West Siders Edward Whitaker Jr., Crystal Gardner, Lady Sanders, Arewa Karen Winters and Jermaine Harris pose with TV leader Darrious Hilmon and hosts Bianca Cotton and Kimberly Loftis at CAN TV studio. | Provided

“I live in the Austin neighborhood on the best side, the West Side,” Crystal Gardner, activist and union organizer says at the start of the new short film she co-created with a group of impact-driven West Siders.

The film aims to change misconceptions and narratives about Chicago’s West Side by allowing West Siders to tell their stories.

“The reason I believe it’s so misunderstood is because people relay messages in third person,” said Edward Whitaker, Chicago Police Department officer and youth mentor.

Gardner and Whitaker. are two of the voices featured in the 18-minute-long short film, produced and distributed by Chicago-focused cable TV network CAN TV.

“No one can tell your story better than you,” Whitaker said.

The idea for the film came from a West-Side-based fellowship program, Community Leadership Fellows, which brought together West Side leaders with distinct life experiences, strengths, and achievements. Their passion and love for their communities is what unites them.

“Initially we wanted to talk about the hidden gems that were on the West Side, and the hidden gems would be our seniors,” Whitaker said. Due to health concerns and other challenges, that idea fell through, but the group did not give up.

“They spoke truth to power,” Darrious Hilmon, CAN TV’s executive director told Austin Weekly News that after talking to the group, he decided to partner with them to allow them to tell their stories.

“I’ve been here for 14 years in Chicago… and I thought I was connected to community, but until you really listen to Arewa talk about her family or Crystal talks about desperately trying to run away from politics because of her family history, you understand.”

Focusing on the untold stories of the West Side was critical for Hilmon, as West Siders “have not only survived but have in many ways thrived.” He hopes the community-based film will be a channel for people to listen to those whom society has historically not listened to.

It is a fitting theme for the group of leaders who have dedicated their lives to change and improve their communities featured in the film. Arewa Karen Winters, born in North Lawndale and a resident of Austin has long led grassroots movements, supported gun violence survivors and pushed for improved policing. She was an integral part of the coalition overseeing the Chicago Consent Decree and is a District Council member for the 15th Chicago Police District Council. Lady Sanders, from North Lawndale, is a youth mentor, film producer and director dedicated to giving back to her community.

“You want to know about the West Side? Talk to somebody who lives on the West Side,” Hilmon said, adding the film succeeds as each member gives their perspective “with flavor and spice.”

“The West Side is a big family, it’s like everybody is cousins but we’re not blood-related,” Sanders said in the film.

That sense of community is elevated in the film, showing viewers that right now there are people in the backbone of the community who go to work every day, go to school and try to become successful that way, Whitaker said.

“I wanted to bring that up,” he said. “Not just the celebrities, the normal people who work the nine-to-fives…That’s what our youth needs to see.”

Their social change experiences and networks were key to bringing the film to life. Whitaker, who works as a community policing officer in the Chicago Police 15th District, met Hilmon when the TV network featured a youth program called “Hack for Good.” The youth program is part of a collaboration between the police and Microsoft, an initiative Whitaker was part of.

Whitaker and the team then connected with Hilmon to create this film under a tight deadline. In a four-week span, the group meet weekly over Zoom to determine what themes they would cover and prepare for filming at CAN TV’s studio. The process was smooth though not anxiety-free as it “became real really quick,” Whitaker said.

The result is rewarding as they see their stories elevate, inspire and explain the beauty of West Side communities. Over aerial views of the beautiful green areas housed in Chicago’s West Side, Winters describes the rich history of the neighborhoods that thousands of families called home after the Great Migration. Scenes of the neighborhoods — with beautiful historic architecture blended with colorful shop signs — serve as the backdrop for each of the fellows’ stories. The fellows also share pictures illustrating their West Side roots. The group speaks about the challenges of the West Side, historic disinvestment and pressing gentrification in a conversation that is authentic and informed by experience.

The film has also inspired a model to share stories from and by community members, with plans for a similar film about Chicago’s South Side, told by South Siders. With these films, they all hope Chicagoans will look at historically marginalized communities with renewed eyes.

“We’re told it’s mayhem, but it’s a beautiful place where people are resilient,” Hilmon said.

The film premiered on Aug. 17, boasting nearly 11,000 live-stream views.

The short film will be live-streamed on CAN TV and cantv.org on the following dates and times:

  • Aug. 23, 2023 on channel 27 at 1 p.m.
  • Aug. 24, 2023 on channel 27 at 10:30 a.m.
  • Aug. 25, 2023 on channel 27 at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

It can also be viewed on CAN TV’s YouTube channel.