West Side organizations empower a new generation of media makers

Westside Writing Project headquarters
The Westside Writing Project is a grassroots youth media organization based in Austin on Chicago's West Side. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

By Marisa Endicott

Recently, Channing Dungey was named head of ABC entertainment, making her the first African-American president of a major network. But the appointment highlights the continued lack of diversity in mainstream media.

This inequity is just as pervasive in the news media. Minorities accounted for 12.75 percent of the workforce at daily newspapers in 2015, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors (ASNE). That percentage has remained almost unchanged over the last 15 years.

Still, some organizations are working to change the racially stagnant media landscape by giving young Chicagoans in marginalized communities the tools to empower themselves and become the next generation of media makers.

“It continues to be a huge struggle. I think the kind of forces of institutional racism that are at play even with well-intentioned media people are really profound,” said Jeff McCarter, founder of Free Spirit Media, an educational nonprofit that provides media training to young people from the South and West sides of Chicago.

McCarter worked all over the media industry from advertising and network news to feature films and documentaries, but he became increasingly disturbed by the lack of diversity around him. Thus began the long road to the creation of Free Spirit Media.

Free Spirit Media headquarters
Nonprofit Free Spirit Media just moved to a new location in Homan Square’s Nichols Tower, Chicago’s original Sears Tower. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

What started as a makeshift sports broadcasting show with youth at pick-up basketball games on the West Side has evolved over 15 years into a multi-program organization that had almost 700 participants last year alone.

“We are not just helping one young person at a time, but we’re helping to transform this whole industry, which gets back to my original motivation,” McCarter said.

Joshua Jackson, 23, joined Free Spirit Media in high school, returning each summer after enrolling at Southern Illinois University for radio and television production. He is now the organization’s production and technology coordinator and the co-founder of his own production company, 720 Films. He hopes 720 Films will blossom into a full-scale operation that can act as a stepping stone into the industry for the next generation of Free Spirit Media alums.

Joshua Jackson
Joshua Jackson, 23, is Free Spirit Media’s technology and production coordinator and founder of his own film production company, 720 Films. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

McCarter and his team run credited in-school classes, after-school and summer offerings and an industry mentor and internship program. Students work in TV broadcasting, film and multimedia, news producing and documentaries among many other ventures.

It’s taken a long time to get to where they are no longer pounding on doors. Now, those doors are just starting to open, McCarter said.

In Austin, another West Side neighborhood, Frank Latin is determined to reach that point with his own grassroots nonprofit. The Westside Writing Project was launched in 2007 with a similar mission to Free Spirit Media but has taken a different path.

Frank Latin
Frank Latin stands in front of the green screen setup at Westside Writing Project headquarters. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

Latin got his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Roosevelt University. More interested in the economics of neighborhoods than Wall Street, Latin started “Nitty Gritty News,” a local newspaper that highlighted the often overlooked positive aspects of different low-income communities around Chicago.

He eventually opened up a column to student writers. One column became a page, which evolved into a whole separate publication and the predecessor to the Westside Writing Project. The organization has grown to include in-school and after-school classes as well summer programs and a show on Chicago’s public access CAN-TV. Students play a central role in designing and leading the programs, often teaching Latin as well, he said.

“Hopefully by being able to tell our own stories and add light and insight to our own communities…we’re helping slowly to just change the lens even locally of what a typical reporter can look like and where they can come from,” Latin said. “These students can do it.”

At Westside Writing Project’s headquarters on West Chicago Avenue, there is a green screen and recording equipment, and Latin is working on a pet project in the back room, a recording and producing booth. Soon the organization will be renamed the Westside Media Project to reflect its evolving programming.

WWP production booth
Latin is setting up a small production studio at Westside Writing Project. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)

Despite very different experiences in media, both McCarter and Latin saw a clear need for more underserved communities to share their voices, and a desire in community members to do so.

Latin expanded access to Westside Writing Project’s facilities after he noticed the interest and excitement from other community members. “A lot of people want a voice and have something to say, and so we try to foster that,” he said.

As a student in the Westside Writing Project, Gwen Pepin learned a lot about her own community, commenting that interacting with local change makers and community leaders was inspirational and gave her a sense of purpose. Originally from West Garfield Park, Pepin is now a junior at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, majoring in broadcast journalism and “taking as many social justice classes as possible,” she said.

The skills training these organizations provide are valuable tools to compete in an increasingly competitive professional world where young people from underprivileged neighborhoods start with an automatic disadvantage. However, empowerment is the most fundamental benefit of these programs, whether they end up pursuing media careers or not.

By physically seeing all their hard work come together, these students get a chance to develop a sense of pride and self-worth, Latin said. “Seeing students see themselves in a different light” is the most rewarding part of the job.

Photo at top: The Westside Writing Project is a grassroots youth media organization based in Austin on Chicago’s West Side. (Marisa Endicott/MEDILL)