The spirit of Ernest Hemingway swept through the labyrinthine halls of his childhood home in Oak Park on the evening of July 23rd, as Columbia Links hosted a fundraiser for its invaluable leadership program. The exuberant voices of young journalists filled the painstakingly restored rooms of the historic site, which stands as an enduring monument to the place where a literary genius was born. Executive director Brenda Butler couldn’t have chosen a more fitting location to celebrate the Chicago high school students who have been tutored in the methods of evidence-based journalism. The students eagerly greeted visitors at the event, while sharing their stories about investigating such vital topics as sex trafficking, the school-to-prison pipeline and the ever-present epidemic of urban violence. Observing the excitement and passion in the eyes of these teens as they discussed their achievements was a true inspiration.
Beautiful violin solos performed live by acclaimed musician Emer Kinsella accompanied an hour of hors d’oeuvres and fellowship prior to the festivities. After opening remarks by Hemingway House chairman John Berry and Columbia Links co-founder Nancy Day, Butler spoke about her love of working with young people and the importance of championing perspectives rarely seen in professional news outlets.
“I’m really getting a chance to get to know the teens—we interview them, we recruit them, we get to know their families, their parents, their trials and tribulations, and help them get through to the other side,” said Butler. “We develop a rigorous, robust syllabus, so that when kids come to the college, we turn the classroom into a multimedia newsroom. We really want to enrich that experience for them by showing how they can add their voices to the discipline of journalism.”
Board Chair Glenn Jeffers announced that the 2015 Studs Terkel Community Media Award, in the amount of $2,500, that was awarded to Columbia Links, would be split between two accomplished students, Tonyisha Harris and Nathan Cordero. Butler introduced a heartfelt video submitted by the event’s honorary co-chair, Chaz Ebert, who was unable to be in attendance. The room broke into applause upon the announcement that The Ebert Foundation had just made a $7,500 grant to the Columbia Links journalism program.
The other honorary co-chair, Channel 5 news anchor Stefan Holt, interviewed two students, Briana Williams and Joshua Conner, before the crowd in attendance. They spoke of how Columbia Links gave them a well-rounded view of the world that led them to acquire a deeper understanding of themselves and the directions they want to take in life. Conner told potential donors that by supporting the program, they are “investing in future change-makers.”
“Everything that Columbia Links has done for me since the very minute that I walked in the door for the first day of the internship has impacted my life and my future and hopefully with that I can impact other people’s futures,” said Williams.
Holt said that the program essentially boils down to “three E’s.”
“Columbia Links [aims to] educate these kids about the ethics, the process of gathering news and editing news,” said Holt. “It also engages them in these very difficult subjects, from human trafficking to gun violence in the city of Chicago, to things that are going on in their own school. Finally, it encourages them. I love the stories of the students who are going on to study journalism in college, who go on to grad school, who go on amazing careers, working at news magazines and TV stations all over the country. This is where we can encourage those future journalists.”
Williams was also one of the gifted young writers who wrote film reviews for RogerEbert.com, which partnered with Columbia Links and the Chicago Urban League to mentor students while providing a platform for their work. Since many of the selected films dealt with issues of race, Williams told me that it challenged her to judge the merits of the filmmaking with objectivity.
“Being an African American female reviewing these movies during Black History Month was very interesting,” said Williams. “I had to make sure that I didn’t come across as the angry black woman. I had to be very non-biased.”
One of the greatest things Columbia Links and RogerEbert.com has taught Williams is to be respectful of different opinions while remaining true to her own. She says that the program has provided her with a sense of inner-stability that will carry on throughout college, which she will begin at Northwestern University in the fall. Critiquing films also left an indelible impact on her approach to writing as well.
“These reviews helped me expand my vocabulary a lot because there was a word limit,” said Williams. “It has taught me to condense my writing but not to weaken it. It taught me to strengthen my writing by using better words, better sentences, rephrasing, rewording and repositioning, just so you can get that perfect sequence, that perfect order, and make it still cohesive.”
Williams refers to writing as “invigorating” and loves utilizing it as a mode of unbridled expression. She finds inspiration in the motivational messages she leaves for herself on the refrigerator each day, encouraging her to be productive and succeed in her goals. She then took me step-by-step through an average day of balancing film reviews for RogerEbert.com with school work.
“On those Tuesdays, I’ll leave school, hop right on the train and go straight downtown,” said Williams. “I’ll be doing homework on the train. Then I’ll watch the movie and have discussions at the end, which are always great. Then I’ll go home, finish my homework from all five of my AP classes, go to bed late and wake up the next morning excited to start my review. That is the most satisfying thing, knowing that I’m not doing this just for the credit. I’m doing something that I love to do.”
If that doesn’t echo Hemingway’s immortal quote, “Live life to the fullest,” I don’t know what does.
For more info on Columbia Links, visit its official site.