June 12, 2016
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Jeff McCarter was on a soaring trajectory in his twenties, working with producers Steven Soderbergh and Ron Howard, and spending time with NBC News in New York. The word on the street was that his films had dazzling potential. It was when Jeff stopped to reflect on the world outside the studio gates, however, that led him back to Chicago – his hometown – to found Free Spirit Media and give others the opportunities in the industry he had been able to experience.
He shared with us not just his passion for the trade, but his desire to open doors to it:
“I have loved media, theater, and film all my life, and have felt that the story-telling arts can bring people together. My early years were about exploring our world and building connections. I just couldn’t get away from the fact that society is so divided and in media there are not enough access points for all.”
In the fifteen years since Jeff returned to the Third Coast, he and his nonprofit have given 5500 young people hands-on project-based media production skills, as well as community-building motivation. Students, many of whom might not have had the chance through their own schools or community programs otherwise available to them, can learn how to make documentary films, sports telecasts, public service announcements and find out about civic journalism. Their productions have won several awards, including the grand prize at the Illinois Humanities Council’s “Looking for Democracy” film festival.
And Jeff’s graduates are taking their lessons to heart and mind, not just as a flight of fancy, but making media their profession.
The son of John McCarter, former head of the Field Museum, and Judy, Jeff learned about community service from his parents, both of whom continue to drive important and impactful programs.
“My family brought me back to Chicago. My dad’s mother, Ruth McCarter, was ill and I wanted to be near her. She was an early influence on me because she adored the theater. I have loved Chicago since I was little, but it is also a very hard city. It has its areas that are not as optimistic or connected to the resources it offers. Free Spirit is really beyond media, it is to foster hope, optimism and connectivity.
With the 15-year celebration of Free Spirit Media having just passed, we thought it a good time to sit down with Jeff and talk to him about the organization’s start and growing his dream.
Tell us about Free Spirit Media’s beginnings.
We started with a pilot project called HoopsHIGH, where we taught 15 students sports broadcasting. It was tons of fun and very ambitious – the kids had to learn about multiple cameras. We also had a control room. They got very engaged with the program – it was a volunteer experiment but we thought it had potential. We incorporated, and it became an organic process, taking one step at a time. We have grown at a healthy rate of about 10 to 15 percent a year, adding a couple of new initiatives each year.
What has been your philosophy?
In our first year, we said our educational philosophy was hands-on, empowering kids to become media literate. We offer both in-school and after school classes. We invited them to not be passive consumers but active producers. We want our students to think critically and harness the power of the media.
How has Chicago responded to your program?
We now have 700 students and 20 staff members. We have tried to build strong and lasting partnerships and have learned that we are not only well regarded in Chicago, but nationally we are one of the top organizations of our kind. We work closely with the city and the schools. We have to keep going back to the beginning, where we focused on diversity. There just weren’t enough doors being open for all students interested in media. We have always wanted to change the conversation, to be very open minded and show the way.
We hear you have added a new project for your alumni.
We have had several levels to our programs, which reach students from high school through college years. We now are reaching adults who are becoming professionals, and have a new program, Free Spirit Pro, which is encouraging students to do more original content production, which will spark conversation and build awareness of the community.
How are you feeling about the future after now reaching the fifteen-year mark?
We are very excited about the future. We feel that our curriculum is only getting better, adding new skills, and addressing the need for students to stay in school, go to college, build careers, and engage in the community.
No one seemed more excited at the anniversary celebration than your parents, Judy and John McCarter, who have themselves given so much to our community.
I love my parents so much, and feel their love very deeply. From them, I have learned the values of honesty, keeping promises, and hard work in the community. They have sustained lots of faith in me through the growth of Free Spirit.
Judy and John helped Jeff celebrate this fifteenth anniversary on the rooftop of the Fremont restaurant, alongside nearly three hundred other Free Spirit supporters and graduates of the program, the whole place packed with energy and enthusiasm. The evening, which was the group’s FOCUS fundraiser, brought in over $100,000 towards the organization’s mission. Prompted by this special occasion, Judy looked back on her son’s path over the past 15 years.
“In the spring of 2000, as Jeff was approaching his 30th birthday, he came home one evening to tell us that he was planning to leave his job at a respected production studio that filmed tabletop commercials for television, so that he could begin a program that would work with inner city students and help give them training and entry into the world of film and television. He had noted that there were very few people of color in the industry and he wanted to do his part to change that picture. That fall, Jeff took his savings and together with used equipment from CAN-TV (Cable Access Network), began a small sports broadcasting program HoopsHigh, out of the old Westinghouse High School, with students working from a utility storage room off of the school’s gym.
“Since that day, Jeff’s commitment to his vision has never waivered. FSM is providing so many students with a sense of their own voice and the hope to finish high school and move onto college or jobs. John and I are both so proud of Jeff’s work. When we look at the current plight of our great city, we feel that a program like FSM is more important than ever.
“John’s greatest joy is when he is at a meeting or event and he meets someone who asks: ‘are you Jeff McCarter’s father?’ He goes on to extoll the work Jeff is doing. That is a wonderful feeling for a father.”