Written by STATE Co-Founder, Scot Tatelman
Growing up, when I thought of Chicago, it was immediately Da Bears, Da Bulls and Brad Morris. Da Brad.
These days, it's not so humorous or innocent. Thoughts and impressions of Chicago brings you to gun violence, gang violence...and barely making that list - the curse breaking Cubs.
The conversation surrounding a city so rich with soul and history has recently shifted. Everything in the news about Chicago - specifically its inner cities - is incredibly negative. A narrative has been built that is characterizing its most underfunded, embattled communities in a light that gets very little light. It's pure darkness.
I got consumed by this and started reading and watching everything related to the never before seen violence happening on the streets of Chicago.
With every story and profile piece, my thoughts immediately went to the kids of these neighborhoods. What are they hearing? What is this international conversation draped in negativity telling them about their status in the world, hope for the future and our collective belief in them?
The answer was pretty clear to me...what we were telling these kids was that much like the news' portrayal of their communities as hopeless, violent and in disarray, they would start internalizing that as "I'm hopeless. I'm violent. I'm in disarray."
So I did the only thing that I knew I could to educate myself and devise a plan to do something...not even sure what that something would be. I connected with as many people on the ground or from Chicago as I could.
I TALKED TO FRIENDS, EDUCATORS, NONPROFIT DIRECTORS, AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS SO THAT OUR STRATEGY WOULD GO BEYOND JUST DONATING A TON OF BACKPACKS, BUT LOOK TO SHIFT THE NEGATIVE NARRATIVE TO SUPPORT AND SHOW BELIEF IN THESE KIDS. I VIRTUALLY ENGULFED MYSELF IN THE LANDSCAPE SO THAT I WASN'T SOME NEW YORK BASED GUY FLYING IN AND FLYING OUT, PRETENDING TO BE A HERO.
I obsessed over this fear and made sure to dot all my i's and cross the t's before going into action. And then I went to Chicago....and incredibly, Brad Morris met me there to shoot a short film.
Leading up to the trip, I told myself that what I've learned from working in a variety of underfunded communities is that despite the negativity and uncertainty swirling around them, there always seems to be a remarkable sense of pride, community and love - specifically amongst its youth. I hoped that Chicago would display that same miraculous vibe. But truthfully, I wasn't sure.
By the looks of the news, it was a full blown war zone. How could kids even muster up smiles amidst so much fear and unrest?
Of all the STATE trips I've taken with high pressure and stakes, I was by far most on edge for this one. Was our strategy and crew right? Would the kids we were working with be open, willing to share and display that positivity I was hoping to bring to the forefront? Would I be a witness to one of these everyday shootings? Would I be a victim to one? I've spent countless hours in some of the most violent neighborhoods in the country and that thought has truly never crossed my mind...until driving into the west side at 4 pm on our first night there. You could immediately feel the angst in the air. It was palpable.
But our mission in shooting this film wasn't to capture that feeling, but rather the opposite. To tell the stories of kids growing up in these neighborhoods who were drowning out the noise, rising above the chaos and negativity.
We weren't looking to document another sob story about Chicago and it's never before seen violence, but instead profile the exact opposite, illuminating the light of the communities - a message that would be driven by its youth.
While this was our main focus beginning the 2 1/2 day shoot, it took no more than 20 minutes for me to lose focus and emotional control. Our first interview was with a rising 7th grade boy named Cameron. We filmed him, his Mom and his little brother at their apartment in Austin. Hanging out in their living room then segued into hearing stories about his older brother who had been shot and killed less than one year ago.
They proudly showed us his countless sports trophies, told stories about how good of an athlete he was and all his girlfriends, and I began to lose it. Tears started welling up and as hard as I tried to keep it together, I was really struggling and stepped away.
But here's where everything clicked and validated this trip, our strategy and vision - Cameron and his Mom talked about their big brother and oldest son with beaming smiles. No tears. No sadness. Pure pride. This was a moment I'll never forget and embodied what this city and its kids are all about. Resilience, love and honor. I felt that we had to show the world these types of moments and people as it's unfair for families like Cameron's to be depicted as hopeless, beaten down and defeated because the world is led to believe as much.
We walked the streets with a full film crew and people skeptically asked us what we were doing. When we told them our intention of creating a documentary that finally talks about the positive things coming out of Chicago's inner cities and the kids who drive so much of it, their collective responses were "Thank you!" "That's what we need right now." AND "It's bad but it ain't all bad."
The question "what do we tell the kids?" needed to be repositioned for this project to what are we already telling the kids? They're listening but luckily, carving their own path. Now it's time we listen to them.
When we looked to Chicago as the focal point of our 2017 back to school donation efforts, Chance the Rapper was the guy we first set our sites on. He is walking the walk and talking the talk in his commitment to supporting the community in which he grew up. Every day.
We are so honored, humbled and excited to work with him and his his organization, SocialWorks in supporting tens of thousands of Chicago kids on his quest to level the playing field.
Our Chicago initiative is a multi layered approach. And we knew that if we were really looking to change the conversation and help buck the negative narrative, it's going to take more than simply a short film.
To go big with this Chicago initiative, we aimed for an equally big stage. A really really big stage.
So on August 8th, STATE will take over the White Sox ballpark for a signature, high energy bag drop rally for hundreds of local kids from surrounding Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago.
We've done some epic drops over the years, but this one will most likely take the cake. Even as a (Red) Sox fan like myself!
Throughout the month of August, we'll be equipping 35,000 Chicago students with new backpacks - the most costly item and biggest burden for families to purchase during back to school season. 35,000!!!
And to culminate our entire back to school 2017 initiative, we'll be teaming up with Chicago Public Schools and the Mayor's Office in carrying out a surprise first day of school drop for an entire student body - at a school to be named later - to officially kick off the year in the only way we know how...inspiring, dancing and in serious style!
There's been so many pinnacle moments for us as a growing brand, but nothing quite like this. Our mission has never been stronger and more clear, thanks to the remarkable parents, educators, and kids of Chicago who showed us the way...and led us to the light that needed to be seen.
We made a promise at the beginning of 2017 to do all we could as a company to shed light on the good in this world, even if the path to get there is tough and uncomfortable. I hope this is a step in the right direction for the incredible people of Chicago and beyond.
Thanks for reading and your continual support of STATE. These types of movements don't happen without your support and for that, we are forever grateful!
With so so much appreciation...