News & Politics » Feature

Televisionary

Denise Zaccardi wants to use TV to teach inner-city kids to look critically at their own lives and find solutions to the problems that cripple their communities. In short, she wants to change the world.

by

comment

Denise Zaccardi is sitting in the controlled chaos of her Bucktown offices looking uncharacteristically glum. She's just gotten back from a trip to suburban Lincolnshire, where she met with officials of a large corporation and asked them for a contribution. This is the part of her job she most dislikes, and it's the part that consumes most of her schedule these days.

"I'd just like to see some financial stability," she says. "I hate all the travel, all the time it takes, all the uncertainty."

It's not easy to explain to potential funders what her operation is and how it works. The Community Television Network (CTVN) isn't really a network. And although it does produce television programs (many of which have won major awards), CTVN's primary goal is neither to make quality television nor to train others to make it. In Denise Zaccardi's grand design, CTVN is an instrument to enable inner-city kids to look critically at their own lives and at the forces operating in their communities, and find solutions to the problems that cripple themselves and their neighbors. In short, she wants to change the world.

She is an admirer of Paulo Freire, the revolutionary educator who saw literacy as the tool to liberate Brazilian peasants from passivity and dependence. Zaccardi sees television, the medium regularly excoriated for breeding intellectual and moral stupor, as a tool to liberate the urban underclass. According to Laura Washington, publisher of the Chicago Reporter and a former CTVN board member, Zaccardi's projects help society's outsiders gain "a sense of control over their destinies." In a way, Washington says, it's like "getting revenge" on big-time television.

But try explaining this to funders. The corporate people in Lincolnshire listened attentively but made no commitment. They told her she would get a response soon: either a letter and a check or just a letter.

Zaccardi laughs. "It's always a struggle for survival," she says, "but I would never consider giving up on this. It's too important. The worse things get in the city and in the schools, the madder I get." She knows of only two other operations in the country that introduce video to young people for the same reasons: the Educational Video Center in New York City and Appalshop in rural Kentucky.

The large television studios of the Chicago Access Corporation on South Green Street are where community groups and other nonprofit operations film the programs that appear on public access cable stations. Here on a Monday afternoon, a dozen teenagers are involved in creating two segments for Hard Cover, CTVN's flagship show, which has been running on Channel 19 for almost nine years. Aimed at a teen audience, the regular subjects covered on Hard Cover are anything but light and entertaining: gangs, dope, alcohol, teen pregnancy, racism, religion, sex, careers, college. What viewers may not realize is that teens themselves select the subjects, write the scripts, direct the filming, operate the cameras, manipulate the controls, and edit the product. Many come from alternative Chicago high schools, having dropped out or been thrown out of public schools. They work on this program on a totally voluntary basis, with CTVN providing only their transportation to and from the studio.

The subject today is music. The cameras focus on the faces of two youths, who will appear split-screen, while off camera another reads a few lines: "I listen to punk music," he says, "because it's fast and loud and free. I like punk because it's retaliating against the mainstream." When this show is carried on television, the home audience will be given a few seconds to guess which of the two youths wrote the words. Then the real author's face will fill the screen. Now a second pair of teens sit before the cameras and another guessing game begins. The off-camera voice reads: "Punk music is a way you can express your views freely and openly and celebrate your angst."

The entire segment will consume about three minutes of air time, but the filming takes almost an hour. CTVN instructors Tony Streit, Julie Brich, and Dwjuan Fox spend much of the time getting the camera operators in position and showing the student director (the prestige position) how to look at the multitude of screens in the control room, how to select the appropriate shots for taping, how to give orders over the microphone, and how to tell the other students at the control console what to do and when to do it. There are interruptions and confusions, a lot of waiting, and a certain amount of horseplay. The musical quiz segments have to be filmed six or seven times each before everyone is satisfied with the product.

"There's always a high level of ambiguity here," says Streit. "We've learned to adapt."

The next segment calls for former CTVN student Edgar Davis to interview Dr. Elizabeth Weber, a professor in the music department at Chicago State University. Getting the two situated on the set is the easy part. Complications arise when those in the control room switch assignments to gain experience. A boy named Albert settles in the director's seat, then decides he doesn't want the responsibility. John eagerly takes over. But Kevin, who's been out in the hall on break, returns and says, "Hey, I'm supposed to direct this one. I want to direct!" Fox calmly suggests that John, a Latino, and Kevin, who is black, direct this one together. The arrangement works. The two sit side by side at the console and call out their orders after mutual consultation--and with occasional advice from Fox.

