Freestyle Digital Media, the digital film distribution division of Byron Allen’s Allen Media Group, has acquired North American DVD and VOD rights to the inspiring urban documentary “Raised Up West Side,” which is available now to rent/own on DVD and digital HD internet, cable, and satellite platforms.
Set on Chicago’s West Side, the documentary “Raised Up West Side” follows the enterprising and frequently inspiring plight of ex-offenders, social activists, and entrepreneurs working on the West Side of Chicago.
The film peels back the layers, exposing the deep-seated segregation, food insecurity, and mass incarceration that continues to shape these predominantly Black neighborhoods, allowing us to witness the fierce tenacity required to change the narrative and change lives.
Written, directed, and produced by Emmy®-nominated Chicago filmmaker Brett A. Schwartz, “Raised Up West Side” focuses on the lives of local residents and change makers—Darius D. Jones, Liz Abunaw, Reynaldo Engram, and others—as they navigate the many challenges found on the West Side.
“Too often when we hear about Chicago, we’re assaulted by grim statistics and a sense of daily dread. It makes you numb, whether you live in these neighborhoods or not,” said filmmaker Schwartz. “It’s too easy to forget there are real stories and real people who are striving in areas affected by gun violence, food insecurity, and overall disinvestment. The film takes viewers behind the headlines, behind the statistics to meet the brave and resilient people seeking change – and very often, against the odds, a second chance.”
The film is really engaging as folks tell the story of the rise and fall and promising re-emergence of the Austin/Lawndale area.
Jones, who is 27, reveals a life of drug dealing and jail time. But laments, “Most of my friends haven’t made it.” He enjoys rock climbing at a facility and says, “You can remove yourself from a bad situation, but it’s hard to detach yourself from a culture.”
During the film, he was working at The Farm On Ogden/Chicago Botanic Garden, a 20,000-square-foot farm and training operation that brings food, health and jobs together in one location.
“I went from an extreme gang member to I don’t know what to call myself these days,” Jones said. As a gang member, Jones said that he didn’t care about much, and “Every night was pretty much going to war.” He got into farming after beating a drug case and going to boot camp where he learned gardening.
Dr. Wayne Detmer, of Lawndale Christian Health Center, estimates that “25 percent of residents in the North Lawndale area have PTSD.” But he knows that hope is in employment. “When you employ gang members or ex-cons, that’s one of the best things that we do.”
As it concerns violence on the West Side, he says: “We can’t medicate our way out of violence or poverty. We need to address this but have to address abject poverty.”
Robin Whaley Smith, Corps Manager at Chicago Botanic Garden, said that while they offer internships and training for gang members who want to learn farming, “Other gang members have rolled up on the site looking for rivals.”
She added: “We can give them a second chance. This is a safe haven.”
Reynaldo Engram, an ex-con working at Windy City Harvest, talked about drug dealing while holding down a regular job. “When is enough money enough. I was always going after more money. I wanted the American Dream, too, but I went about it the wrong way. I was hired by Delta but couldn’t work because I had a felony.”
He shared story after story of looking for work but being denied because of his record. In 2014, he began a 14-week program learning how to grow vegetables. He was hired on full time. “I’ve come down a long road and dark past,” he said. He talked about gang violence. “Back in the day, a killer wouldn’t ride past and shoot a grandmother sitting on the porch. That’s a coward.”
Garfield Produce, a hydroponic farm dedicated to creating job opportunities in the community, featured Shanquell London who was selling weed but realized the benefit of working. “If you don’t want to be out here running from police, get a job. Darius [Jones] pushed me. It’s no shame in working a 9 to 5.”
Liz Abunaw was working in corporate America at General Mills and Microsoft but realized the inequalities on the West Side and started Forty Acres Fresh Market to help others. “A food desert implies there’s nothing there. There’s plenty of [fast or unhealthy] food, but it will kill you,” she said. She began mystery shopping and found no bank, pharmacy, grocery store and the only ATM was attached to a corner store with premium fees for use. “It’s race based, and the community was living under food apartheid.” Forty Acres Fresh Market started as a pop up, and Abunaw is continuing fundraising for a brick-and-mortar spot.
She expounded: “We were this country’s original farmers. Don’t say Black folks don’t eat fresh food,” while adding, “The name reflects unfulfilled promises made to Blacks. I wanted a name that spoke to us. “
She is committed to increasing healthy access to food for people who need it. The Soul City Corridor and West Side Health Authority has engaged her Market to deliver food to 90K residents.
The film featured My Block My Hood My City members. Founder Jahmal Cole says: “In North Lawndale, there are a lot of superheroes, there’s something in the water that produces joy.”
Pascal Sabino, a local reporter, talked of the demise of the West Side with redlining and the Sears Roebuck pullout of the area. “Media loves to have narratives that blame Black folks for their misfortunes,” he said.
Look for the film on DVD and digital HD internet, cable, and satellite platforms. Take a look at the trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=y67W3dYK7XU.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader. She is a National Newspaper Publishers Association ‘Entertainment Writing’ award winner, contributor to “Rust Belt Chicago” and the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood: South Side of Chicago.” For info, Old School Adventures from Englewood—South Side of Chicago (lulu.com) or email: [email protected].