We always say kids are the future. But, ironically, we’re not creating an environment where they feel comfortable speaking up.
We recently connected with Leah Judson to discuss her forthcoming “Before We Could Drink” series. Leah is a talented storyteller who is driven to amplify the stories of young people across the United States who are proving when we give young people the opportunity to showcase their gifts, anything is possible. In 2022, Judson will gradually introduce each individual’s story as short documentary videos (or personal vlog episodes).
Q: Why did you decide to take on the Before We Could Drink project, and what is your overall goal with the project?
Leah: This project was manifested in three parts: first, a desire to build community; second, my love of travel; and third, my eagerness to celebrate young people.
It all stemmed from my previous project, BEHOLD.HER, an intimate storytelling series in Washington D.C. that narrowed in on creating a safe environment for women to discuss stigmatized topics such as eating disorders, divorce, and cutting cords with unhealthy relationships.
During these conversations, I photographed and interviewed participants—giving them the opportunity to share their views on each topic. I went into that series thinking it would be two events during 2018, and I’d be done. Instead, I found myself hosting a few events a month and planning out conversations for 2019.
What made these events really special was that no one was allowed to talk about business, disclose where they worked, or use their phone. It was one of the rare spaces in the city where professionals could unplug and give the person across from them their full attention. It was a really unique community building experience that people kept coming back for.
…I was missing the community we had created and, specifically, the opportunity to share stories in a curated environment where people felt they could speak freely without judgment.
Fast forward to March 2020 when the pandemic hit. It became impossible to continue hosting the in-person experiences that made the series so special. Everyone was shifting to virtual gatherings, but I felt it went against our values to follow suit. It also was difficult to recreate that intimacy online, so I made a hard decision to pause it.
During the period between pausing BEHOLD.HER and dreaming up Before We Could Drink, I was missing the community we had created and, specifically, the opportunity to share stories in a curated environment where people felt they could speak freely without judgment.
I also missed being on the road where I can step outside of my comfort zone and community. I really love engaging other cultures, meeting different people, and learning about different lived experiences.
Those feelings inspired me to take a month-long solo road trip/hiking expedition to the Midwest in October 2020. When I started making new friends along my hike, I was reminded, even during a pandemic and the limitations that come with it, there are plenty of opportunities to meet people.
…we are missing out on nurturing incredible young people who can create real solutions to society’s toughest challenges. And, all because of some archaic belief that young people don’t know anything.
Lastly, my eagerness to celebrate young people stems from my memories of being told by family members, teachers, or other adults in my life that I was too young to do or understand certain things.
It’s very discouraging for young people to constantly hear that, especially when you feel you’ve spent a lot of time doing your research to become knowledgeable about a topic that’s important to you. I always felt like the time I put in didn’t matter; I felt like it wouldn’t be enough until I reached a certain age.
With that mindset, we are missing out on nurturing incredible young people who can create real solutions to society’s toughest challenges. And, all because of some archaic belief that young people don’t know anything.
At the end of the day, Before We Could Drink is centered on human connection. I won’t be able to gather folks as I have in the past like my previous series, so this ends up just showcasing connectivity through telling stories versus building a new circle of people. I want to spark a movement—get my audience to shift their mindset about how they have seen young people in the past and how they could be more open-minded and willing to let young people take charge.
Starting in September, I will be hitting the road in a school bus, retrofitted as a mobile studio, to drive 10,000 miles across the U.S. to document stories of youth under 21. I want to show people of all ages the power of taking risks and taking a chance on yourself. Retrofitting a bus and taking it across the US for three months is that for me, but will be unique for each individual.
Though traveling has sparked my curiosity to venture out of DC to see “who else is out there,” I won’t really be focusing on the travel per se, just the challenges I’ll go through on the journey and the beautiful people I’ll get to interview.
Q: What do you see in young people that you want all adults to see?
Leah: We put so much pressure on the younger generation to solve the problems adults are creating. We always say kids are the future. But, ironically, we’re not creating an environment where they feel comfortable speaking up.
Through my past experience serving children with disabilities and working with several afterschool programs, I learned that children understand a great deal—that things we often believe are too complex for them simply aren’t.
I was always really impressed with the amount of imagination and creativity the kids I encountered had, especially when asked to solve a real problem. Too often, adults don’t want to explore a young person’s idea because they think it’s not a fully functional idea or concept—simply based on their age.
