When you walk into the True Star Foundation’s office you might think you’re walking into just another after school program for teenagers. As you get closer, you’ll hear the teens laughing, talking amongst themselves, and may think this is pretty standard for an after school program. But True Star is no ordinary after school program, or non-profit, for Chicago youth.
In its nearly twenty years of operation, it’s become a media blueprint for the youth voice and culture of Chicago. From the blogs and print articles to its photography, True Star’s contribution as a multimedia organization gives Chicago teens hands-on media experience.
Although they have earned respect as a media outlet, True Star, much like their earlier days, is still fighting to remain sustainable. Most recently, the organization had to find a new home, after their office building was sold. In two weeks they will have moved to 4655 S. King Dr. in Bronzeville.
Greeted by founders DeAnna McLeary-Sherman and Na-Tae’ Thompson, I stood in a full circle moment. Fourteen years ago, I walked into the True Star office doors as an aspiring writer and broadcaster. I had practically no guidance, contacts or networking skills. All I had was a dream that they not only nurtured, but helped me and so many others achieve.
As they geared up for their “19 years of Connecting Young Creators” fundraiser in May, they carved out some time to sit down with South Side Weekly and reflect on all they’ve accomplished.
Shaping the lives of teenagers across the city, True Star Foundation gives teens a platform to not only build foundational skills as journalists but also gives them a safe space to voice their wants, needs, and opinions as young people.
True Star was conceived in 2004, shortly after Thompson quit her job in advertising at Chancellor Marketing Group. “I was at the John Hancock building, I had the salary, the parking space, the benefits, the this and that, but I wasn’t happy,” said Thompson.
She hadn’t married or had children and decided it was time to follow her passion. “I went back to the Park District and jumped double dutch and played basketball. I was really passionate about working with young people. It just came easy to me. It didn’t feel like work and that was kind of what I strive for, I didn’t want to feel like I was at work while at work,” Thompson said.
During her time working at the Chicago Park District as a program specialist, Thompson noticed many teens lacked basic writing skills, inspiring her to create an after school program for teens. The idea came to life shortly after Thompson and McLeary-Sherman met.
The two met backstage at a Teen Summit where McLeary-Sherman was in attendance to support her childhood friend, rapper Kanye West, perform. “Na-Tae’ was doing a teen summit with Common and Kanye and she was running everything and I was like, ‘who is this? She is so cool!’” McLeary-Sherman said
“When I met her it was the same vibe, just cool, easy to talk to, but also hard working… As things progressed, I was like, ‘yeah, this could be something’ because [here] were two people who get things done.”
With Thomson’s work experience in marketing at Vibe Magazine and Chancellor Marketing Group and McLeary-Sherman’s MA in business and experience working at Essence Magazine, the women applied for a grant through After School Matters. They proposed a ten-week program centered around sharpening teen writing skills while having fun.
“There were juniors and seniors who couldn’t put together a paragraph, we were like, ‘how are y’all going to go to college and make it as an adult if you can’t do these simple things?’,” said Thompson. “That was really the idea, put the pill in the dog food so that they can learn—and not feel like they were in school.”
Alongside their seventeen students, the ladies used their connections in the music industry to curate a four-page newsletter. The first newsletter featured broadcast journalist Tamron Hall and Chicago rapper Common, with whom the students had the opportunity to do a phone interview.
The experience would allow for the duo to build trust with their students, inspiring them to come back for another year. As the program grew in numbers, so did the newsletter.
With the experience they gained, the students went on to create a magazine which featured Chicago’s own rapper Twista on the first cover. In 2006, True Star Magazine was born as a print publication, becoming one of the first media entities in Chicago produced by teenagers.
“We were giving the young people the actual experience to sit down with Twista or Common or whoever, and no one was really doing it at that time,” Thompson said.
In 2006, the foundation officially became a 501(c)(3) organization. Considering their students’ request to learn the in’s and out’s of curating a magazine, McLeary-Sherman and Thompson put their heads together and created a plan that would take True Star to the next level. After funding kicked in, they found a home at 1130 S. Wabash, a central location for teenagers to get to and from.
