Not long ago, Symone Smith avoided venturing into Chicago’s Uptown community – a neighborhood that ranks among the highest in Chicago for homelessness.
“I’m not gonna lie. Before, Uptown, for me, was kind of a scary place,” said Smith, who grew up in Rogers Park, which has one of the city’s smallest homeless populations. “I was like ‘I don’t ever want to come down here.’”
But that recently changed after she and two of her classmates created a short documentary on Inspiration Cafe, a project of the Inspiration Corporation, a social service agency that provides job training and placement, food, and a sense of community to people in Uptown who are, or are at risk of becoming, homeless.
“I met the people who go to Inspiration Cafe every day and they are just so nice,” said Smith. “And their stories are amazing.”
This spring, as part of WTTW’s My Neighborhood initiative and in collaboration with buildOn, a service-learning organization, high school students in Pilsen, Little Village, Englewood, Humboldt Park, and Edgewater produced short documentaries showcasing people, places, or projects that make their Chicago neighborhoods better. (Watch the My Neighborhood Student Films.)
Smith and two of her classmates at Senn – Adnan Hadzalic and Kameha Spearma – created a documentary on Inspiration Cafe, which provides restaurant-style meals to homeless or poor men, women, and families.
Spearma said that what piqued her interest was the organization’s focus on treating people experiencing homelessness with dignity, and the story of the organization’s founder, Lisa Nigro, a former Chicago police officer. Motivated by a desire to help and connect with people on her beat, Nigro borrowed her nephew's little red wagon, filled it with coffee and sandwiches, and began distributing them to people in need.
“She just really woke up one day and was like, ‘I want to really make a difference in the world,’” said Spearma. “And she made a really big difference.”
“I just think that people need to know that. Especially…today, now, people need to know that there’s still good people here and, like, people are still doing things to help everybody else.”
The three had collaborated in the past on Senn TV, a project of Senn’s broadcast journalism program.
Michael Cullinane directs that program and developed the My Neighborhood curriculum for WTTW. He encouraged all of his journalism students to work on their own to create a film and enter the contest, which included scholarship prizes.
“I told them this is something that if you put your best into it, it will likely pay off,” he said.
“More than anything, I said we’ve been so insular with Senn TV, where we focus so much on our school. It’s really crucial as a journalist, even more so than the money…to figure out how to make these connections, use the phone, go there, meet strangers, have crazy situations arise where the unexpected pops up, and be ready for when it doesn’t go according to plan.”
In May, WTTW hosted a youth film festival at Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen, where selected films were screened and winners were awarded scholarships.
The three recent Senn graduates won the competition and the largest prize – $4,000. Forty additional students were also awarded smaller amounts.
Smith says she realized that she was lucky to go to a school with such a robust journalism program. She and Hadzalic plan to pursue careers in the media, and will be attending Loyola University Chicago in the fall. Spearma is going to attend Arrupe College, a community college also run by Loyola. She says she’s not sure what she wants to do afterward, but that she’s eager to go to college.
“I just want to keep learning and pushing myself out of my comfort zone,” she said.