The Free Spirit Media mission statement says it “provides opportunities for emerging creators, primarily from communities of color, to produce and distribute original content and to pursue artistic, personal and professional aspirations.”
But the program appears to be at odds with its own mission statement, when, as reported in Reel Chicago, a statement was released from the Board of Directors saying “serious accusations” were made against founder Jeff McCarter.
On June 22, 2020 a group of former employees and alumni sent a petition to the Board of Directors of Free Spirit Media, requesting a full investigation of McCarter. While the letter emphasizes that this is not an attack on FSM, it does cite allegations of “racism, sexism, misogyny, adultism and other forms of discrimination” as well as misuse of foundation funds on McCarter’s part.
Reel Chicago has obtained the two-page signed document, which had an additional 16 pages of “personal statements and testimonies” attached to it. “Jeff McCarter claims to be an ally to Black people and people of color, yet he perpetuates and exhibits the exact behaviors that Free Spirit Media should be fighting against!”
The petition also contains claims, “He (McCarter) is known to make spaces uncomfortable, even in a professional setting. During my time as a staff member, Jeff repeatedly crossed the line with racist remarks, unwelcome comments, and ridiculous expectations.”
Several of the signees spoke with Reel Chicago about their feelings of being mistreated, overworked, understaffed, underpaid, and described unsafe and unsanitary working conditions.
“We had to beg them to change the furniture because we had bed bugs, we had roaches, mice, and for some reason Jeff expected staff to clean that up,” said Jazz Williams, Hoops High Production Coordinator.
They told stories of being used as a pawn and feeling exploited, often experiencing insensitivity and blatant racism.
During Jeff McCarter’s Broadcast Dreams Event at Hoops High, Jazz describes feeling like a caged animal at the zoo for white people to gawk at through glass windows. They were not allowed to eat the same food, speak to the investors, nor be in the same space as Jeff without permission. When entering the school, Jazz claims, Jeff thanked his investors for “being brave enough to come to the West Side.”
Kenyatta Johnson told of how she was paid for a 20 hour work week as an intern, but often would hit an additional 10-20 hours a week of unpaid labor. When asked if she felt exploited as an intern and person of color, her response was, “Absolutely, I was used as a pawn. Jeff got to make all the decisions, and if things went wrong, I would be the only one to be blamed. It was on me to fix everything, and I was an intern… Yes, I was exploited.”
Terrence Thompson, Hoops High Production Coordinator and writer, director of short film Drive Slow, had a similar story. “Free Spirit Media claims to want to help teach you every step of the filmmaking process, but when it came to like, seeing what it looks like to screen your work or license your work with a major company, Jeff was like ‘I’ll handle it, back off.’ What he did want to do is have unbridled access to it, you know, to screen it and make money off of it in his own ways.”
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Below is the petition signed by 25 alumni and former employees of Free Spirit Media. In addition, there were 16 pages of “personal statements and testimonies” attached to the signed petition.
Dear Free Spirit Media Board of Directors,
For the past 19 years, Free Spirit Media has been a resource and home for many young Black and Brown creatives on the west and south sides of Chicago, who all share a passion for storytelling. On the official website, Free Spirit Media states that they pursue their mission by, “providing an engaging learning environment that stimulates meaningful media creation, fosters an entrepreneurial and visionary culture, taps into the talents of the Free Spirit Media team, and understands that social transformation is only viable when individuals promote and practice equality, inclusion, and solidarity.”
This statement would be very powerful if it was actually true. While Free Spirit Media has been a great resource for many young creatives, its executive leadership has prevented it from staying true to its mission. Before writing this letter, we believed that the biggest issue stemming from the executive leadership, more specifically with the Executive Director, Jeff McCarter, was his underappreciation and undervaluing of the hard work that both youth participants and his staff members bring to the organization. However, after talking with, and listening to the many testimonies and personal experiences shared with us over the past few weeks, we see now that there is a way bigger issue at hand, which is why we’ve created this campaign.