Young people ages fourteen to twenty-four were able to choose a cohort that taught them specific aspects of their desired field: editorial, photography, marketing, and street teams whose job was to spread awareness of the program. They were taught by industry professionals such as freelance writer and author Jack Silverstein and photographer Deshaun “Trig” Adams.
As the non-profit grew, the teens stepped into the realm of radio broadcasting. Acquiring a brokered slot on Power 92.3 FM, True Star Radio took over Chicago’s air waves. With the help of radio broadcasting vet Bionce Foxx, the teens honed their broadcasting and production skills. From radio show production to the music played, True Star students were completely in charge.
In 2012, True Star carried the torch for the Chicago music blog era by creating Lyrical Lab, a hip-hop based website that focused on Chicago music and helped launch local rappers. With the help of Brihana Gatlin of Swank Publishing and True Star staff like Ms Joi, a former True Star instructor who had a marketing and music industry background, True Star was able to gain access to celebrities.
It was McLeary-Sherman who connected a young eighteen-year-old girl like me to her favorite writer, Scoop Jackson. That connection led me to New York City where I interned at Slam Magazine, a dream of mine since I was a child. Thompson pushed me to keep going when I felt like giving up and coming back home.
True Star provides youth, including at risk youth, access to a world that most adults will never get to experience. At work stations teenagers are editing videos, writing blog posts, and planning their next creative rollouts. Their stories, their voices are delivered on their own terms.
They give young people the opportunity to work in the same spaces as college-educated media professionals before graduating high school. They’ve taken on interviews with legendary artists, while also paving the way for a newer generation of Chicago artists like Tink and Chance The Rapper.
True Star has engaged two generations of media makers, Millennial and Gen Z. The publication went digital in April 2018, as they continue to adapt to what the teens gravitate to. “What Gen Z wanted was very instantaneous; they didn’t wanna work on something for two months and then wait another month for it to come out. They wanted to work on it and see it the next day and there was no way to do that with print,” said McLeary-Sherman.
“There was no amount of money we had that we would be able to turn something around that fast, so [the choice] was almost [either] going digital or not being connected to young people,” she added.
True Star’s alumni include educators, TV and radio broadcasters, entrepreneurs, authors, publicists, photographers, musicians and more. The majority excel in their respective fields.
Journalists like Shannon Smith, morning anchor at Cleveland 19 News, author and South Side Weekly freelance writer Kia Smith, as well as writer, Weekly photographer, and creative director of Unsocial Aesthetics, Isiah Thoughtpoet Veney—among many many more artists and creatives—trace the beginning of their careers back to True Star.
McLeary-Sherman and Thompson’s partnership was a divine intervention for the youth of Chicago, creating a safe haven for kids across the inner city and allowing them to come together to express themselves and build community. McLeary-Sherman and Thompson adhered to a call many of us would run from: How do you take thousands of at-risk youth from Chicago, keep them alive, teach them life lessons, provide jobs, achieve academic success, connect college graduates to their dream jobs, provide a sense of family, and love and fight for them?
For many of us, True Star was the beginning of the rest of our lives. As I sat in the office with ThoughtPoet, McLeary-Sherman and Thompson, I was able to give my mentors their laurels.
As the two took time to reflect on all they’ve accomplished over the past nineteen years, the one thing they are most proud of is what their students have achieved.
“With Na-Tae’ and I having the audacity to do what we did, we gave other people our age, the youth, we gave them that push to have that audacity, too: ‘I believe in something, I wanna do something, guess what? I’m gonna do it’ and we see that with [True Star alum] Subria Whitaker starting her organization or we see that with you guys and what you’re doing in your careers,” McLeary-Sherman said. “Funders will never ever give us credit for it, but young people leave True Star believing in themselves.”
Alumni are finding it imperative for all True Star readers and contributors, and the city of Chicago, to shine light on the organization who paved the way for many of Chicago’s wave makers, young influencers and musical geniuses.
To donate go to truestarmedia.org
Jasmine Morales is a South Side native, writer and graduate from Illinois Media School. She is a contributing editor for hip-hop-based media platforms like What’s The Word. This is her first piece for the Weekly.