The filming of the interview takes about 45 minutes. Davis has prepared his questions well, and Professor Weber talks easily about how music has always been an outlet for the deep emotions and insights of a culture. She doesn't knock punk but she doesn't canonize it either.

Afterward, Davis, 22, talks privately about his CTVN experience. He has lived most of his life in the Stateway Gardens housing project on the south side. In 1987, while a sophomore at Tilden High School, he watched Hard Cover, noticed the invitation at the end of the show for interested teens to participate, and showed up the next week. "I got involved in a big way and stayed involved," he says. "I learned how to host a show, about operating the equipment, writing and editing scripts. For me it was great; it kept me off the streets and out of the gangs all those years." Davis now has an associate degree in television and broadcasting from Kennedy-King College and is working toward a bachelor's degree in music education at Chicago State. He teaches music on the side in a Chicago Park District program and is a fledgling professional singer (stage name Smooth Impact).

"People know me at Stateway," he says, exhibiting no false modesty. "They've all seen me on TV. I'm kind of a role model for the kids." Zaccardi, he adds, is "a beautiful woman who gives teens like myself a way out. No question about that."

Torrey Taylor, a 15-year-old sophomore at the Community Christian Alternative Academy on the west side, says Hard Cover has been a godsend. "I've been sitting in front of a TV since I was a baby," he says. "I've had this thing about directing and writing for TV since I was five. Now I'm learning how to do everything connected with it. I'm gonna direct professionally some day."

Hard Cover is organized so that a team of teens spends one Monday afternoon coming up with ideas for a 30-minute program, setting up the format, and assigning details to individuals. The next Monday afternoon they gather at Chicago Access and film the show under the eye of the instructors. A new show runs on Channel 19 every other Monday at 5:30 PM (with reruns on the other Mondays). It's a schedule that doesn't allow a lot of time for polishing or fine- tuning, but what the program lacks in sheen it more than makes up for in gritty authenticity.

In a show on dropouts, young people face the camera and pull no punches. A 19-year-old Latino explains that he went to Metro High downtown until kids from Cabrini-Green started harassing him on the bus. So he transferred to Clemente, but gang members there intimidated him. Then he went to Schurz but got involved--"too involved"--in gang activity himself. For his own good and against his parents' advice, he dropped out altogether. "I'm stuck now," he says.

An innocent-looking girl with crucifix earrings that dangle to her shoulders tells how the gangbanging girls at her school were always giving her a hard time. Protecting herself one day, she shoved an assailant out the window. "So I got kicked out," she says, directing a kind of hopeless smile at the camera.

At the end of the show the participants present their sobering conclusions. "Don't listen to your friends," says a girl who became pregnant her sophomore year. "They're not gonna get you what you want in life, not out in the streets." "Don't drop out!" says a round-faced boy. "It's the worst mistake. You ain't gonna get nowhere if you do."

In a Hard Cover program on spirituality, three black teen panelists--two Baptists, a Muslim, and a nonbeliever--are extraordinarily candid (and tolerant) in discussing how they were brought up, what religion now means to them, and how belief or the lack of it affects their daily lives.

Hard Cover placed first nationally in the Alliance for Community Media's 1991 Hometown Video Festival and has been a perennial finalist or semifinalist in competitions like the New York National High School Festival and Chicago's Center for New Television Voice Awards. DUTV, a cable station in Philadelphia, has been running Hard Cover for three years. "It's awesome to me the way they put it together and take on tough subjects like teen prostitution," says George McCullough, DUTV's station manager. "It shows that television doesn't have to be a one-way medium."

What keeps the interest of the 50 or more teens involved in Hard Cover at any one time, says Tony Streit, is the opportunity to tell their stories on their own terms. On the networks or the major local TV outlets, "these kids never see themselves or their issues or their communities." Several months ago, when an NBC crew was filming a short piece on CTVN, an interviewer asked one of the students why he spent so much time and effort producing this kind of program. "Because you don't!" said the teen, who quickly retreated in embarrassment. This particular exchange had disappeared when the CTVN segment aired on the network news.

