Even before our national broadcast on PBS's award-winning Independent Lens on April 13, 2015, we're beginning to engage new audiences with The Homestretch through public media.
This past weekend in Chicago there were three meaningful events surrounding the film that reinforced the essential connection between public media and independent voices. First, we taped a special 30-minute episode of Chicago Tonight, the flagship program on WTTW, the local PBS affiliate. Next, The Homestretch was presented in a special free screening event as part of the nationwide ITVS Community Cinema program, where the film was was followed by talkbacks, live performances by youth, and a resource fair. Finally, the film's subjects Anthony, Kasey and Maria interviewed one another about their experiences participating in the film for NPR's amazing StoryCorps.
On set of the WTTW studios, Chicago Tonight host Phil Ponce engaged deeply with both the filmmakers and the subjects for a 30 minute special that will air in Chicago following the broadcast of The Homestretch on April 13. First, Ponce sat down with Maria, Kasey and Roque, briefly catching up on "where they are now" before digging into the broader issue of youth homelessness. Obstacles were at the core of their insights, with each of the subjects highlighting some of the barriers homeless youth face on their path to success. Stereotypes and negative images are one of the the biggest things preventing society from identifying who is in fact unstably housed and subsequently serving them. "I get dressed up like this," said Kasey, pointing to her sweater vest and black rimmed glasses, "and people don't think I'm homeless."
The Chicago Tonight taping continued as host Phil Ponce interviewed Anne and Kirsten, The Homestretch's directors. While art and process had a presence in the conversation, the focus was on the growing crisis of youth homelessness: 1.6 million homeless youth across the country, 22,000 homeless students in Chicago Public Schools. Though the issue is daunting, conversation also covered the glimmers of hope that we need to support. Highly effective individuals and organizations are doing incredible things. Kirsten referenced two of the film's Chicago partners, The Night Ministry and Teen Living Programs, as well as countless public school teachers and counsellors who understand that the issue needs a spectrum of responses, ranging from educational support to emergency shelters to long term placements.
With Chicago Tonight wrapped, The Homestretch team transitioned it's focus to the ITVS Community Cinema event. This "national civic engagement initiative" features free monthly screenings of social issue documentaries in 75+ cities for a month before broadcast. Because of the film's setting and the proximity of co-producer Kartemquin Films, Chicago's screening was chosen as the flagship event for The Homestretch's Community Cinema run.
Hosted by WTTW at the Chicago Cultural Center, and spearheaded by ITVS Engagement Coordinator, Naomi Walker, the day of activities kicked off with a packed screening of the film. A two part panel followed. The first part featured Kasey, Anthony, Maria and director Anne discussing how youth homelessness affects individuals. The conversation focused on young people's relationship with adults. "We need to be able to trust them," said Anthony. Relationships with adults - as parents, as mentors, as role models - have a huge impact on the success or failure of each homeless youth.
In the second portion of the panel, local service organizations The Night Ministry, Teen Living Programs and Chicago Coalition for The Homeless took the stage to discuss the issue's broader implications, where a huge gap between services and need was the focus, as well as the Governor's proposed plan to cut existing homeless youth services in his 2016 budget by more than 50%. Ending the day on a positive note, the Community Cinema Event concluded with a resource fair, where 20+ service organization shared information with individuals interested or in need, and performances by youth themselves, including our own Kasey.
For The Homestretch's final public media encounter of the weekend, subjects Maria, Anthony, and Kasey interviewed one another for StoryCorps. This oral history project, affiliated with National Public Radio (NPR), provides "people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives." With just the three of them and a passive facilitator in the recording booth, genuine dialogue flowed. They connected about their respective resiliency, the layers of depth outsiders can't comprehend, and what it's like to face challenges with no one to fall back on. As the conversation came to a close, Anthony spoke with pride about his choice to participate in The Homestretch: "I was just grateful to...inspire."
Each of these three touches, with WTTW, ITVS, and NPR, drove home a singular point: public media matters. This reaffirmation comes at a time when access to public media, specifically independent films, is in jeopardy. Public television is currently deciding whether or not to keep two vital programs, POV and Independent Lens, in their premier prime-time slot on Monday nights at 10pm. Uprooting these programs would mean stifling underrepresented voices in American media at a time when they need it most.