McCray was new to teaching, but the experience led him to a position at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism for the next 12 years, where he started the Digital Media Training Program in 2013.
“When I began working at Columbia, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was teaching three blocks away from one of the biggest housing projects in the area—the Grant Houses,” McCray said. “I saw that the young men and women in these houses were not getting the digital storytelling skills I was teaching to students at Columbia.”
When McCray learned that Columbia was looking for ways to fulfill its 2009 Community Benefits Agreement with the West Harlem Community Development Corporation, he proposed a digital storytelling program to teach young people storytelling, filmmaking, and videography skills. Columbia has funded the program for the past six years.
In a recent presentation about the Digital Media Training program at the United Nations in New York, McCray proudly cited the fact that students in the program won the White House Student Film Festival three years in a row. McCray also spoke about how the success of this program led him to another initiative with the Fortune Society’s Alternative to Incarceration program.
“We were having great success with the Digital Media Training Program, but I also began to hear about the population of youth who were not in school and not employed and were in the depths of the criminal justice system,” McCray said. “I realized these were disconnected youth and wondered if my program about storytelling could have a role in their lives.”
The Fortune Society’s Alternative to Incarceration program provides 12 to 18 months of holistic counseling and advising services to reduce prison time for youth. After learning about the initiative, McCray sought grant funding from the Trinity Episcopal Church to start a program that approached alternatives to incarceration from a “storytelling perspective.”
“The two things I wanted to instill were to tell your own story and to look at the world through the eyes of a journalist,” said McCray during a prison reform panel at the United Nations in February.
From the fall of 2017 to the spring of 2018, students in McCray’s alternative to incarceration initiative produced seven different films that addressed topics ranging from white-collar crime to homelessness in their communities.
“This was a program specifically designed to help a population that is in trouble,” McCray said. “It’s too soon to tell what the program has done but I think we’ve made some good inroads with high school students who embraced the opportunity to tell stories and have done extraordinary work.”