It’s a little after three on a Tuesday afternoon, and the old firehouse at 20 Academy Street in Poughkeepsie is abuzz with the sound of giggling children and an exotic drumbeat. Ten kids hold hands in a circle, warming up during an exercise that helps break inhibitions. Each middle schooler gets a turn to execute the movement of their choice, which everyone else must mimic. “There’s a cootie protector as you walk through the door!” instructor Nancy Ewing exclaims when two kids are reluctant to grasp each other’s hand.
Every week before the children are allowed to enter the room, Ewing asks them to recite an affirmation, and 10 young voices respond that they’re committed to positivity and respect. They wash their hands and fill plates with slices of apples and bananas, walnuts, carrots, and cheese that Ewing has prepared for them. They’ve come to Children’s Media Project to participate in the workshop “I Live Here.”
“Our theme is identity,” Ewing says. “We’re going on a journey to find out who we are.” Blending elements of personal narrative and the history and context of living in Poughkeepsie, Ewing’s class is writing and developing characters to create a script, and ultimately a film, that reflects these meditations on identity. “It’s about helping [the kids] see themselves as more than the media says they are,” she explains.
This idea is part of the philosophy behind Children’s Media Project (CMP), which filmmaker Maria Marewski founded and has directed for the past 14 years. “I think it’s very, very important for kids to understand that media looks like you’re just putting quotation marks around reality,” Marewski says. “But in fact it’s very carefully constructed by people who have a specific agenda.”
Marewski moved to the Hudson Valley after the birth of her first child, leaving a budding film career in New York City. “We didn’t have much media at home,” she says, explaining that they didn’t own a television. “Then, when [Julius and Annick] got to school, I realized that everybody else was plugged into the media. So it was sort of a ridiculous goal to keep my kids shielded from it.”
It was then Marewski says she began to realize that kids need to be fluent in what she calls “the language of the media,” so that they can become critical viewers. This spawned what would be the groundwork for CMP. Operating out of her station wagon, Marewski began an ambitious endeavor to educate youth about the media—both as critical viewers and as creators of media.
In 1994 she began teaching classes at the Randolph School in Wappingers Falls, where students created animations from their journal entries. After lugging cumbersome film equipment like Super 8 cameras from classroom to classroom, Marewski decided it was time to establish a fixed setting for her workshops. Following bouncing around a handful of locations over the course of a few years, the organization settled into the Lady Washington Firehouse on Academy Street in Poughkeepsie in 2004. The spacious site was restored by historic renovator Eitan Dor with CMP in mind. “It gives us enough room to do multiple programs simultaneously,” Marewski says, “so that gives us a lot of flexibility.” There are three floors of vibrant, artsy style—lime green and lavender walls, dangling lights, cushy maroon couches, bright children’s artwork, plants, paper lanterns—which transform what would be a sterile area into a warm, welcoming, and cheerful space. The staff complements this laid-back environment with their approachable demeanor, and their casual, often colorful clothing. It’s so relaxed that Marewski sits on the floor next to a coffee table with her shoes slipped off, batting around program ideas with the other directors.
For the past four years, CMP has continued to evolve and grow in its new home. Marewski credits supportive organizations like the Dutchess County Children’s Services Council and United Way, which fund productions and workshops that can help fulfill certain goals, like antismoking and childhood obesity campaigns, and Vassar College for providing the organization with interns. “In one way, it was momentum,” she says of the growth of CMP. “It was just really building a web of connections and being in a community that was receptive and supportive.” Today, CMP operates under Marewski and directors Nicole Fenichel-Hewitt and Emily Bennison, along with five others—a mix of Vassar College graduates and interns, and Children’s Media Project program alumni who work as media educators or producers.