Young people are so courageous and confident, and many of them only believe they can’t do something until they’re told as much. We need to do a better job of harnessing their first instinct to create.
I want to push adults to show up differently and embody that spirit of “anything is possible” and to see young people as capable of creating that possibility.
Q: What kind of stories are already inspiring you?
Leah: There’s a story I’m following in Maine about young lobster fishermen. My contact told me, “growing up, these kids never heard, ‘You can’t do that because you’re too young.’” In their community, fishing is a way of life. I mean, they’re called “keepers of the sea” after all. It’s normal to see babies playing on these fishing boats, and then, once they come of age, working on the boats and doing the dangerous fishing.
That sparked a curiosity in me to explore if there are similar narratives in other places around the country. That’s the journey I’m on—to uncover what’s possible when kids aren’t told they’re too young to make an impact in their community or accomplish amazing things.
I’m choosing several people to highlight for this project, but the message isn’t that these are superhero kids from across the United States. I want to highlight young people who are choosing to go beyond the limitations (and confining narrative) put on them because of their age, as inspiration for others like them. I want to show what these young people are learning, how they are seeing the world, and how they are fully standing in their power and making an impact.
I often think people don’t realize the power they have to change the world, even if it’s in a small way that’s important to them; it could be helping a neighbor, serving someone through a business you created, or inspiring someone in your orbit to try something new.
It’s like watching another skateboarder try a new ramp trick and thinking, “Wow, if that kid can do it, I can too.” This project is about creating a domino effect of possibility, positivity, and confidence—the confidence that many of us often lack.
Many adults experience self-doubt and imposter syndrome, but that doesn’t start in adulthood. It gets plugged into our psyche somewhere as a kid and then festers as we try to figure out what we want to do and what brings us joy. The question I’m asking is what can we do to ensure future generations don’t succumb to the same defeatist thinking.
Q: What role does getting kids to explore their interests beyond the classroom play in this?
Leah: Afterschool programs are super important because kids need to continue to gain access to positive role models and mentors beyond school. And, I believe we’re failing if we’re not funding these programs; if we’re not taking the time to build opportunities for kids to get involved in things that really excite them; and if we’re not fueling their desire to explore and learn. Otherwise, that spark will fade over time, and they’ll gravitate toward other less inspired interests.
If kids aren’t being exposed to new experiences or gaining access to new people who can offer different ideas (mentors, peers, professionals, or otherwise), we’re also restricting their opportunity to grow in a way that is going to really impact their community. We definitely need to shift our mindset to see learning as a collective experience.
Q: What are you keeping in mind as you plan for and structure this project?
Leah: I feel it’s dangerous to assume people need to achieve a certain status, at a certain age, to be considered successful.
I have to be mindful of how I’m structuring these stories and how these young people get projected in the films and photography we’re creating. I don’t want others to compare themselves and think they are underachieving.
I know there’s potential for it to not land the right way. This isn’t about making a 30 under 30 list, it’s an invitation to see a way of life and a new mindset regarding what young people can accomplish. It’s not meant to be a glorified, hyper-sensationalized project.
If I’m successful, people will see it’s about young people choosing to do something because it positively impacts their community or brings them joy and confidence. I also want it to encourage others to explore something they’ve dreamt of but ignored for too long.
Q: Why make this a project that explores different communities around the country?
Leah: I want to challenge myself to explore new cultures and new communities. And, if I were to just isolate it to one region of the United States, like the East Coast, I don’t feel it would be as rich of an experience. As a military kid, I’ve been fortunate enough to live in a lot of different places, so curiosity is innate.
I often wonder what parts of the United States haven’t been uncovered. What communities have been overlooked or are struggling to gain access to great education, technology, and food.
There’s so much diversity here (whether it is age, income, or geography), but we often go the same direction as the people who come from the same background (either through choice or limitation of resources). But, that limits us as humans. I could have easily stayed within D.C., but that’s not the experience I’m seeking to have through this project. I hope these stories inspire people to invest in these areas that might have been forgotten or marginalized.
I want to be a small corner of the internet where people can go and not feel like it’s another sad story and that what they’re doing in their life doesn’t matter. Maybe these stories will spark a change within someone to follow a passion that excites them. Maybe one of these stories will have someone invest in their youth in new ways, influence local policies, or jumpstart new community initiatives. No matter the outcome, I aspire to have this series give permission to my audience to chase joy and design their own happiness.