There are few endeavors in life as important and fruitful as investing in the education and empowerment of children. And one of the best ways to do both is through the power of video. No one knows that more intimately than Steve Douglass, a former ESPN-producer-turned-educator who followed a passion for doing more with his life than churn out 10+ sports highlights a night. He instead wanted to make a difference in the lives of high school kids.
Steve is the co-founder and director of Chicago Summer Stories and St. Louis Summer Stories. As the names imply, these are summer-based programs that help high school students in those areas tell their personal and community stories. They do so with an array of video equipment and software donated or loaned by such companies as Apple, LumaTouch, FilmicPro, and Saramonic. The programs are spearheaded by We Make Movies, a Los Angeles-based non-profit geared toward building and empowering filmmaking communities.
This is the first in a 2-part article on the work Steve is doing to educate and empower youth to have a better future for themselves through the power of video storytelling.
The Legacy of Media Literacy
In today’s social-media-crazed world, it’s more important than ever for people to understand how to distinguish truth from “fiction” (i.e., “fake news”). Perhaps even more important, how to tell stories in such a way that your audience can make those determinations. For the past twenty years, Douglass has committed his life to do just that among children in urban and suburban areas where kids don’t always have the best opportunities.
Steve got his master’s in media literacy, which is the science of thinking critically about what you’re exposed to. He saw a great opportunity to teach kids in the Chicago and St. Louis areas how to use the language of filmmaking to tell powerful stories, but in a way that adheres to a strong sense of truth. “If we can marry content creation with media literacy, we’ll be that much better off,” he says.
He started the program in the summer of 2018 with students and teachers from the Chicago Public School system and with the Midwest Media Educators Association (MMEA), the largest and most cohesive group of media educators in the country. He based it off what he taught in his program at Lake Forest High School and was originally a mix of juniors and seniors who met for six weeks at Flashpoint Chicago downtown. Ultimately, they discovered that the maturity level of the seniors was just a wee bit more acclimated to the kind of instruction he was giving than the juniors; so in 2019, they focused on just seniors.
“It was really cool to see kids from the south side [of Chicago], west side, northern suburbs, southern suburbs all collaborating together,” Steve says. “And man, it was rocky. But we totally build off the tapestry of kids that we get. And that’s one of the coolest parts for me as an educator is like seeing the room, understanding the room, understanding their interests, their passions, then coming up with a unique experience that really challenges them, but also unites them.”
A “Capra-esque” Story in the Making
Steve’s path to helping kids tell their stories had an origin that sounds right out of an inspirational, Capra-esque movie. A disgruntled and disillusioned career-minded individual throws out a career in “corporate” America in favor of giving back to the community.
“I was always somewhat of a media nerd in high school and college,” Steve recalls. “After a few internships, I got my dream job at the age of 22, working as a Studio Production Assistant for ESPN. It was incredibly stressful. I worked 12-hour days spitting out anywhere from six to fifteen sports highlights a day, ranging from 30 to 90 seconds each. And this was during the analog days of tape. You constantly had to prove yourself as they were bringing in new people every two weeks.”
Steve had a revelatory moment while watching video footage of horse racing in Dubai for a highlight he was working on. He asked why they were doing highlights of horse racing in Dubai and was told that that was the main reason people were watching – because of the betting. “That’s when I knew it was time to move on.” The events of 9/11 happened to coincide with this revelation, and that existential sense of making more out of life led him to leave ESPN. “You could feel a change in the office after 9/11. I asked myself, ‘What are we doing? Does any of this really matter?'” He was there for about eighteen months before getting his master’s and afterward became an educator.
His time there was worthwhile as he learned about efficient storytelling and how to do really fast turn around times. That, combined with his media literacy training, poised him to eventually start Chicago and St. Louis Summer Stories.
OWC to the Rescue
As mentioned earlier, We Make Movies is spearheading the Summer Stories programs (with support from Apple). There was one point, however, when the program didn’t have all the equipment it needed. That’s where OWC came in.
“OWC jumped in big-time this year, both in Chicago and in St. Louis,” Steve said. “Once the pandemic hit, we were like three weeks out without access to computers. OWC stepped up and totally hooked us up with [refurbished] MacBook Pros. And then they came in with the [Envoy Pro mini] 500 GB flash drives, which were so great because they were moving around, runnin’ and gunnin’. [The program] literally wouldn’t have happened if they didn’t.”
A Sure Bet
The program had its original 2018 premiere at the Michigan Avenue Apple Store. The kids at that premiere shared how this process changed their whole perspective on life. And that is worth more than any amount of money you could bet on a horse race in Dubai.
In our next installment, you’ll learn about the specific work the kids have done for other programs in Chicago and St. Louis, how the Cardinals got involved, and where some of the original alums of the program have gone since graduating.