TCR Talks: Helping youth find a voice

Jeff McCarter created Free Spirit Media in 2001. It has now helped more than 3,000 young Chicagoans learn to tell their stories. [Photo by Emily Jan]

Jeff McCarter created Free Spirit Media in 2001. It has now helped more than 3,000 young Chicagoans learn to tell their stories. [Photo by Emily Jan]

As Jeff McCarter was making his way in the media industry, holding various titles in newsrooms and production companies, he noticed a disturbing pattern.

“I was quite troubled by the lack of diversity in both the workforce, who was making the media and also the lack of diversity of stories,” McCarter, 44, said. “I was quite troubled by the stories that were not being told, and the lack of access and opportunity for participation for people from under-resourced communities.”

So he came up with an idea to create an organization that could serve under sourced communities and also help young people.

Free Spirit Media, founded in 2001, has serviced over 3,000 students between the ages of 12 and 24. It is designed to train young people in media production and journalism.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with McCarter to discuss his organization and his personal views on diversity in today’s media.

According to the latest newspaper newsroom census from the American Society of News Editors, minorities account for 12 percent of newsroom employees, a small change from 11 percent 10 years ago. What are your thoughts on that?

It doesn’t surprise me. I was familiar with those numbers. I think this is a great challenge for the country to address.

We have a country becoming more diverse and there has not been a significant movement in diversifying the media force.

Why do you think there aren’t many people of color producing today’s media?

In a lot of fields people [are hired] based on who you know. Historically, white males have dominated media industries. I think it really comes down to a lack of connections. That’s something Free Spirit Media is designed to address.

Why does diversity matter in news coverage?

We have a diverse society. To me, that’s something to be cherished. The media is a tool of information, and if it’s made disproportionately by a part of society that doesn’t have [certain] experiences that [could only be] reflected by a diverse population, then the media is not doing its job.

Experiences help inform awareness and perspective. I think a whole society benefits when an audience has the opportunity to have a more complete story.

How do you prepare your students?

We take a step back and look at media in a broad way. We look at it as a form of civic participation. We start with a unit on media literacy, which is really aimed at getting young people to think critically and independently on the effect [the media] has on people.

We teach them to question why it’s made and answer the question: “By who for who?” So when they begin producing their own media, they are enlightened and have a sense of responsibility.

I watched a video where students enrolled in one of your programs say they really like that they have the power to tell their own stories. How important is it for them to tell their own story?

Well, a few reasons. One is so often when the professional media comes to tell stories about young people on the west or the south side, the stories they are telling are negative.

[Stories] about violence and school closings are essentially portraying communities as full of deficits. I think seeing their neighborhood portrayed by outsiders as a negative place is very hurtful and discouraging.

We encourage young people in our programs to really own the narrative and tell whatever types of stories they feel need to be told, whether they are positive or negative or more nuanced. Young people have insight that you can’t just swoop in from the outside and obtain.

What are the costs associated with your programs?

It is completely free. The fact that it’s free of charge is core to our mission to be a service to youth from under resourced communities.

Are there any former participants/students of yours currently employed by the media?

We have a number of alumni that have started their own production companies. We have a few others working in film and television, as well as a number of young people that are working on independent documentaries.

But the goal is more about life skills and becoming young professionals – for them to work in the media is more of a byproduct.

We take their media very seriously. We really value what they have to say and what they are trying to put out there. I think that’s what’s made us successful is that our focus is young people.

What is the biggest challenge you face?

We still live in an incredibly divided society. There are profound stereotypes that need to be constantly addressed and challenged in order to open doors. And even very well intentioned people are still conditioned to see stereotypes before they see an individual and the value that person can bring.

Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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