What matters to Chicago's teens? The city's food deserts. The effects of video games on their mental health. Treating diversity as a good thing. Feeling like their parents and guardians understand them.
Fifteen of the windy city's teenagers got an opportunity to explore these issues when they participated in this year's Free Spirit Media/Pulitzer Center program, the fifth year of the collaborative summer workshop during which local high school-age students shoot, report and produce short documentaries on local topics that are important to them.
According to 19-year-old Kewonis, a participant in the program, "It's our turn to voice our opinions."
Over two days during the first week of the program in late June, Pulitzer Center grantee journalists Peter DiCampo, Meghan Dhaliwal, Carlos Javier Ortiz and Amy Maxmen gave short presentations of their work for the students to discuss, draw inspiration from and relate to issues in their own communities. DiCampo showed his short film "Life Without Lights," part of a project that examines energy poverty in Ghana and around the world, and the Everyday Africa photo project, which he co-founded with Austin Merrill. The students surveyed Dhaliwal's photography and reporting on Haiti's post-earthquake cholera epidemic. Ortiz screened a short, poignant documentary as part of his project on gun violence, "Too Young to Die," and Maxmen presented her reporting on efforts to curb Mali's struggle with malaria.
The students split into four groups. Each group worked closely with a journalist mentor over the course of the summer. During that first week DiCampo, Dhaliwal, Ortiz and Maxmen brainstormed with their teams to pinpoint local issues that were relevant to both the students' lives and to the international reporting they'd just discussed. For Maxmen's group, that meant looking at violent video games under a public health lens.
"Our group came up with the idea of doing video games," said Casey, 14. "Then another person in our group came up with the idea of linking it with mental health, and Amy's been really good with supporting us with that. She gave us a lot of help and tips for when [we're] interviewing.
"There wasn't really a straight conclusion; there were upsides to video games and downsides," Casey continued. "So I thought that was really interesting."
DiCampo's team took the concept of energy poverty and applied it to a different kind of resource scarcity: They gravitated toward public health and nutrition, eventually focusing on Chicago's food deserts, swaths of the city where residents don't have access to fresh, healthy foods.
"I feel like it was really useful that they went with a topic that fit the bill of being underreported," DiCampo said of his group. The Pulitzer Center messages of telling "untold stories" and finding the local relevance of larger issues seemed to resonate with the students.
"Really the main stress of Everyday Africa is to look at localized storytelling," DiCampo added, "and so I feel like that was sort of helpful to look at how [the issue of food deserts] affected their own communities."
Sixteen-year-old Jakyrah seemed surprised by her group's findings.
"Even though people [we talked to] lived in a food desert, they didn't know what it was," she said. "People thought, 'Oh, we have a lot of food in our community.' That's not right. How do you not know what it is and you're affected by it?" She wants her team's documentary to help get the word out to people about the issue of food deserts in Chicago, and possible solutions.
"There are ways you can change how you're eating and how you're affected," Jakyrah explained. "[I want] to try to get people to talk about it and actually learn what it is, and maybe they could change it."
Ortiz's team, struck by his black-and-white images of young people affected by violence in Chicago and Guatemala, chose a more intimate focus: "#TheStruggleIsReal," they called it.
"Mainly [Carlos'] documentaries are about violence, so our first thought was to [report on] teen domestic violence," said 18-year-old Christian. "But then we were thinking about the struggle that a parent has…of raising a teen; the struggle that they have with each other, with communicating." But the group made sure to emphasize that there is beauty in that struggle.
Dhaliwal's group, who discussed in their brainstorm the media's perceptions of different groups of people, Chicagoans in particular, highlighted diversity in their city.
"We wanted to show that Chicago's not as bad as it seems," explained Gracie, 17. "It's actually better showing how other groups interact [than] showing what's different [between] them." She wanted viewers of their film "The Melting Pot" to learn what's "real," as opposed to the "fake" portrayals of the city might be getting in the news.
The students and their mentor journalists reunited for the final screenings in August, after several weeks of communication via e-mail and Skype.
Before a warm audience of about 50 people squeezed into a classroom on the second floor of Power House High School, the team members explained the Free Spirit/Pulitzer Center program and introduced themselves and their films. They also showed off their blog, a new addition to the collaboration.
Each participant received an award – go-getter, trailblazer, artistic visionary, grace under pressure – from Free Spirit Media instructors Rebecca Connie and Danielshe Rodgers; Leigh Clouse and Donell Mcnairy also helped staff the program. One mother of three participants gave an impromptu thank-you speech, saying how much her children had gotten out of their summer project.
Kewonis said later, "I met some good people here, some very talented people, very hard-working people."
Check out this blog post on the program by our colleague at the Education Development Center, Gabriela Silva.
The Mash, the Chicago Tribune's publication by and for teens and a fellow Why News Matters grantee, has done some great publicity work around the documentaries on their Twitter page and their website. Thanks!