Denise Zaccardi, 46, grew up in Oak Park as the second oldest of seven children of an Irish mother and an Italian father who sold insurance. Racial tensions ran high in her neighborhood, just across the city line from all-black Austin, but racist comments were never tolerated at home. An especially potent influence in Denise's early life was her aunt Lucille Chawk, who was the first woman engineer at Illinois Bell and later taught school. For Aunt Lu, volunteering was a way of life; she regularly would pile Denise along with six or more other nieces and nephews into her car and travel to Saint Malachy's, an all-black church on Chicago's west side where they would sort clothes for a rummage sale, sell tickets for a raffle, prepare food for a parish celebration, or deliver baskets at holiday times.

In high school Denise worked as an aide in the summer Head Start program in Lawndale, an area as badly scarred as the neighborhood around Saint Malachy's. The children there reminded her of the hollow-eyed, starving youngsters she saw in news photos from Biafra. She was irritated by the grudging commitment of many of the Head Start teachers; frequently she found herself supervising 15 or more small children by herself for most of the day. "If there were good teachers out there," she says, "they weren't in touch with me."

Instead of wallowing in disillusion, she became determined to help in any way she could. She attended Clarke College in Dubuque, Iowa, but switched to the University of Dayton after a year because Dubuque seemed too staid and provincial. In 1970 she pursued graduate studies in education at Buffalo State College in New York as a recruit with the federally funded Teacher Corps. "I was into everything in those days," she says: "civil rights, antiwar, the women's movement. I was fascinated by the disparity in society and the fact that most people didn't even notice it."

As part of her community-service requirement, Zaccardi worked in an inner-city Buffalo grade school, PS 33, whose teachers seemed no more zealous that those in Lawndale. And here she discovered her own organizational talent. "The problem wasn't that people were standing in the way or preventing learning," says Zaccardi. "It was just that nobody was doing anything; there was a vacuum of opportunity waiting to be filled."

Inspired by books by Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, and other critics of the public schools, she became a one-person whirlwind at PS 33, bringing in speakers, organizing student trips, setting up special night classes. She wanted to make school exciting.

She came back to Chicago in 1974 as a VISTA volunteer, earning $50 a week at a Christian Action Ministry alternative school on the west side. "I think a lot of us who grew up in those years missed the whole part about money being important," she laughs. What Zaccardi wanted most was for her first-graders to learn to read; she would do whatever it took. "It was a mission," she says. "I decided my kids would learn." And they did. She tested them regularly to make sure of their progress.

In a peculiar twist, the Democratic National Convention in 1972 changed her life even though she didn't attend it. Watching the videos created by a band of independents known as TVTV who'd brought the new portable cameras onto the convention floor, she was struck by the sense of immediacy and excitement they created. Why, Zaccardi wondered, couldn't television bring this immediacy to the lives of inner-city kids?

She borrowed a video camera from a friend and started making tapes after school with little groups of west-side students, urging them to come up with topics and approaches. Eventually she took a course in TV production, but most of the early learning came by hit-or-miss. In 1974 Zaccardi obtained a small state grant to run a summer program on video. Her operation, then called the Video Project, was affiliated with the Alternative Schools Network. "I never tried to work with the public schools at that time," she says, "because their doors always seemed to be locked as soon as classes got out."

In the following years, after-school and summer classes flourished, with funding from the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training. Zaccardi worked mostly with Latino teens in Uptown, Pilsen, and West Town, producing a series of tapes like The Latin Queens (interviews with girl gang members) and War on the Walls (a look at graffiti and graffiti artists). Other grants arrived from the Illinois Arts Council and the MacArthur Foundation, and the Video Project eventually separated from the Alternative Schools Network, became CTVN in 1980, and undertook more ambitious projects. CTVN filmed documentaries on Harold Washington's 1983 mayoral campaign, on the struggle to keep Cook County Hospital open, and on the unsuccessful campaign to save Chicago's Stewart-Warner plant. Though critically acclaimed, they were shown for the most part only at community meetings and in church basements.

In 1986 Zaccardi launched an offshoot called Video Services as an income-generating business; it contracts to produce promotional or training films for nonprofit organizations, and incidentally provides paying jobs for CTVN students who have acquired video skills. Thus far Video Services has had some 130 clients.

