Futures Fund program opening doors to jobs for youths in Baton Rouge _lowres

Photo provided by Patrick Melon -- Irene Kato, a Futures Fund photography teacher, talks about the success and lessons Shaune Sims' daughter has experienced in photography class. Today the program held its first showcase of student projects in the visual arts and computer coding.

Southern University Lab School senior Robert Harris shot his second paid photography gig last week. A Baton Rouge art gallery hired Harris to document an event, including the artwork, guests and speakers.

Before this year, Harris had never seriously picked up a camera.

Harris is trying to make the most of the opportunities afforded him as a student in a program called the Futures Fund. It’s a Baton Rouge initiative that aims to connect students in underserved areas with arts and technology professionals to teach them skills that will enable them to work toward a career in those fields.

Futures Fund showed off its students’ photography and software projects at its first showcase event Saturday, displaying the intersection of skills, creativity and professionalism the project emphasizes.

The program offers weekly workshops in photography and software coding at the Southern Lab School. Students build applications, explore the campus for photo ops and discuss how the disciplines they’re learning can help them day to day and in the future.

Casey Phillips, the program’s director, said the initiative differs from similar programs because it pushes its students to understand that the skills they are learning can lead to a lucrative career. Since the program began, he said, it has drawn support from a number of large IT companies desperate to increase their potential workforce.

“The people in digital design and marketing, they can’t find people to fill jobs,” Phillips said. “People don’t realize, there are $68,000 to $100,000 jobs just sitting, left unfilled.”

Bennet Rhodes, a Baton Rouge videographer who volunteers as a photography instructor for the Futures Fund, helped Harris connect with the Foyer, the art gallery the student worked at last week.

Aside from photography techniques, Rhodes said, he tries to share what he has learned over years of being in business for himself.

“Things like showing up on time, answering your emails. Small things, but if you don’t do them, people aren’t going to hire you,” Rhodes said. “We’re probably teaching things here that a lot of professional photographers don’t always do.

But if the program only taught the skills to get by in an office, it would have trouble keeping students interested.

Czarina Walker, an instructor in the software coding program, said allowing students to create projects they complete during the class gives them a sense of accomplishment.

In each class, she said, each student works around a theme, whether it’s trying to solve a specific problem or working with a certain programming language, in order to create something that is personal to them. The tools they use allow them to easily share their work with their friends and families, who can access their pages online or download student-created apps to their smartphones.

“It makes them feel so good to be able to share these things they’ve created,” Walker said.

In one class, Walker led the class in searching through Baton Rouge’s Open Data Portal, a city website that allows citizens to access city records and statistics on topics ranging from crime to public parks. She said using the portal allowed students to bring what they had learned about software close to home and showed them how that software could help them learn about their city.

When Walker asked the students to name something they thought they would find in the data, several said they expected to see a large number of car crashes on rainy days. After Walker taught them how to “query” the data for specific information, they found the majority of wrecks in the city happen while the sun is shining. Asked to explain, some students guessed that roads were busier and people drove less carefully when the weather is nice.

“It was like watching the scientific method in action,” Walker said.

Harris, the photography student, never meant to enroll with the Futures Fund but now finds himself hooked, both on photography and the learning process. He was giving his friend a ride to a class when he sat in on his first session, and an instructor’s words clicked into place for him.

“He was talking about going out and seeing the beauty in everything, even rocks and dirt,” Harris said. “And I went outside and looked around and I was just, like, amazed.”