Spotlight on Org Member: Free Spirit Media

Free Spirit MediaThis month, Emily Bailin Wells interviewed NAMLE Organization Member Free Spirit Media.

When did your organization launch and why?

Free Spirit Media’s Founder and Executive Director, Jeff McCarter, and media educator Jesse Miller launched the HoopsHIGH sports broadcasting program in 2000. HoopsHIGH’s success led to the formation of Free Spirit Media (in 2001) with a mission to cultivate diverse youth voices to transform media and society. Jeff had previously worked in film and television production when he recognized the lack of racial and socioeconomic representation in mainstream media production. Free Spirit Media aims to provide education, access, and opportunity in media production to under resourced youth and young adults, based on the West and South sides of Chicago.

What does your organization do? What are its main goals? Main projects?

Free Spirit Media uses media production as the point of entry for developing a young person’s self confidence and ability to fulfill their potential. We believe that this process of youth development will foster successive generations of Free Spirit Media youth to become productive, connected, and engaged adults. To sustain this long-term goal, Free Spirit Media works to ensure our FSM youth are rooted in strong relationships, sense of community, and a network of support; are connected to and prepared for career, work, and higher education; are empowered with a strong sense of self; are informed and engaged civically; and that youth voice is amplified.

Free Spirit Media serves Chicago’s youth and young adults through school-based education programs and community-based after-school and pathways programs that provide arts access and learning.

  • School-Based Programs: Free Spirit Media teaches digital literacy and video production courses to nearly 250 students each year in classrooms at North Lawndale College Prep High School campuses. Our sequential courses allow students to build on their skills as they advance through Intro to Digital Media, Advanced Digital Media Production, and Senior Documentary Production. The youth-centered digital media arts courses focus on media literacy, community building, communication, teamwork, and media production, with emphasis on transferable skills that can be used in other classes, college, and career. In our project-based classes, students experience a creative process that employs three distinct artistic practices: pre-production (planning), production (creating), and post-production (editing). Even when projects are completed independently, these phases of artistic creation are group-oriented through peer revisions, collaborative brainstorming, and partner-based use of technology. When projects are complete, students practice presentation skills by screening their works to classmates and schoolmates, which involves providing and accepting critiques and evaluations of artistic work.

PRO at Soldier Field 2

  • Media Arts and Journalism Programs: Free Spirit Media offers intermediate and advanced media arts programs for youth and young adults. Participants engage in an ongoing arts learning experience that helps youth develop technical media skills and social-emotional acumen, and provides access to stable college and career opportunities in media. Free Spirit Media’s community-based programs focus on media arts, news literacy and journalistic ethics, and media production as a form of civic engagement. FSM News is an after-school and summer program in which student reporters produce unique news packages for broadcast on local TV. HoopsHIGH youth produce full broadcast coverage of high school sporting events across Chicago. Real Chi Youth is a civic journalism program in which youth reporters use new-media platforms to engage Chicago teens about local and national issues and practice solutions-oriented journalism. Arts Infusion is a digital media arts program that promotes peacemaking through the arts and works with youth who have been or are at-risk of being court-involved.
  • Pathways Programs through Free Spirit Media cater to teens entering adulthood and focus on employment, work readiness, and networking. Flash Forward is Free Spirit Media’s internship program that gives advanced youth the opportunity to work in major production houses and media outlets in Chicago. Free Spirit PRO, our social enterprise, employs advanced youth and alumni to produce high-quality media for clients. The Chicago Track is a bridge program that offers free professional development and a networking series for young creatives who are interested in learning about the film and music industries.

What makes your organization stand out? What would you say is the most unique thing about your organization?IMG_7687

Free Spirit Media embraces both process and product, prioritizing both supportive educational spaces and rigorous production values. We value innovation and leverage modern technologies to ensure our program offerings are relevant and unique. New media and emerging technology curriculum is infused into our program spaces, providing youth participants the skills and knowledge to produce media with the mobile devices and social media platforms they already use. Free Spirit Media also continues to serve the needs of our youth as they move through our programs. Our portfolio of programs meets youth in the classrooms, after-school, during the summer, and even after high school graduation. We offer stipends to afterschool and summer participants, and we created 329 employment opportunities last year. Youth and young adults earned over $173,000 by working with Free Spirit Media, teaching financial responsibility and demonstrating to participants the value of their time and work. Through the scope of our programming, Free Spirit Media’s commitment to developing well-rounded individuals with the skills to succeed throughout life.