Zaccardi launched Hard Cover in 1986 when public access television first became available in Chicago. She saw it as an opportunity to showcase the sort of thing she'd already been doing for 12 years: handing video cameras to young people and allowing them (with a certain amount of direction) to do their own thing.

Zaccardi can get positively rapturous about television's value as a teaching mechanism. "It's not a scary medium," she says. "It's a way of looking at something and telling a story. When you use it you have to find a beginning, a middle, and an end to the story. In the process you become articulate about the issues in your community. You start doing some analytical thinking about what you're filming and what the people are saying to you. And you're acquiring skills and gaining in self-esteem, and you're making contact with the people and institutions that affect life." She makes only one demand: no matter what subject is selected, even if it's something like drug addiction or teen suicide, "a solution has to be included in the final product." That way, she says, "we're not only teaching them to pinpoint a problem but how to deal with it. Otherwise we'd be doing what the regular media does, which is not much."

On a cold Friday afternoon Tony Streit is huddled in a room in the basement of the Elliott Donnelly Youth Center near 39th and Michigan with Will Thompson, a 16-year-old sophomore at Wendell Phillips High School. They're preparing for an interview with Harold Lucas of the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. The subject is neighborhood revitalization in the decimated Grand Boulevard-Douglas area. Streit suggests subjects Will could ask about, like the community's history, the impact of high-rise public housing, renewal plans. Gradually the youth formulates his questions, writes them down, and practices them aloud. After an hour the two are joined by three other Phillips students, Latrisha Shaw, Tonya Eddmonds, and Tyrone Isaac, who will serve as technicians for the video shoot. The group rides in Streit's van to Lucas's office three blocks away and spends 20 minutes setting up the camcorder and lights. Lucas's personal office is so small that the camera has to stand on a tripod out in the hallway, peering in through the doorway as Lucas and Thompson converse.

All four of these teens have grown up in this neighborhood, and they've come to know it largely as a gang-ridden wasteland. Lucas, a man in his early 50s with the manner of a Baptist preacher, is delighted to paint a radically different picture. There was a time, he explains, when Grand Boulevard lived up to its name, when it was the "black metropolis," when its people had elegant manners and stable families, when all classes--doctors, mechanics, teachers, numbers runners--lived on the same blocks, when black businesses like the Supreme Life Insurance Company thrived, when folks were not afraid to sleep out on the parkways on hot summer nights. But all that changed after the 1940s, says Lucas, when the professionals started migrating to Hyde Park and Chatham. That's when the combination of public housing and urban renewal turned this community into a ghetto, where now three generations of a family survive on welfare and gangs "with no sense of history and with the shackles of slavery on their minds instead of their feet" congregate on street corners.

All that can change, Lucas tells his small audience. As director of Mid-South's "Restoring Bronzeville" project, he hopes to see $1 billion invested in his community. The first step calls for renovating seven historic structures, including Supreme Life's headquarters and the Chicago Bee building, once the offices of a thriving black newspaper. "We are living on the most valuable land in the city," says Lucas, "on solid, high ground, ten minutes from the Loop and right next to Lake Michigan." If young people will only realize where they stand, what came before and what with common effort could follow, he says, his voice almost pleading, Grand Boulevard-Douglas can again become "one of the most glorious communities in the city of Chicago."

The camera and the Phillips students take all this in, but it's not clear if the four comprehend the dream Lucas is spinning. Then comes a poignant exchange. Lucas asks the students for their reaction to his vision. After a long pause Latrisha Shaw says slowly that she doesn't think revitalization can ever happen where she lives and even if it does it won't be for her benefit. "I think somebody's got it all planned out and they're gonna take over," she says. "That's why they're knocking down our buildings."

"I understand," says Lucas sadly. "Your image is so bad you don't believe anything good can happen. It pains my heart that we've temporarily lost you. . . . We've become victims of an economic stratification that is worse than racism." But he assures her the restoration will take place--when youngsters like her awake.

As the camera crew packs up the equipment, Lucas is handing out brochures and inviting everyone to a community celebration the next weekend. Afterward Latrisha Shaw comments privately, "All that would be nice, you know, but I don't see how it could be."

Streit believes the interview went well. "I can't think of any other setting or situation where four teens would stand around for an hour and really hear that kind of talk," he says.

