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The Youthbuild Documentary Project

Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program
The YouthBuild Documentary Project
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Produced in association with Stories of Change, a project of Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program.

Currently in early production, the YouthBuild Documentary Project intimately captures the lives of four teenagers who make the cut for an innovative and demanding alternative education program – YouthBuild – in North Philadelphia, one of the roughest communities in America. 

Documenting their year long journey toward graduation, the film interweaves dramatic stories of poverty and opportunity, exploring the unforgettable personal struggles to reclaim communities and reinvent fragile lives.  This film goes beyond stereotypes of disconnected youth to show how brutal boundaries can define a life, and how these four teens find the strength and courage to transcend them.

Summer 2010.  The dropout rate in Philadelphia’s public schools hovers at 50% and the crime rate is one of the highest in the nation.  Over 2000 out-of-school youth have applied to YouthBuild Philadelphia for a program that offers 18-20 year olds a shot at a high school diploma and the holy grail – a job.  There are only 200 slots.  

If you make it through the first round of interviews, you then must pass through a grueling emotional boot camp – known around here as Mental Toughness.  If you’re one of the lucky 200 invited into the program, you’re about to enter a year that can remarkably change the course of your life. 

Welcome to YouthBuild, where you go to class, you rebuild slums, you to go prom, you go to too many funerals, and you fight to make it to graduation.  

We follow Danitta, 18, mother of a five year old, and expecting her second.  Facing a difficult home life with her own mother, she doesn’t know where she’ll be living in two months time; she vows to live in a shelter if she has to in order to make it through YouthBuild.  Michael Lewis is 19, father to a three year old girl.  He ran drugs and later mediation between gangs that string his neighborhood, but now has set his eyes on graduation and a career in nursing.  Liza Foster, 20, battles her own issues of attitude and addiction.  She returns after being kicked out of YouthBuild last year, and knows that if she doesn’t make it this time, there’s no other road ahead.  Aeisha Avant, 18, is a provocatively open lesbian.  Petite with closely shaved hair, she dresses like a boy, and knows her very presence is a problem for some at YouthBuild.    She’s already done four years in juvenile prison, she’s lost her only caretaker – her grandmother – and she believes the only thing she can trust is herself.  Antonio Jones, 19, has a sharp political mind and sees his struggle as part of a larger pattern repeated in cities around the world.  He understands the psychological impact of poverty better than most.  Antonio dropped out of school to take extra jobs to support his family; he desperately wants a diploma and a shot at college, but faces the extra burden of intense and ongoing needs of those at home.

Last year, only 117 made it to graduation.  Will these young people make it this year?  

About YouthBuild (

YouthBuild is a youth and community development program that simultaneously addresses core issues facing low-income communities: housing, education, employment, crime prevention, and leadership development. In YouthBuild programs, low-income young people ages 16-24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas, learn job skills and serve their communities by building affordable housing, and transform their own lives and roles in society.

There are now 273 YouthBuild programs in 45 states, Washington, DC, and the Virgin Islands. 92,000 YouthBuild students have built 19,000 units of affordable, increasingly green, housing since 1994.

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