prison pipeline, the lack of school resources or poor infrastructure. In our early days, young people were fighting for libraries, books, better school lunches, and even working school bathrooms. Taking photos means people get to see what young people see. These are the bathrooms students are using. This is what their classrooms look like. This is their first experience at school every day when they walk through metal detectors.

In addition to the photography, we have youth caption their photos, which helps with narrative shifting. When young people have the power to caption their photo, there can be no interpretation on the part of the viewer. Youth dictate the story that the photo tells. Anyone can make up the narrative for an uncaptioned photo (social media anyone?), but captions go further and share exactly what the photographer wants you to know. One of my favorite CE photos is of a young man sitting alone at a desk in the hallway. The caption says, “‘Why are you outside?’ ‘My teacher put me out here.’ In most cases, the student is not at fault. Sometimes, teachers do not know how to deal and give appropriate punishments.” Samera, the youth who took the photo, then uses the rest of caption to explain the importance of rooting school practices in restorative justice. These photos instill in us an urgency to do better.

First and foremost, these photos are for the young people. Self-expression is a key component to creating agency. As they take photos and talk about their shared experiences with other young people, they’re like, “This isn’t right. We deserve better.” That helps them begin to articulate the change they want to see. Next, photos play a pivotal role in allowing youth to share their lived experiences with community members. They are part of facilitating meaningful dialogue about critical issues first with youth and then with others.

And last, photos build public support for young people’s vision for change. When people see what young people are experiencing, they want to know how they can support. They want to know what they can do to make things better. Photos get people aligned! Ultimately, the intersection of these three impacts have led to major moves, like young people meeting with key decision makers in the city or testifying at the DC Council. At some of our partner schools, photos have led to conversations around how youth can be part of decision-making bodies at a school level. Overall, nearly 3,000 DC youth have used their photos in the fight for restorative justice programs, solutions to the school-to-prison-pipeline, to protect arts graduation requirements, expand the DCPS curriculum to include financial literacy, and help secure more than $200 million in additional education and school improvement funds.

CPNL: The COVID pandemic has drawn attention to educational disparities and created barriers to accessing educational opportunities for marginalized students. How can the nonprofit sector work to address these challenges?

Stubbs: That’s a big question, and I’m not a policy expert. I know the work that Critical Exposure does so I do understand COVID’s impact to that extent. It makes me think of how we frame an issue. Recently, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education released a report on per student funding in DC Public Schools. The report had some excellent conclusions and recommendations, but as I read that report, I noticed that everything was framed around “at-risk youth.” “At-risk students” are less likely to pass this test or not participate in this activity. What I really wanted to do was just reframe the whole thing and say that schools are most ineffective in creating successful environments for young people who are not part of dominant culture or who most likely to experience adverse events. The phrase “at-risk” always rankles me a bit, it tends to be imprecise and problematizes the individual, mainly youth. A culture of individualism can cause us to frame young people as problems. When they fall through the cracks, we often look at how we can change what one person is experiencing. But they didn’t create the issues or the set of circumstances that have been handed to them and they didn’t create the cracks to fall through. Yet when we problematize something, we problematize “at-risk students.” In reality, we have at-risk institutions that can’t fully support creating the conditions where young people can experience success. I think COVID showed us once again that institutions fail. That’s what the nonprofit sector needs to acknowledge and grapple with. As a sector, we need to reframe the problem by looking critically at institutions and systems to create solutions. We need to ground our questioning and problem-solving in systemic change. 

CPNL: What was your capstone project for the Certificate Program and how do you think it will strengthen your organization?

Stubbs: My project is called Centering Voices and focused on making budgeting and financial management a more staff-centered process. (So sexy, I know!) The financial management classes in the program were some of my favorites. Mike Gellman, one of the lecturers said something that resonated with me. He explained that so often, nonprofits ground their financial and budgeting process in what funders or accountants need. And since staff leadership and managers aren’t driving the process, we may not feel the ownership to make these processes and documents ours. He suggested that the reason that some nonprofits don’t put enough time and energy into developing, tracking, and reassessing their budgets is because it feels like it’s really there to serve someone else.

That spoke so directly to my experience. I also felt some relief because he talked about it like a common problem. Most of us got into this work because of the mission, the people and the programs. That’s what we want to spend our time on. I think every org has a few internal and operational practices that they haven’t developed enough because they’ve been focused on the external-facing outputs. So the question that came up was, “If staff not only have the daily experience with the budget but also the responsibility in aligning our work to meet these line items, how can we set up the process with our needs in mind?” Basically, I audited our current budgeting and financial management practices and made some targeted recommendations in structure, process, responsibility, timeline, and training based on Critical Exposure’s organizational practice and flow. Everything in the organization needs a process and a structure, especially budgeting and financial planning. I’m not 100% sure, but from all indications, it’s the first time we had this kind of a map. It’s not that we’ve been doing horribly. It’s just that we can better.

Our leadership team has been overwhelmingly receptive, and we’ve already started to implement the recommendations. When I proposed some of recommendations at a recent Leadership Team meeting, one staff member said she felt “unexpectedly energetic.” That was high praise! I think the project will give us more time to ground the organizational budget in our dreams and goals for our upcoming fiscal year. It will also help our directors and managers feel more in control of organizational life, make more informed pivots along the way, and experience fewer year-end surprises. Personally, it’ll help me in my team management and provide more informed requests and reports to our funders and our Board. That’s a really interesting thought to me. If nonprofit leadership can get what they need, stakeholders will likely get a much better result.

CPNL: What advice would you give to professionals who are considering participating in the Certificate Program?

Stubbs: Do it! Also, I would add consider doing it with someone else in your organization. There were three folks in my cohort from the same organization doing the Certificate Program together. I think oftentimes we get stuck in this idea of individual leadership, but if your nonprofit values collaboration and shared leadership, and there’s an opportunity for more people in the same organization to attend the program all together, it could only make the experience more impactful. I wish I’d thought of this for Critical Exposure when I applied.