This video won't appear on Hard Cover. Parts of it will show up in a video on the Grand Boulevard-Douglas community, one of 12 neighborhoods whose stories are being taped in oral history form under the sponsorship of the Chicago Historical Society. CTVN was authorized to produce several of these tapes largely because society officials liked CTVN's commitment to the use of young people.

After 20 years in the business Denise Zaccardi has no illusions about quick fixes. Inner-city kids grow up with a such a diet of violence and hopelessness that they're "freaked out." Somebody, she says, has to put them in reflective situations. The discipline of sitting down and thinking through the questions required for an interview is training in higher-level skills, she argues. "It's an empowering sort of exercise."

A few public schools, such as Wells, offer programs that use video in a comparable way, and individual video artists appear occasionally in the schools. But video as a hands-on, interactive tool is rare. "I think it's because most people just don't think about the poor," says Zaccardi, "and they'd rather not think about them. That's why we have first-class jails and second-class schools."

Video class is under way on a Tuesday morning at El Cuarto Ano, an alternative program that prepares public school dropouts for their GED exams. The program, teaching about 25 students at any one time, occupies two rooms at Association House in the West Town area. Better than half its students have children of their own. El Cuarto Ano is one of two alternative programs in which CTVN participates on-site, the other being the Community Christian Alternative Academy in West Lawndale.

Today a group in one room is taping interviews on parenting skills. Edwin Cartagena, who is 21, is the father of a 14-month-old daughter. The camera operator, Laura Perez, 17, has a 1-year-old son who is walking around the room unsteadily and occasionally tinkling on the piano. The interviewer, Brenda Nunez, also 17, asks pointed and practical questions, perhaps because she too is a parent--of a 15-month-old son. Did you want the baby? What is your present relationship with the mother? How often do you see the child? What are your intentions as a parent?

Cartagena says he is trying to be a responsible father. He has a job at Marshall Field's downtown and believes he has a future there. Although he did not want the child at first and had broken up with his girlfriend, he was present at the birth. "The first one she saw was me," he says. "That was cool, like she recognized me right away." Now he spends time with the baby instead of hanging around with friends. "I regret what happened sometimes," Cartagena says, "but now she's my motivator, my energizer. I see myself living again through this kid. . . . I want to be there for her."

Nunez is supportive and sympathetic, while interjecting occasional comments on the difficulties a single mother faces in trying to get through high school, especially if she's living in her own apartment. "These kids," she says, shaking her head, "they want babies at 15!" The interview will become part of a separate video on the subject of teen parenting and may be used in some future Hard Cover.

In the other classroom, seven students under the direction of CTVN instructor Deb Diehl are filming poems they've written. There is a vast contrast here between their loud, adolescent, good-natured energy level as they prepare, and the reverent attention they give to one another's recited poetry when the camera is on. The subject matter of the poetry invariably belies the childlike faces of the authors. A rail-thin girl of 17 who looks about 12 reads, "When I look at her with her beautiful smile I am happy. . . . Love to me is a small person who just came out of me."

A boy whose normal behavior can only be described as hyperactive grows intensely serious in front of the camera. "You are the voice that talked to my soul," he reads slowly. "Say everything will be OK. Give me my pride and apologize and I will love you forever."

A girl who is raising her baby alone reads, "My soul cries like the cry of a wolf. . . . I feel like a poor, homeless man in despair, like a rotten apple on a rock, like a dead rat in the alley, like a gay man in the closet. . . . Depression is so painful it's like the pain of giving birth."

These videos may turn up in a Guild Complex/CTVN-sponsored poetry festival next summer, says Diehl. Some of these teens have been abused themselves, she says. Many have been deep into drugs. Most have responsibilities--if not a child of their own, then younger siblings or even a parent. Adds Tony Streit, "This work isn't about videos, it's about therapy."

"The kids here live fast lives," says Hector Campos, former principal of El Cuarto Ano. "They experience more in a day than most of us do in a year. But much of the time they don't reflect, they just experience." By giving them an opportunity for self-expression, he maintains, CTVN has found a unique way of helping these last-ditch high school students "find themselves, maybe eventually even contribute."

