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Truestar Magazine's success with black teen leads to radio venture

By Marti Parham
Chicago Tribune

(September 23, 2009) Arthur Jones loved his summer job. The 15-year-old sophomore wrote for a nonprofit's magazine and is now part of its new radio program.

"We are going to turn the magazine articles that we wrote into discussion topics. I'm excited to be a part of this," said Jones, who attends Lindblom Math and Science Academy.

Jones is one of about 100 students who helped produce the magazine as part of the True Star Foundation's journalism program. The students and organizers recently attended a gala marking the magazine's fifth year and its 16th issue. More than 200 teenagers danced to songs by New Boyz, Gucci Mane and Drake on a late summer evening at the Parkway Ballroom in Bronzeville, but it was the 30-something hosts, DeAnna McLeary and Na-Tae' Thompson, who had the greatest reason to celebrate.

What began as a program with 17 students producing a four-page newsletter has evolved into True Star Magazine, a glossy, 52-page publication written, edited and marketed by teens. The event also served as the official launch of True Star Radio, a partnership with Crawford Broadcasting's WPWX-FM Power 92.3.

"We bootstrapped this whole thing," McLeary said of the free, quarterly publication and its humble beginning. "We've never had an investor and never took out a loan. So, the fact that we've gotten this far to end up here is really gratifying."

Both women left the corporate worlds of finance and marketing to dedicate themselves to working with teens. McLeary was an account executive until 2005 for Essence Communications Partners' now-defunct Suede Magazine. Before that she worked for management consulting firm Accenture as a senior consultant analyst. Thompson was formerly a program specialist with the Chicago Park District and before that worked about three years as an account executive for Chancellor Marketing Group. The women feel that the path they are on now is their life's mission and far more fulfilling.

"It's really exciting to see our growth and to see how excited the young people are about True Star," said Thompson. "That's what it's really all about anyway."

Through True Star's after-school and summer programs, high school students are partnered with industry experts and mentored in the fields of journalism, graphic design, photography, event planning, sales and marketing to produce the magazine.

Thompson, who worked with teens when she was a program specialist for the Chicago Park District, said she noticed that they were lacking in basic written communication skills.

"How were they expected to get into college when they can't even formulate full paragraphs and use proper punctuation? The whole idea was to start a journalism program, not a magazine."

The students get a small stipend as a way to reiterate the importance of hard work and responsibility, and the instructors -- professionals in the fields of journalism, graphic design, sales and marketing, event planning and photography -- are paid $23 to 25 an hour.

The foundation gets some private donations but relies mainly on state- and corporate-funded grants.

This summer marked the first time True Star and Chicago Public Schools worked together, creating 200-plus student staffers throughout the city.

"We were looking for activities to personalize the student learning experience, and True Star offered that opportunity," said Edward Spikes, Chicago Public Schools project manager for Smaller Learning Communities.

Some True Star alumni even come back to teach.

Shannon Smith, who is in her sophomore year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said she will always make herself available for McLeary and Thompson.

"I had never thought about journalism until I started working with True Star," said Smith, 19, now a broadcast journalism major. "Working with them made me realize this is what I want to do."

Thompson said many of the teens' parents also are appreciative.

"We get a lot of accolades from parents who call and say, 'I'm so happy my child participated in True Star,' and that's really rewarding," she said.

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