Interview: True Star Media Empowers Young People From Underserved Areas to Learn and Forge a Path in Communications

As part of our current fundraiser for the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, we are partnering with another local news vehicle to communicate about the rich variety found in Chicago indie media. Today, we feature True Star Media and an interview with its co-founder, DeAnna Sherman.

True Star’s youth journalists have also interviewed one of Third Coast Review’s arts journalists to talk about her writing career and her enthusiasm for the arts. Check out that interview with our Kathy D. Hey.

True Star Media is a non-profit media company and digital agency dedicated to empowering underserved Chicago youth to forge their own paths in the field of communications. True Star youth are journalists, reporters, graphic designers, videographers, marketers, and brand strategists, who work alongside industry professionals, small businesses and community organizations. Since its formation, True Star has provided on-the-job training to over 15,000 youth ages 14-24 living primarily in underserved communities on the south and west sides of Chicago. 

DeAnna, could you tell us the story of True Star Media’s mission or focus?

True Star’s mission is to empower disadvantaged youth to forge their own paths by providing jobs, training, and real-world work experience that teaches them how to develop, create, and market digital content on the latest social media and digital marketing platforms that celebrate their identity and perspective while making a positive impact on their peers, families and communities.

When was True Star created and what initiated it? What was the issue that raised the need for True Star? How did the co-founders come together to create True Star?

True Star was created back in 2004 out of a need to help underserved youth improve their reading and writing skills. I, and my business partner Na-Tae’ Thompson, created an after-school program where a group of students developed a “True Star” newsletter around topics they were interested in. That newsletter grew into a glossy magazine that was distributed in schools all across the Chicagoland area. Back in 2018 True Star went digital. Now we are a multimedia company powered by youth with training disciplines not only in writing but also in video production, broadcasting and podcasting, photography, graphic design, digital marketing, social media, filmmaking and community branding.      


True Star co-founders DeAnna McLeary Sherman and Na-Tae’ Thompson.
Photo by Deshaun Trig Adam.

How many people are currently involved in your organization as employees or as volunteers?

Our staff is small but mighty. Besides Na-Tae’ and myself, we have seven professional adults with a variety of skills that serve as mentors to our True Star participants.  

Is True Star a nonprofit or a small business?

True Star is a nonprofit organization. 

Who are the typical young people with whom True Star works? Age range, skill set, interests, etc.

True Star works with teens and young adults from the age of 14 to 24. To become a member of True Star the young people don’t have to have a specific skill set, but they do need to have a desire to learn and become their best selves within the programs that we offer. Those programs include journalism, video production, broadcasting and podcasting, photography, graphic design, digital marketing, social media, filmmaking, and community branding. 

How do you select the young people who participate?

The young people who want to be a part of True Star can fill out a form on our website and select their discipline of choice. They will be contacted and interviewed. If they are a good fit they will be put on a 30-day probation. If all goes well they will be offered a spot on the team. Our media workshops are also a great way for us to find new candidates. 

Are improving writing skills and developing media arts skills for young people still your most important program?

Absolutely, that is the core of our programs. Our goal is for our participants to find the discipline that speaks to them and to grow in it, as well as building communication, leadership, and providing access to transformational work experiences . Many of our participants take full advantage of what True Star has to offer and find themselves getting involved in multiple disciplines that we offer. 

How many young people have you worked with in total during your history?

Wow. We have provided job training to nearly 15,000 young people through our programming.

What types of projects do young people work on in your programs? What types of media and topics?

Our young people work on a wide range of projects and topics. They produce content for our digital zine that centers around topics like relationships, education, trending subjects in entertainment and national news, sports and more. Our teams produce shows such as “Content, Culture, Life,” which features amazing youth in Chicago doing amazing things, and “Cover Me,” which highlights local athletes, which is featured on our YouTube channel

Our participants cover community events and sporting events such as home games played by the Chicago Sky. Our team members also film and produce short films written by our students via our Flip the Script program. They have even worked on city-wide marketing campaigns that centered around COVID vaccinations and the census.  Students in our programs also work on projects with external clients, including Chicago CRED, Chicago Football Classic, etc., to create digital content. 

How do you determine what kinds of new programs True Star offers?

True Star takes a formal and informal approach to understanding the interest and desires of youth we serve; this happens through one-on-one and group discussions, surveys, and a culture of inclusivity, where all voices are heard and respected.

Is there any area where you would like to expand your work?

We would definitely like to expand our client base, currently we serve five to seven clients per year. We want to increase this to 20 to 30 clients. We believe that young people in our programs can be a catalyst to sustaining small businesses and other nonprofits through the development of digital content.

Is one of your goals building career skills in communications?

YES! We work on building soft skills and providing first-hand work experience. We want our participants to have the skills needed to compete in the real world with their counterparts and also be capable of thriving in the field of communications. 

Do you also work to help young people find their first jobs?

We are young people’s first job!

Are you looking for volunteers to help staff your programs and work with the students?

We are always open to having volunteers be a part of True Star. 

What are your thoughts on the current state of Chicago media directed at—or created by—young people today?

There are a variety of organizations creating content right now and I think that’s great. Freedom of expression is what America is about. True Star wants to do what some of these other outlets aren’t and focus on the good and positives and not the negative things constantly associated with Chicago’s youth. We want the world to know that there are amazing kids here doing amazing things. 

How did COVID affect True Star?

Because True Star went digital back in 2018, we were able to pivot in a way that some media companies could not. Like most of the world, Zoom became our best friend. I’m happy to say that compared to most, we were able to thrive during the pandemic via our blog and social media platforms.   

How does your website support your programs, bring in volunteers or donors? In what ways do you feel it’s successful in doing that?

We recently revamped our website, which you can find at Visitors can go there and learn more about our programs and volunteers and donors can easily navigate the site to support us in whatever way they want. 

How do you see True Star Media changing in the next decade?

We want to be the premier youth media platform, for and by youth of color. We would also like to build a state-of-the-art creative production studio where youth can learn, train, create, and have access to industry standard equipment.

Thank you for responding to our questions, DeAnna. We look forward to working together and seeing how True Star Media develops in the future. 

Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.