As a rising 5th grader Joel Suarez represented Vincent E. Mauro, a Comer School in New Haven at the 2003 Comer Kids Leadership Academy at Yale University. He and other students from Comer schools in New Haven, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Miami participated in a variety of activities designed to provide them with what Dr. James P. Comer calls "galvanizing experiences."
The “galvanizing experience” that made the greatest impression on Joel was holding a human brain in his hands in a neuroscience lab at the Yale School of Medicine. "I was so fascinated with it because touching a brain is something scientists do, not a 9-year-old from New Haven. That we could was like opening a window inside my head, that there are opportunities, that things are possible, as clichéd as that may sound,” said Suarez who is now a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts in Los Angeles.
Meeting kids from around the country also broadened his perspective. “The world is much bigger than New Haven. Understanding that is important for a lot of students from New Haven who can't really see that. It's something that's necessary.” He thinks that a lack of exposure contributes to the “huge gap” he sees between students from New Haven and those from more affluent, suburban towns.
From Vincent Mauro Joel went to Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School where he first got involved with the visual arts. His older brother David was a digital media intern at The Color of Words (TCOW), a non-profit, youth-based and youth-driven digital video production organization. Joel was the subject of a video David produced and showed at a public screening in December 2006. Joel attended the event and met Magalis Martinez, the founder and creative director of The Color of Words, and asked her if he could join her team of interns.
Martinez, a 1996 graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts who grew up in New Haven, said that “even though he was only 13 years old and much younger than my usual interns, there was something about him that prompted me to give him a chance. Joel tagged along with his brother and the rest of the youth media interns for the next two and a half months, and I quickly forgot that he was 13. He got along with everyone, was a quick study, and even produced music for two of our short documentary projects.”
Joel continued working with Martinez through middle school. After successfully completing a comprehensive six-week digital media program he was one of two interns Martinez asked to join a yearlong, after-school advanced level internship. “He always went above and beyond the call of duty and helped us build our studio. While other interns complained, Joel used his sense of humor to keep us all focused on the prize: a beautiful space to work in. He was 14 and still the youngest member on the team.”
At this point Joel and his mother had very different ideas about career choices and where he should go to high school. “When I told my mother that I wanted to do film and be an artist, she wasn't too happy about it.” She wanted him to go into the medical field and get a “safe” job. Joel enrolled in the health tech/nursing program at a regional technical high school but soon realized that he would not get the rigorous academic preparation he needed to become a doctor.
Meanwhile he continued developing his digital media skills. “When my mother saw me bring home a $1000 camera from one of the programs, she realized that I was serious about it. When we show our parents how much we want something rather than just telling them, they become our biggest fans.”
With the help and support of Magalis Martinez, Joel transferred to the visual arts program at Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School in New Haven. “At Co-op I was able to get a more developed and well-rounded curriculum and learn what you need to have a successful academic career in college.” He studied photography, video production, and animation. “I loved Co-op. It's just awesome being around artists who have a similar background as you. The beautiful thing about art is that it connects everyone regardless of their background, but I feel that when artists share similar backgrounds you can be yourself 100% with them, and they're OK with it.”
As an advanced intern at The Color of Words Joel served as the Lead Photographer on several client projects and in various production roles on short digital video projects. “This is when he began to blossom as a young filmmaker,” said Martinez. “His teammates and I realized that Joel had a director’s eye and as a result, he ended up serving as the Lead Director or the Co-Director on several projects.”
A Young Filmmaker With Promise
In the winter of 2009 Joel was one of only 15 out of 150 applicants accepted into the William H. Crosby Future Filmmakers Workshop, a highly competitive program at the New York University Kanbar Institute of Film and Television. In the intensive 12-week training program he learned all aspects of filmmaking. The program directors identified Joel as a young filmmaker with promise and asked him to apply to the NYU Summer High School Filmmakers Workshop. He was selected to participate in the summer class of 2010 and was awarded a full scholarship.
Co-op Arts Director Suzannah Holsenbeck described Joel as “an incredible student and person. He was a dedicated member of the Co-op community and even as a junior in high school, was mistaken frequently for being a college student given his maturity. During his senior year, Joel took the initiative to start an after-school video production program for middle school students at Wexler-Grant School. He developed the curriculum himself and filmed a documentary with the students about their school. Joel is the kind of person who inspires both teachers and other students alike, with his maturity, creativity, and kindness. He’s truly exceptional.”
After graduating from Co-op in June 2011 Joel enrolled in Quinnipiac University and became a partner with Magalis Martinez in The Color of Words. He transferred to the USC School of Cinematic Arts in January 2013, and in June he returned to New Haven to work as a videographer at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas as he has done for the past four years
Joel describes himself as an entrepreneur. “I like to do 100 things at once. I would love to be a cinematographer on a feature film on a big Hollywood set. I want to dream big. I want to direct music videos, commercials, hopefully land one on a Super Bowl spot. That's definitely one of my dreams and goals.”
Joel’s advice to a young person interested in this kind of work is to “take advantage of every opportunity you can possibly get, make the most of it, and follow your dreams. There are opportunities that present themselves but because we don't necessarily understand how far this opportunity can take us, we tend to just pass it off. That's been a common thread I feel in the inner city or at least in New Haven. There comes a point, especially after graduation from high school, when following your dreams kind of goes out the window.”
Joel would like to see the Comer Kids Leadership Academy revived. “I'm a film person so I would say do something centered around the arts, something related to cultural exposure. Use the museums. I think the networking aspect of it helps you grow as a person so make sure networking is happening and people can get to know one another.”