This is Anna Schori and Mark Ephraim, of Turning Tables Sweden, a non-profit organization that builds creative spaces to encourage marginalized young people by offering a platform to express themselves through film and music. Yes, it is as amazing as it sounds. So we recently spent time with Anna and Mark in their Turning Tables caravan studio which is designed with one goal in mind — to build a community, neighborhood by neighborhood, all across Sweden. Here is some of that conversation.
Anna: We met when I’d been living in London for almost 10 years and was hired to shoot an album cover for this New York band that was in town. Yes, Mark’s band. We started an email correspondence, then eventually moved in together in Brooklyn and laughed a lot about the madness of taking very big steps, very fast. We had kids together, little Brooklyn kids, and when our oldest child was six, we decided to move to Sweden to start something new together. Mark had already been working with Turning Tables in New York so it came up quite naturally.
Mark: Turning Tables was originally started by Martin Jakobsen, a friend of mine. He’s a Danish DJ who had lived in Beirut prior to moving to New York, and while in Beirut he started teaching kids in the refugee camps how to DJ. He wanted to keep doing that in more and more places, but he couldn’t do it by himself so he recruited some of his creative friends to help out, including me.
We basically set up music studios in places like Tunisia, Myanmar and Kenya. In Kenya, we put up a shipping container with a studio inside to create a physical platform where we could work with kids on music and film projects. After that, I went to Myanmar to do the same thing. It’s now been five years since we set up in Myanmar, and they’ve become a massive and hugely successful organization over there. Turning Tables now has labs in 10 different countries and they each operate independently, but we collaborate as much as we can between labs to encourage the kids to connect.
Mark: When Anna and I moved to Sweden, we saw that there’s a great need in Scandinavia to engage with youth through music and film, so we wanted to see if we could figure out how to bring Turning Tables here. Now Sweden and Denmark are the first Turning Tables satellite labs to operate in Europe.
Anna: When we first got started here, we were complete beginners. We knew nothing about running a non-profit organization. We’re all freelancers, photographers and music producers, not teachers or social workers, but we saw a need for it so we thought we’d give it a try.
Mark: It’s been a learning experience because things operate differently here in Sweden. There are already tons of organizations doing great things, but I think the strength of doing what we do is that we're a great component or counterpart to some of those organizations—like Fritidsgårds, for example, which are school-sponsored places where kids can hang out after school. Kids don’t always go there, or aren’t always allowed to go there because they’ve done something that’s not acceptable by the Fritidsgård’s standards. So as an alternative, we try to put up our container in the proximity of where these kids usually hang out, and sort of intrude on their space so that they’ll wonder “What are you doing here?” and we’ll say, “We’re making music.” We’re not their teachers or the police. We’re not anyone other than someone inviting them to experience something we love.
Anna: We’re trying to build a bridge and be about fun, without censoring too much. Being more accepting and forgiving than many other institutions gives us access to kids who don’t usually get to participate in these kinds of spaces, either because they’re not invited or because they get kicked out. It’s usually a challenging group to work with, but it’s extremely rewarding for everyone involved when you give the kids the time and tools they need.
“The best thing Turning Tables can do is exactly what we do now: bring music and film to the kids and let them say something.”
Anna: I think most teenagers crave a space where they can feel like they’re heard and are able to express themselves without too many restrictions. A kind of generous space. So we just try to offer that, and we try to pass our professional knowledge about music or film or photography on to the kids and give them the tools and the inspiration they need to just tell their story. We want to let kids take it a step further to a professional level if they want to, and give them an experience that feels real and important. I think that’s an empowering thing for kids to have.
Mark: Kids can come up to us and brag about all the bad stuff they do. It doesn’t mean we approve of it, but we don’t want to be the person who is judging them. We also have great instructors who are really connecting in a good way with the kids. For example, we have a lot of girls in the studio who really like it because a lot of these types of places are dominated by boys taking up the space. But we have an equal number of female and male music producers, and a young girl can walk in and feel that there’s someone here that she could maybe be like someday.
We’re learning a lot all the time, and every neighborhood we go to is different. There are times when I want to go to the local police and ask them, “Where are you guys having the most problems?” Because we actually make the police’s job easier when we’re there doing our thing. There’s this one neighborhood where we had the container for five weeks, and the police came up to us afterwards and asked if we were leaving already. They told us that they usually get daily calls regarding that particular area, but they hadn’t had a single call about the neighborhood in the previous five weeks. I think it’s because once our container studio is there, kids aren’t so bored that they want to cause public disturbances just to have something to do. The people in the neighborhood will hear kick-drums from inside the studio, but it’s not the same kind of noise that’s usually going on. It’s more of a happy noise.
Anna: Next week, we go on tour with our new pink caravan. It’s a part of our goal to build a community all over Sweden.
Mark: We haven’t done this sort of thing yet, so it’s going to be really interesting to see how kids respond to it. The caravan is going to change a lot compared to how we operate with the containers. It will let us change location according the response and get closer to where kids naturally hang out. Sometimes they hang out in super lame locations where boredom is bred and there’s not much positivity going on. If we’re driving this thing around and parking it in various places, we have a good chance of disrupting that boredom in a very positive way.
Anna: Our ultimate goal is to change the dynamics in neighborhoods we visit. We want to have a long-term presence to be able to build something with staying power, and to get the kids involved in building it, too. Our studios kick-start stuff to break patterns and bring groups of kids who’ve never talked to each other into the studio to collaborate on creative pursuits. Everyone gets curious about this thing suddenly popping up in their neighborhood and comes together to explore it.
Mark: I personally don’t like to talk numbers and say things like “Oh, we’re going to change the lives of 400 kids.” You know, if we change the lives of just a few, it’s worth it. The best thing Turning Tables can do is exactly what we do now: bring music and film to the kids and let them say something. We encourage them to say something by giving them a camera or microphone and telling them,”Express yourself! Create something you want to say!”