On a hot June day in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood, a group of teenagers clambered out of a school bus. Passing a brightly colored mural with the words Hope House arranged in a cross, the students headed inside, carrying a camera, tripod, and microphone. They were there to interview pastor Joseph Atkins, Jr. about his work at the transitional home for men in Chicago’s West Side. Their stop was one of three on a community walk around the neighborhood, led by Haman Cross of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, to practice their interviewing and filmmaking skills and learn more about the issues facing the North Lawndale area.
The students were part of Free Spirit Media’s summer News West program, a six-week project helmed by Tracee Stanford, Danielshé Rodgers, and Terrance Patterson, empowering local youth to tell under-reported stories through short documentary films. In the media and education nonprofit’s tenth year in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, the students worked in four groups, each producing a short documentary. Each group was mentored by one of four Pulitzer Center-affiliated journalists, who joined the students at the beginning of the summer to help with preproduction. After checking in remotely with their groups to help the documentaries take shape, the journalists returned to Chicago for a public screening of the final films.
Photojournalist Brian L. Frank mentored students making Beauty of the Arts, a film about the ways LGBTQ youth found solace in artistic pursuits. “Learning to tell stories in your community in a truthful manner is a very empowering exercise,” said Frank. “You’re opening doors into places that you normally wouldn’t go… and I think that is one of the main goals of journalism in general, so doing that in your own community is super valuable.”
Stuck in the System, under the guidance of photojournalist Meghan Dhaliwal, explored the ways people of color can be treated unequally in the justice system. To give context to the interviews with people in the Chicago court system, the students also researched incarceration of African Americans on a national level.
“Summer programs like this, the collaboration between Free Spirit Media and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, have a major impact on the youth that we serve because they're gaining life-long communication skills that come along with instruction based on the fundamentals of journalism,” noted Tracee Stanford, Free Spirit Media’s Creative Workforce Manager. “Our participants are held responsible for carrying out every part of the production process, from story generation to scheduling and conducting interviews, and working with a team to edit and complete a quality project worthy of being shared with their community, family and friends.”
To make Home Without Home, the Free Spirit Media students interviewed people experiencing homelessness. The youth worked with freelance filmmaker and journalist Evey Wilson, who showed the team members how to make a statement by putting similar responses to an interview question in a sequence. The film sought to humanize the interviewees as individuals with their own agency, while also demonstrating a widespread issue across Chicago and throughout the world.
Photojournalist & filmmaker Dominic Bracco worked with the students making Undiscovered Youth, which focused on an after school youth center where students could play basketball and just be kids. The filmmakers interviewed students at the youth center and filmed them playing on the court. While reviewing the film before helping the students edit the final cut, Bracco noted one of the shots focusing on the players’ feet squeaking on the court, commending the camera operator for thinking outside the box and getting low to shoot a different angle.
Beyond learning the skills of filmmaking and reporting, though, the program at Free Spirit Media also taught the students communications and interpersonal skills. “I think the main important thing [the youth] learned was expressing their thoughts, wants, and needs to accomplish the bigger goals in life,” reflected Danielshé Rodgers, one of the Program Coordinators. “In order to have successful relationships with anyone, you need to know how to communicate. It does not matter the age or the circumstances, if we know how to talk about what bothers us or what makes us happy, we can achieve so much more with little to no confrontation. This life skill will help them become leaders and help them solve issues almost anywhere.”
Tracee Stanford agreed. “I truly believe that each participant leaves the program more equipped for their next opportunity, in media or otherwise,” she said.