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Arts and Urban Youth: Interview with Jeff McCarter on challenging teens to tell their stories on film

, ,    /   Sep 27th, 2010Education, Interviews

Urban arts programs often build confidence and agency among youth who are disheartened by  or disconnected from — public schools. Starting today, and over the newt few weeks, we’ll be featuring a series on Art and Urban Youth, featuring interviews with leaders in this field. At a time when education is being shaped by a rigid test-taking culture, these educators often succeed in eliciting a sense of inquiry and belonging among their students.

Inside a charter school in the North Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago’s West End is a classroom that houses Jeff Carter’s Free Spirit Media, where students learn to create high quality programs that get aired in theaters, film festivals and on cable TV. Free Spirit’s goal is not to provide vocational training, but to show young people the value of their ideas.  The organization currently runs six sites across the city of Chicago and serves approximately 600 students in in- and after-school programs.  One of the programs, HoopsHIGH, reaches an audience of 50,000 viewers. Instead of commercials, the group of 15 advanced and 15 apprentice-level students inserts public service announcements and short documentaries between scenes.  Here, McCarter explains how running a youth media organization is not “about fixing kids’ work with adult standards” but about challenging young people to discover their voices and to take responsibility for their messages.

Dowser: In your former life, you were a successful producer who worked with directors like Ron Howard and Steven Soderbergh. You won two Chicago/Midwest Emmys for your work in public television. But you turned your back on it to start Free Spirit Media.
McCarter: Throughout my experience in professional media production I met lots of amazing, creative people, but they were something of an elite. Many of the crews I worked on were mostly white men and the stories were for a wealthy audience. I felt profoundly that media production could be more democratic, given the opportunities with new technology.

Giving up a career like that must have been tough.
As a producer, I wasn’t saving lives or doing something that was really helping society in any great way. In the case of commercials, we were selling products. And that can leave you with a very empty feeling not just as a creative person, but as someone who cares.

Free Spirit’s very first program was HoopsHIGH, a weekly sports broadcasting cable access show. It continues to air today. How did it start?
It started with me, a friend and some kids being like, ‘Hey, let’s bring some cameras and some microphones to a basketball court and start videotaping games.’ It wasn’t an organization yet. We were just kind of crazy, like, ‘Let’s try this.’

Who made up your crew?
The first kids who worked with us were from a drug rehab center. They loved it. And we loved them. Now we have about 20 kids operating six cameras, a switcher, an audio board, a replay DAC, announcing and sideline reporting and producing.

How big is the TV audience now?
About 50,000.

Wow. Do you generate ad revenue from that?
Actually, one of the things that’s super cool about HoopsHIGH is it’s not commercial. In the breaks, the kids insert public service announcements (PSAs), short documentaries, and the short dramas.

You also organize showcases in theaters and film festivals. What is your target audience?
Anybody we can reach. A PSA on gang violence might influence a 13-year-old that is a borderline ‘gangbanger’ to not go there, or a 50-year-old in the suburbs might see the same PSA and gain a little more understanding of what kids are facing.

How and when did you decide to commit yourself to Free Spirit Media full time?
I had just won an Emmy and there were opportunities to expand professionally as a producer, but I just kept choosing to spend my time on our youth programs. I spent my savings on supplies and equipment just time to be out there. It became a calling. At some point, I was like, ‘Oh, wow. I just phased myself out of a great career. I’d better find a way to make this youth media work sustainable.’

Given the success of the programs, it’s obvious you worked that out.
I know now that that sustainability is a constant process of building relationships with supporters and partners. It’s about proving yourself, proving that the work has value and produces results, and proving that our time with the kids really does transform them.

What’s it like working at Free Spirit Media?
It’s all about telling stories that would not otherwise be told. In maybe a selfish sense, I feel like the kids have shown me a whole world that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. I became an executive producer to their stories as opposed to a producer of mine.

You’re known for challenging your kids to produce work of a high standard.
The higher-quality the piece, the more legs it has, the better reach it can have.

But it has to be authentic. Cookie-cutter TV would be beside the point, right?
Exactly. It’s not about fixing kids’ work with adult standards. It’s about challenging kids. Even if you’re going to do something that’s never been done before, make it work.

And it’s not about just reaching an audience, but being responsible with your message and really having something to say. So much of mainstream media exists for entertainment’s and profit’s sake. Opportunities are missed to have a positive influence.

The field of youth media is just exploding right now. What sets Free Spirit Media apart?
We’re not just an island; we partner with schools and organizations where young people already spend most of their time. We’re able to influence the culture of those schools and organizations, and make them more creative and democratic.

You’ve been partnered with North Lawndale College Prep in Chicago for about seven years now. What has that been like, given that they’re in one of the most economically depressed communities in America?
The school has been just amazing as a partner. We see the kids every day for four years, and beyond as the relationships continue. You can see a kid’s ups and downs and you can be there for them when they’re having a bad day or bad stretch.

What are the bad stretches like?
One of my favorite students had his cousin beaten to death by a rival gang, then his grandma, who was the matriarch of his family, passed away and then his uncle went to jail. All within the course of a month.

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As a mentor, how did you approach that?
He was emotionally very fragile, so it was really, really important that we had a relationship where he could open up and share.

It must have been empowering that he could tell his story.
The most important part of all this is individual awakening, transformation and motivation. My aim is to get kids thinking, ’Oh my goodness, I have a story to tell and this is my chance. I’m talented and my ideas are valuable.’ Beyond that it’s also about transformation of small communities: groups of peers and school cultures, to create community pride and purpose.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Photo: Free Spirit Media

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