South Side organization teaches youth media skills

By Chris Loeber

As mainstream media cast a negative light on underprivileged neighborhoods, a Chicago organization seeks to empower local youths by giving them a voice and highlighting positive contributions to their communities.

Visions Blu Institute, a nonprofit organization that teaches media production skills to children and teens on Chicago’s South Side, is providing kids ages 9–18 with the knowledge and experience they need to tell their stories through digital media.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of negative images portrayed in mainstream media, and [children may] perpetuate stereotypes based on things they see on television,” said Karon Hamlet, executive director of Visions Blu. “To change that, we want them to be more involved in telling their own stories and the stories outside of those that are seen on television.”

Media influence youths’ self-image, particularly in underprivileged communities, by frequently depicting them as aimless and shallow, according to Al Hawkins, a board member and creative director at Visions Blu.

“If [they] are constantly bombarded with negative energy or negative images, I think that after a while people start to doubt their self image,” Hawkins said. “The more you’re bombarded with it, the more you start losing your own identity [and] your own aspirations.”

Despite the media’s alleged negative portrayal of the South Side, the area is home to many creative individuals and constructive initiatives that remain largely invisible to the public, according to Hamlet. Visions Blu and its students are working to change that.

The institute launched its One Block, One Voice program in 2011. Hamlet said the five-week summer project provides an opportunity for students to gain hands-on production experience while working with professionals in the industry.

The program offers practical knowledge and experience in media production with an overall purpose of promoting a sense of community, Hamlet said.

“I think there’s a disconnect, especially with the proliferation of digital media,” she said. “[Youth are] so involved on their phones, on their computers and anything outside of interpersonal interaction. One Block, One Voice is to get them to come out of that and to get more involved in their communities.”

Isaiah James, 19, a former student of the program, was unsure of what to do with his future when he signed up for the program. By the end of the five weeks, James decided to enroll in college and study multimedia production, Hamlet said.

James said he was particularly inspired by Hamlet, who became a mentor to him. He said she encouraged him to pursue additional work outside of Visions Blu and to “look at media from a different angle to get a story told.”

“A lot of things that are being played on the television or through the media is programmed to get you to feel a certain way,” James said. “Instead of saying something negative all the time, the One Block, One Voice project was meant to give a different view of the South Side.”

With the help and supervision of their instructors, students will document local efforts to incite positive change on the South Side in a film titled “The Sun Shines in the Shadows.”

Students will interview individuals, organizations and community leaders who offer youth development or education programs, such as the DuSable African American History Museum, 740 E. 56th Place, which holds educational events for children.

Currently, Visions Blu is seeking funding for the film through It has to raise $10,000 before May 5, or all pledges will be refunded to the donators.

Hawkins said he hopes One Block, One Voice will encourage children and teens on the South Side to pursue meaningful careers beyond the stereotypes propagated by mass media.

“The kids that we’ve talked to, they want to be veterinarians, they want to be attorneys, they want to be consultants,” he said.

“This particular program gives youths an opportunity to see that there are people like them that are striving, and there are a lot more of them—a lot more than they think.”