The Slice – Spring/Summer 2021

PiE Innovation Grant: “Equity in Photojournalism”

When Paly photography teacher Margo Wixsom attended two professional development courses on anti-racism last summer, she realized that even as a self-described “feminist in her 60s,” she was teaching a canon of mainly dead white men in her photography classes. Her inclusion of Gordon Parks as the token black man and Dorothea Lange as the token white woman was really just “seasoning on the canon cake.” Margo began looking for ways to incorporate female and black models more significantly into her curriculum, and discovered Sarahbeth Maney, a black freelance photojournalist whose stories on underrepresented and marginalized subjects had appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and other Bay Area publications. Margo invited Sarahbeth to come and speak to her advanced photography students about portraiture, and the presentation was “wonderful!” The idea for the “Equity in Photojournalism” project was born.

Lewis Michael – photo by Sarahbeth Maney

Meanwhile Margo’s colleagues at PALY and Gunn were also thinking about how to create anti-racist curricula, and how to incorporate the lessons they had learned on diversity and institutional learning. Margo invited Sarahbeth to come back again and give a more in-depth presentation about her experience as a black professional photojournalist, and she applied for a PiE Innovation Grant so that she could bring Sarahbeth’s teachings to her colleagues in other disciplines. All together, nine teachers in Career Tech Education (CTE), Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA), Social Studies, and Language Arts joined the project.

Sarahbeth Maney – Photo by Mark Cabus

Sarahbeth’s personal and professional perspective had a powerful effect on the students who attended her presentations. She told her personal story of growing up as a mixed race (Black and Mexican) girl who often didn’t feel understood, and was confused about her own identity. Growing up, she didn’t think college was an option for her, but she loved making photos. Ultimately she realized that with a college education she could use her photos to tell other underrepresented peoples’ stories, so she became the first in her family to attend San Francisco State University.

“The Blind Captain” documentary – photo by Sarahbeth Maney

Sarahbeth showed students examples of “equity in photojournalism” in her own work. Her documentary, The Blind Captain, is about Ahmet Ustunel, a blind educator and adventurer, who attempts to kayak independently from Asia to Europe through one of the busiest shipping straights in the world. Her single photograph of 23-year-old graduate Lewis Michael, in cap and gown with fist raised high in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, went viral and changed the course of Vallejo history. And through her SF Chronicle cover story about a pregnant Samoan woman living in Hunter’s Point during the pandemic, Sarahbeth projected her subject in a positive way, and countered common stereotypes about Pacific Islanders and impoverished San Franciscans.

In addition to these stories, Sarahbeth gave students professional advice on how to find internships, come up with meaningful stories, stay safe in dangerous environments such as the California wildfires, and run a freelance photography business. 

Margo is grateful to PiE for giving her the opportunity to make a much bigger impact than she originally intended. Every teacher involved in the project received a customized presentation from Sarahbeth that they can use again in future classes. And some of the grant money will be used to purchase 10-12 large poster-prints of black, LGBTQ+, and disability portraits that will be hung throughout the Paly campus, in order to promote visual equity and diversity on campus.

California wildfires – Photos by Sarahbeth Maney

The PiE Innovation Grant Program welcomes applications from teachers and staff using innovative methods to promote learning through collaboration with each other, parents, students, and community members. The next round of grants will open in December 2021. Please email if you have any questions.