Summer sizzles on the city's North Side this mid-July Thursday. Three teenage boys have ditched the heat—they’re in the computer lab of a former school building on West Commons.
The boys are a bit on edge, and yet today’s the day they’ve been waiting for. It’s time to start asking questions.
They’re part of Crossing Fences, an oral history project with deep roots in neighborhoods across Pittsburgh.
A project of Saturday Light Brigade (SLB) Radio Productions, Inc., Crossing Fences believes in the powerful role mentors play in transforming lives and employs an age-old technique in making these connections: storytelling.
Since 2012, SLB has linked African American male teens with male role models from the boys’ own neighborhoods. In summer 2016, 41 male students (ages 11-18) and 31 men (ages 25-69) participated.
The boys ask about career paths, triumphs, and challenges, and then write reflections based on their conversations. In the process, they learn interviewing, digital recording, and audio editing skills.
Stories, reflections, and photographs for each neighborhood are distributed via public radio, SLB StoryBox kiosks in libraries and community centers, and on the website neighborhoodvoices.org.
Chanessa Schuler, a 2012 Carlow mass media graduate, is manager of oral history and youth advocacy programs for SLB. Crossing Fences is her baby.
“A lot of these youth need role models,” she says. “They’re dealing with things we just don’t know about. This opportunity can change their lives.”
The first interviewee today is 35-year old Northview Heights native Rod Rutherford. His story sounds like a dream to these boys.
Not only did Rutherford graduate from high school, but he also went on to be a two-time All-Big East quarterback at the University of Pittsburgh—and a Pittsburgh Steeler. Today he’s an ethics trainer and high school sports consultant.
The boys ask him his secrets to success.
“There are no secrets,” says Rutherford. “It’s about hard work. Believe in what you want to do. And don’t let people tell you that you can’t do anything.”
Rutherford knows it’s tough. He grew up without a dad—but was fortunate to have a supportive mom who pushed him to succeed.
“Playing in the NFL gave me the opportunity to witness and experience things, so I can tell people like you that it is possible. Set goals. Accomplish the first goal, and it will give you the momentum to keep going.”
Next up is 27-year-old Towan Hall, another Northview Heights native. He’s founder and host of CommonConversation412 a Pittsburgh podcast show that provides a voice for urban communities.
The boys nod along as Hall recalls what it was like to live with the knowledge that his father was in prison.
“There’s some things you get in your mind that a father should be there for,” says Hall. “Like sports, or promotions in school…Not having the support and the love at the events… sometimes…you know.” His voice trails.
“Some people are going to try to get you to do things that aren’t right,” he says. “But even if you feel like it can fix a situation temporarily—or it can get you some cash—don’t fall into anybody else’s path.”
Sixteen-year-old Taquan Peters is one of the boys conducting the interviews today. He can’t get over the fact that these successful adults were once just like him.
“He’s a business man. I had no idea he went through all that,” says Peters.
“Like he says, there are bad people out there trying to make you do stuff. It’s good to hear from him. It makes me think.”
Schuler can relate to some of the things these boys are experiencing. When she was 15, her mother passed away, and she spent her teen years living in public housing with her sister. Family members encouraged her to keep her dreams alive.
At Carlow, Schuler volunteered annually as part of Alternative Spring Break. She also developed strong ties with Carlow’s Youth Media Advocacy Project (YMAP), which led her to an internship with SLB and, ultimately, her current position.
“It’s about being selfless,” she says. “Knowing that you have your own struggles, but putting them aside and turning to help your neighbor.”
And being neighbors, making strong connections, is the key.
“It’s important to talk to guys like these,” says 14-year-old David Staples, as the interviews wrap up for the day. “Maybe one day I can be like them.”
By Alison Juram D'Addieco
Listen to the 2016 Northview Heights interviews on neighborhoodvoices.org.
Pictured above: Northview Heights native Towan Hall and Chanessa Schuler ’12 during summer 2016 Crossing Fences interviews.