CTVN's connections with alternative high schools go way back. Zaccardi set up CTVN in 1974 as a program of the Chicago Alternative School Network and based it at now-closed Saint Mary's High on the west side. With the aid of CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) funds, Zaccardi had a full-time staff of four by 1979, was working with teens in ten alternative schools, and was running free summer workshops and training sessions for any students who showed interest. The lean years came after 1980 and continued throughout the Reagan-Bush era; so called "nonessential" federal educational and social service programs were slashed. Zaccardi had to root around for private funds to keep her venture alive and was forced to deemphasize alternative schools. Only lately has she found a few niches, like the Historical Society project, in which to expand. Still, her various CTVN programs have provided training for 2,200 young people since the mid-1970s, and some have gone on to careers in the television industry. Javier Vargas, a former studio supervisor for the Chicago Access Corporation now with Univision, a Miami-based network of Spanish-speaking stations, credits CTVN for "giving me an opportunity." Vargas's involvement in CTVN projects started when he was a student at Clemente High School in 1982. He is the only one of seven siblings to graduate from high school and college.

The fifth-grade class at the Mark Sheridan School in Bridgeport is a racial rainbow. The 10- and 11-year-olds are white, Hispanic, African American, and Asian. On this Wednesday morning 11 of the 33 students are taping a skit dramatizing a poem written by one student, while another group whose poem has already been taped sits and observes (occasionally providing unasked for advice) and a third group rehearses its script in another room. The two-hour class is directed by Michael Hess, a 24-year-old CTVN instructor who works at public elementary schools in Lawndale, West Town, and Bridgeport. The program, an arts partnership in education, was established by Marshall Field's in cooperation with the Chicago Board of Education. Now in its second year, funded by various donors, it's one of the newer venues for CTVN.

The poem being taped now was written by a slight, shy boy named Damola Kale and concerns his sadness at never having met his grandmother. "Nine children she had," the poem concludes, "one of them is my mother. I don't know her, that's what's bad. I want to see her for the very first time--my grandmother."

The class approaches this project with great seriousness. In previous classes the students developed a storyboard on heavy pink paper that visualizes the poem line by line. Almost everyone, it seems, is familiar with the basic techniques of operating a camcorder mounted on a tripod, handling the microphone, designing and holding up cue cards, and (the apparent favorite) counting down "3-2-1" for each take and snapping the clapper. Scene one goes smoothly, a simple shot of an empty rocking chair to accompany the words "Since she's gone my heart is not the same." It requires only two takes. Scene two (for the words, "Grandma, where are you?") is another matter. It calls for Damola to be sleeping fitfully in bed and dreaming of his grandmother. For this shot Damola lies on two desks pushed together and is covered with a blanket. Grandma, actually student Mary Jo Phillips wearing a kerchief on her head, rises ghostlike from behind the desks and hovers over the sleeping boy. Five takes are required before the timing is just so.

So involved are all these fifth-graders in their tasks that no one, including Damola, appears self-conscious, nor is anyone distracted by the fact that Damola is black and grandma is white. During the next 90 minutes, as the students constantly exchange jobs and roles, 11 more scenes are taped, one of them an elaborate funeral dance. Hess, who has as much energy as the children, is a blur of motion bouncing from the camera to the story board, lining up little groups for each shoot, settling minor disputes. Not a moment is lost. The classroom teacher cheerfully participates in one scene, though she is heard to mutter a little later, "If I live through this day I believe I'll make it."

In its completed form the videotape of this dramatization will run about 45 seconds. In Zaccardi's view the making of it will give the students a new perspective on television. Not only does the experience promote verbal and visual creativity, she says, it also dispels the illusion that television is a vehicle whereby other people tell their stories while a passive audience sits and stares.

In recent years CTVN has gained wider notice. Hard Cover is available to more than 300,000 cable subscribers in Chicago. A CTVN special, Youth on Racism, was voted best of the fest at the San Francisco Media Festival in 1993 and best high school production at the 1994 National Educational Film and Video Festival. The 30-minute production features four Chicago-area teens of different backgrounds telling how racism has affected their lives. Then it pushes the idea by following one of the girls, a Filipino from Belmont-Cragin, as she visits a Mexican girl in her Pilsen neighborhood; the Mexican girl then spends a day in Belmont-Cragin. A black youth from Stateway Gardens visits a peer in Lake Forest and welcomes the North Shore youth into his own south-side territory. The film's punch is its revelation of how the four, all of whom live within 30 miles of one another, might as well come from different countries.

