Established in 2004, the True Star Foundation is an organization that aims to improve the lives of Chicago’s youth through on-the-job training in communications and media, participants can gain hands-on experience at an early age. Since True Star’s inception, over 15 years ago, they have had more than 10,000 youth go through the program. And they are still growing. The Chicago Defender spoke with True Star founders, DeAnna McLeary Sherman and Na-Tae’ Thompson on their start, impact, and student successes.
Chicago Defender: What was the motivation behind True Star? How did you get your start?
Na-Tae’ Thompson: How we started was rather random. And everything was unintentional. DeAnna (McLeary Sherman) and I saw that there was a need for high school students to learn communication and literacy skills. We discovered that there were high school juniors who couldn’t put together a paragraph. Which led us to wonder how they were going to make it beyond high school. Or one better, how they managed to get that far.
Rather than be on the sidelines of the problem, we decided to be a part of the solution. We wanted to creatively figure out a way to help young people become interested in literacy and communication. So, we developed a journalism program with seventeen students at Rainbow Beach Park.
At the time, we didn’t have a name or know what the final product was going to be. The young people came up with the name. They also wanted to do a newsletter to show their parents what they worked on over the past ten weeks. From there, in the next session, the students wanted to do their own pictures and learn how to do layouts.
So, we increased the newsletter by four pages. Then increased it to eight. Next, we added the graphic design and photography programs. As time went on, we added more students to each session. And added more programs and more pages. Which eventually turned into a 52-page glossy magazine produced by the young people of Chicago. It was in 2004 when we started, and we became official in 2006.
Chicago Defender: What would you say has been some of True Star’s greatest strengths?
Na-Tae’ Thompson: We are an organization that has been able to pivot. Because we are working with young people, we do understand that they change on a day-to-day basis. So, we need to be able to change with them. For example, we’ve gone from servicing millennials to Gen-Z.
So, in 2018, the students told us that they didn’t read magazines anymore. That hurt our feelings, but we decided to go digital and change with the young people. It showed how we listen. True Star has grown organically because we listened to the youth. We didn’t claim to know everything. We decided to put the business behind their ideas and figure out how to make them happen. Because we believe it’s about exposure.
Chicago Defender: What would you say has been your greatest impact on the youth?
DeAnna McLeary Sherman: I would have to say that our greatest impact has been helping young people see their value in the world. Showing them how remarkably special and gifted they are. Oftentimes, our young people come from homes and communities where they aren’t being uplifted. When we talk to young people, they say that True Star gave them a voice. We listened. We made them feel like what they were saying was worthy. So, building their self-worth and self-esteem and belief in themselves.
We’re special, in that we are a media outlet that celebrates Black youth. When you look at media or the news, Black youth are characterized as victims or perpetrators of crime. But when you look at True Star, it’s the total opposite. We are celebrating who they are, along with their gifts, talents, and voice. It’s something that is extremely special and has had a strong impact on changing the narrative.
Chicago Defender: What are some of the careers that former students have gone into?
DeAnna McLeary Sherman: Well, the majority of our students go into media. We have a student who’s a social media marketer for the Chicago Reader. That student has also written a film that won at a festival and was able to be made through Showtime. We have a student who is an anchor in Cleveland for a CBS affiliate. We have students who have gone on to work in advertising, PR, and photography. Also, a lot of our former students are now entrepreneurs. But then we have students who have gone into business, nursing, law, politics, activism, and engineering.
Na-Tae’ Thompson: And for the young people who do not go into communications, they use their skills to create their marketing materials. So, while it may have nothing to do with writing or journalism, they always tell us much True Star has helped them. Because they were able to create their own business and do the things necessary to become successful.
Chicago Defender: What’s next for True Star?
DeAnna McLeary Sherman: Taking over the world! Continuing to grow our audience. We released our first mini docu-series talking about COVID’s impact on high school athletes. So, we want to do more of that. More production. More film.
We’ve recently received funding to start a virtual learning platform. Because we would love to digitize our programs so that young people are not limited by location. We want anyone to be a part of the True Star program. And one day become the youth media company that tells those stories that only young people can tell.
For more information on the True Star Foundation, visit https://truestarfoundation.org/.
Contributing Writer Racquel Coral is a national lifestyle writer and journalist based in Chicago, Illinois. Find her on social media @withloveracquel.