Sylvia Joy Smith, host of the new Tru Chat podcast, sets up her equipment before an interview. Credit: Jamie Nesbitt Golden/Block Club Chicago

ENGLEWOOD — If words are currency, stories are the institutions that hold them for safekeeping. Sylvia Joy Smith is a guardian of that institution, collecting stories of those who call Englewood home.

What began months ago as a random conversation with a group of young men making a pit stop at the Moran Park Field House became Tru Chat, a podcast dedicated to amplifying the voices of people normally excluded from the conversation.

“They came in one night while I was working on an idea for this project. They thought I was praying and apologized for interrupting,” said Smith, who goes by her middle name, Joy. (Her mother is also a Sylvia.) “And from there, we had a conversation. By the time we left, we were hugging each other with tears in our eyes.”

Twice a week, the Englewood native sets up her makeshift studio in the modest meeting room of the field house: a MacBook Pro, a digital recorder, a tripod and her iPhone for backup, just in case. She’s interviewed everyone from politicians to corner boys, diving into topics like religion, spirituality, violence and politics with the intention of identifying the common thread that connects us all.

When Smith returned to Englewood from Atlanta several years ago after a long absence, she searched for ways to reconnect to the community that birthed her. She also wanted to get back to her activist roots, the ones that took shape during her years at Piney Woods, an all-Black Mississippi boarding school, and Jackson State University, where she graduated in the mid-’90s.

She found an outlet at a R.A.G.E. (Resident Association of Greater Englewood) meeting, eventually working with TIME:2136, a public safety initiative under Teamwork Englewood. Smith has recorded five episodes of Tru Chat so far, aiming to record seven more in the next several weeks.

“This is to support the TIME 21:36 project. The idea was to service the age group most affected by violence, because telling our own stories is important,” said Smith, a percussionist with Super Soul Spectacular, a local funk band. “I wanted to find a project that would give our youth a voice because they want to be heard.”

When she isn’t interviewing guests, Sylvia Joy Smith plays percussion for Super Soul Spectacular, a local funk band. Credit: PROVIDED

The decision to eventually expand the project beyond teens and young adults to include older residents was a way for Smith to address the generational divide.

“It’s about bridging the gaps. We have a lot of things we’ve been talking about in the community, and one in particular is the generational gap. So just being able to connect with one another on a personal level, being able to hear from your alderman and have these types of conversations, is a big thing,” said Smith, who also serves on the Moran Park Advisory Board.

One of her first interviews was with Ald. Stephanie Coleman (16th). Alds. Raymond Lopez (15th) and David Moore (17th) have agreed to a sit down as well, said Smith, the latter expressing more excitement than she anticipated.

“I love Mr. David. I’m so happy and proud of him, and this is me admiring from afar,” Smith said. “I put this out there, and even if things don’t go the way I want them to go, I’d still feel that way about him and Stephanie Coleman. They go out of their way to be accessible.”

Phil Hampton, a park district manager, and Illinois cannabis czar Toi Hutchinson, a former state senator, have also been interviewed.

Smith hopes to continue Tru Chat beyond the first dozen episodes but funding the project is an issue. She pays out of pocket for all costs incurred, including podcast storage. She hopes to find a grant or two that will make things a little easier.

In the meantime, though, she’s here. And she’s listening.

The podcast’s first five episodes can be streamed on Spotify and Google Podcasts.

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