Pulitzer Center grantee journalists Carlos Javier Ortiz, Dominic Bracco and Jen Marlowe and multimedia projects coordinator Meghan Dhaliwal walked into the basement of Power House High School in Chicago in the early afternoon of August 15 and were met with a flurry of activity.
"They're exporting," Free Spirit Media instructor Rebecca Connie announced in greeting to the Pulitzer Center crew, gesturing at the teenagers huddled in groups of two or three or four around desktop computers. The newcomers dragged up chairs, slipped on headphones, grabbed computer mice and jumped into the conversations.
The students were participants in a six-week summer program run by Chicago-based Free Spirit Media, an organization that works with youth to teach them multimedia skills and how to use those skills to create projects inspired by issues in their own communities. Free Spirit Media's summer partnership with the Pulitzer Center, now in its fourth year, provides journalists to serve as mentors to the students as they conceptualize, plan and create short documentary films. This collaboration is supported by the McCormick Foundation.
In early July Ortiz, Bracco, Marlowe and Dhaliwal visited this year's group of Free Spirit Media youth and presented their Pulitzer Center projects. Ortiz shared his work on gun violence in Chicago and Guatemala, Bracco his coverage of overfishing in the Sea of Cortez, Marlowe her projects in Sudan and South Sudan and Dhaliwal her student fellow reporting on the cholera outbreak in Haiti.
"One of the things that was really cool about this experience [for the students] was that it became a question of 'How does this affect society as a whole?'" Bracco said to the assembled crowd at the films' first public screening August 15. "That, I think, is a constructive way of looking at issues."
The students, who had to apply for spots in the summer workshop, attend North Lawndale College Preparatory Charter High School, DRW Trading College Prep, Power House High and George Westinghouse College Prep. Thanks to partnerships with Free Spirit Media they've taken classes such as digital media production or participated in after-school programs like broadcasting.
Students divided into groups and brainstormed ways to focus the broader issues – women and children in crisis (Ortiz), global goods (Bracco), fragile states (Marlowe) and public health (Dhaliwal) – into topics directly relevant to their own communities. Bracco's group focused on teen pregnancy, Marlowe's on Chicago gentrification and Dhaliwal's on teen suicide in the region.
"We wanted to focus on the positive side," explained one student on Ortiz's team, which reported on Chicago's informal economy. "The storyboard was crazy!"
Assisted by Free Spirit Media staff members the students spent at least four hours a day, four days a week working on their projects. Although the journalists mentored remotely for the remainder of the program, they stayed in close e-mail and video-conference contact with their groups throughout. And Ortiz, who lives in Chicago, was able to work with his team in person.
"The brains in this room – all of you guys – they're working and they're great, so just keep writing [your ideas] down," he told the crowd at the screening.
All four groups interviewed a range of experts and people on the ground for their documentaries, which ran from about six to ten minutes in length. "They all have the skills," Free Spirit Media program assistant Max Foehringer Merchant said of the youth in the program. "We encourage them to grow their artistic vision."
As her group's final video file exported, Marlowe asked them what part of the project was the hardest.
"We were thinking, how are we supposed to put this together?" said one student. She and a fellow group member agreed that the man-on-the-street interviews also presented a daunting challenge, but then added that those interviews were her favorite part of the project, "even though it was the hardest."
"It's been really exciting to watch them develop and to see how proud they are of themselves after a process they all admit was really tough," said Marlowe.
One student is glad she learned new camera skills; two others added that they found the editing work challenging. Seventeen-year-old Carnell, a Dhaliwal mentee, said he enjoyed "getting to work with different people, different personality types. The research was kinda fun," he added. And the biggest challenge? According to both Carnell and his teammate Sarah, it was aligning all the brainpower. "Putting everybody's opinions into one [product] – we all got different ideas. It's a lot of pressure," said Carnell.
But on a critical level the students remained consistently engaged and thoughtful; Dhaliwal complimented their proficiency and maturity in viewing global issues through their local lenses. "That's the beauty of this program," she said. "You're reporting on your own community, you're picking up on these trends."
And as Dhaliwal chatted with her team on screening day, one of her mentees grabbed my notepad and carefully wrote this:
"The process of filmmaking gets very frustrating at times, but in the end when you see your work you notice everything was worth it."