Even wider notice was earned by The End of the Nightstick, which was shown nationally on Public Broadcasting's "Point of View" series and won the silver plaque at the 1993 Chicago International Film Festival. It traces in documentary fashion the protracted (and eventually successful) effort by community goups to oust Area Two police commander Jon Burge, the subject of persistent accusations that he engaged in or authorized the torture of suspected criminals.

The center of CTVN operations is a squat two-story former audio-parts factory near Milwaukee and Damen. The drab building has bars on the side windows and an exterior that does not identify it. Even though the community is in an advanced stage of yuppification, Zaccardi would prefer not to advertise the fact that the building might be full of expensive video equipment. Several of CTVN's camcorders have been stolen in the past (one at gunpoint), although these incidents occurred when teams were out filming in other neighborhoods. The building is awash in activity after school and through the evening almost every day, as teens and instructors work on current videos and plan new ones. The place is especially alive during the summer, when an intensive eight-week program in video production is under way for some 30 high-schoolers.

The opportunity to work in a creative way with young people who have dreams has helped attract the scores of employees and consultants Zaccardi has brought to CTVN over the last 20 years. "I learned a lot from Denise," says filmmaker Judy Hoffman, a longtime collaborator. She praises Zaccardi's determination to tell stories from a grass-roots point of view rather than impose a thesis from on high. "Denise believes in this and she's got such a commitment," says Hoffman, who is herself working on a documentary on the life of Richard J. Daley. But it's hard for Zaccardi to get the kind of support she deserves, Hoffman adds, given the economic climate and the unwillingness of major philanthropies to appreciate a small but innovative operation. "They would be forced to reexamine their own philanthropic ideology," says Hoffman.

It's also been difficult to maintain a committed core staff. Some instructors have thrown in the towel after only a few days with the high-risk students at alternative schools. Pay is not a big inducement either. Instructors make about $18,000 a year, and Zaccardi herself, with 20 years managing her firm, earned less than $28,000 last year. Currently the full-time staff of seven is bolstered by two part-timers and a file of producers and skilled teens who can be called on for paying jobs. The budget this year is about $300,000, which includes the recent Marshall Field's and Chicago Historical Society grants; but overhead costs, especially for equipment, are high and growing. Zaccardi as usual will have to hustle up much of it.

The current top staff, fortunately, shows no signs of battle fatigue. Deb Diehl, 32, who has a master's degree in radio, television, and film from Northwestern University, says her media arts instructor position lets her do the two things she most loves: create art and affect the lives of kids and other adults. "You do see results," she says. "And you hope your work has some residual effects that will show up later; you hope people have an unconscious that's amassing benefits." Julie Brich, 27, the neighborhood program coordinator, calls CTVN a perfect arrangement for her. "I can't change anyone's life," says Brich, who's studying for a master's in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago, "but I can help people make some choices. Just driving somewhere with kids on a shoot I hear about their lives. They call me later on the phone. How else could that happen?" Tony Streit, 29, special projects coordinator, is a Notre Dame graduate in communication and economics who joined CTVN in 1991. Like Diehl and Brich, he loves the social-work aspects of his job. "In this work I can go places--like the Cook County Jail--where I don't ordinarily belong," he says, "and I meet people I'd never interact with in ordinary life." The job has taught him not only a lot about videos, he says, but about patience and empathy and about rethinking assumptions he grew up with in Libertyville.

Zaccardi's style of management is open-ended, say coworkers. "I never had a real job," she explains, "so I don't really know how to manage. We try to be creative and give everyone room." She also tries to connect what CTVN is doing on a daily basis with what the experts are writing about educational philosophy and adolescent psychology and the effects of poverty and racism. At meetings the staff is more inclined to discuss books and articles than personnel problems and management objectives.

In private life--a husband, two young children, a home on the north side--Zaccardi doesn't watch much television because it makes her uncomfortable, especially the nightly news. The steady diet of violence, she says, "just fans the flames of sensationalism and makes people feel vulnerable and helpless. So instead of supporting programs that are trying to do something, they insulate themselves with elaborate burglar alarm systems or move farther away from the city. I understand how they feel, but still . . ."

But she is incapable of yielding to depression for more than a few seconds. The morning mail brings a letter from the company she solicited in Lincolnshire--and a check for $1,000. "Hey!" says Zaccardi, "it's a start for the new year."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

Add a comment