Jeff McCarter claims to be an ally to Black people and people of color, yet he perpetuates and exhibits the exact behaviors that Free Spirit Media should be fighting against! These behaviors include many incidents of tokenism, racism, sexism, misogyny, adultism, and other forms of discrimination towards participants and staff members. His white savior complex and narcissism result in his refusal to receive constructive criticism from his Black and Brown staff members. Instead, he ignores their ideas and proposals and makes decisions that he best sees fit. He has also disregarded staff members and participant health and safety concerns (rats and bedbugs on-site, as well as broken equipment), sexual misconduct, discrimination in the workplace and internship sites, and demands from both staff members and participants to be paid livable wages and fair freelance fees.
Free Spirit Media states that “social transformation is only viable when individuals promote and practice equality, inclusion, and solidarity,” yet Jeff McCarter practices none of this with his staff and youth participants, most of whom are Black and Brown. We have collected personal statements, testimonies, and reports from former partners, board members, employees, interns, participants, and alumni. We have listened to all of their experiences and held space to process together. These stories paint a very different picture of the #FSMFam that we see plastered on social media. In this picture, it is painfully obvious to see that Jeff McCarter does not represent what Free Spirit Media strives to be in our communities.
Jeff McCarter should no longer profit off of our faces, while throwing us his crumbs. We’re more than just a diversity hire. We’re more than just some kids from a bad neighborhood. We’re more than just some cheap props you can show off to your rich white friends. We matter. Our lives, our work, our art, and our stories matter! In order for Free Spirit Media to be true to its mission, many changes need to be made, but the biggest and clearest is the removal of Jeff McCarter from his position of power.
We, as a collective, demand:
- A thorough investigation and termination of current Executive Director, Jeff McCarter for his continuous harmful and toxic behavior towards Free Spirit Media staff members and participants
- When hiring a new Executive Director, current staff members, youth participants, and alumni should be on the hiring committee to ensure that all needs are met and are properly represented.
- Livable wages and fair freelance fees for staff members, participants, and interns.
- Updated code of ethics that intentionally challenges the non-profit industrial complex. These updates should include modifications for partners, board members, and executive leaders to ensure the safety of participants and staff members from discrimination and misconduct under FSM.
This letter is not an attack on Free Spirit Media and its mission. This letter is not an attack on the employees that work tirelessly, day and night, to provide young creatives with the best that they can offer, while still being underpaid, underfunded, and overworked. This letter is not an attack on Jeff McCarter; this letter is for accountability! This letter was created because too many people have had to question their worth as workers, as artists, and as human beings because of Jeff McCarter. This letter was created because too many people were afraid to speak out when he caused harm in the past. This letter was created because we didn’t want this for our future. This letter was created because we are tired of being silent and we will not be ignored, not anymore. Our voices matter. Please make sure that they’re heard! #MatchOURSpiritFSM
Kenyetta Johnson – Alumni
Terrence Thompson – Alumni
Jasmine Williams – Former Employee
Rachel Jones – Former Employee
Rebecca Connie – Former Employee
Bethel Shaam – Alumni
Lucia Palmarini – Former Program Manager
Qurissy Lopez – Alumni
Michele Santiago – Former Program Coordinator
Parish Fresh – Alumni
Kim Le Mezo – Former Employee
Olivia Grace – Alumni
Chelsea Corbin – Former Employee
Sarah Gray – Alumni
Rachel Hoge – Former Development Director
Valerie Mensah King – Former Employee
Melissa Bryan – Former Program Director
Jarred Garcia – Former Employee
Elizabeth Czekner – Former Program Director
Andrea Faye Hart – Former Employee
LaLa Bolander – Former Employee
Sarah Daoud – Former Employee
Alex Thompson – Former Partner
Raphael Nash – Former Partner
Rahkal Shelton – Former Employee
Reel Chicago has reached out to Jeff McCarter but we have not received a response.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Free Spirit Media responded, “Understandably, we are trying to be respectful of the process. We remain deeply committed to do everything in our power to support our participants and to make sure that the mission of Free Spirit Media and our programs continues.”
The board is currently looking for an active director and expects to have someone in place soon.
Katharin Mraz is a contributing writer for Reel Chicago and Reel 360. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org