What are recent projects or new resources that your organization would like to share with other NAMLE members?

Free Spirit Media recently sent seven youth journalists to Iowa to report on the presidential campaign. The group interviewed some of the 200 youth from Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles who were convening in Des Moines to find out what issues America’s youth care about and how young people can be politically engaged even before they can vote. Our group visited campaign offices and interviewed volunteers and staff people about key issues including racial inequalities, education, women’s rights and immigration. The reporters also covered a Hillary Clinton rally featuring Chelsea and Bill Clinton where they joined the press corps in filming and live-Tweeting the event and gathering reaction interviews from the crowd. Throughout the trip, youth reporters heard from other young people about the value decoding messages has in interpreting media and engaging politically.

Fourteen seniors at North Lawndale College Prep High School are in the midst of creating 10-minute documentaries on topics of their choosing. Over the course of the school year, each student will produce a documentary by seeking out experts and stakeholders to interview, filming B-Roll, and conducting research. Then, students will present their finished documentaries to a panel at the end of the year. Topics being explored through documentary production this year range from the portrayal of women in the media and ethical implications of stem cell research to the impact of media on the identities of LGBTQ community members and how social media affects teens. Last year, one student’s documentary about new media and emerging technology earned a presentation spot at the NAMLE national conference in Philadelphia!

What are the connections between the work of your organization and media literacy? Why is media literacy important to you?

Media literacy is a foundational principle Free Spirit Media teaches in all of our programs and throughout the curricular scope and sequence.  Each lesson and project seeks to empower youth with the ability to access, evaluate, analyze, and produce media. Youth are challenged to identify -isms (racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, beautyism, classism, heterosexism) in media and adapt the pieces to promote positive messages. These remix projects help youth understand the impact media messages have on them and their peers and create an opportunity for youth to share the messages they value. Free Spirit Media recently innovated our media literacy curriculum to embed the lessons throughout our hands-on media production projects to better sustain the media literacy education of our youth participants. Free Spirit Media programs foster youth skill building through media literacy education, giving nuance to a young person’s hands-on production experience with their own media content while providing them with tools of critical analysis to consume media discerningly. We asked recent participants what the most meaningful message they received during program and heard, “I really liked when we were doing -isms, because everything I learned stuck with me. It’s not OK to use -isms.”

Feel free to tell us anything else about your organization, your mission, your staff?

In the fall of 2015, Free Spirit Media expanded into the John and Alexandra Nichols Tower at Homan Square in North Lawndale, symbolizing growth and opportunity for our organization and the youth we serve. Free Spirit Media now occupies two floors of The Tower, giving Free Spirit Media a home base like we’ve never experienced before in our exhilarating 15-year development. Our 5th floor offices and 11th floor media production lab create a central West Side news bureau for our journalism programs and bring together nearly half of our staff members in one of our five locations on Chicago’s South and West sides. This move expands opportunities for our youth to collaborate and engage their peers in meaningful video production, journalism, and storytelling. The Nichols Tower was built in  1905 as part of Sears, Roebuck & Co.’s headquarters and catalog warehouse on Chicago’s West Side. Sears operated out of the Tower and the adjacent merchandise, advertising, administration, and power house buildings for nearly 70 years. The 110-year-old Nichols Tower was renovated to host community-oriented organizations, including Free Spirit Media.

Free Spirit Media was pleased to share a documentary produced by our social enterprise, Free Spirit PRO, with 15,000 regional viewers on Jan. 14. “The Peace Exchange” documentary follows 11 youth Peace Builders on trips to Southeast Asia and Nicaragua, and it aired on Chicago’s regional PBS station. Free Spirit PRO traveled across the world with The Peace Exchange and its 11 young Chicagoans to study how people and communities recover from violence. (

At Iowa Capitol Edit

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