#AmericaToMe : Part 1

If the first two episodes are any indication, this is going to be a powerful, dramatic, raw, honest look at this thing we call “race” and how we white folks believe the myth of “equality”. Having watched both “What’s the Big Deal About Oak Park?” (episode 1) and “Stranger in a Room” (episode 2), I am struck by the potency of the real-life stories.


One of the lines that sticks out in my memory is from the first episode (repeated in the second) and spoken by then Assistant Principal Challa Holland about how the school is failing the kids. One of the reasons that resonates with me is that I believe part of the focus of the documentary is on racial inequities and the achievement gap, a point made clear by several charts in episode 1. It isn’t the kids that are failing – we are the ones failing. The irony is thick, and very sad.

I started to follow Kevin Shaw on Twitter, and it seems like he constantly asks folks what their take-aways are. Here is my response.

– Relationships are crucially fundamental to success and maturity

A good chunk of episode two is devoted to two language arts programs, one being the amazing spoken word club, and the other a much-needed reading program with a forward-looking, upbeat growth mindset. In both cases, it becomes evident that a sense of community engenders success and achievement. English teacher Jess Stovall exemplified how important this truth is to her via her actions and words as well. I am reminded of Lisa Delpit’s tribute to an Alaskan Native in her “Other People’s Children” book: “In order to teach you, I must know you.” Everyone has a story, and usually we only read the back cover. And yet because relationships tend to be inefficient, slow and flat-out hard, we tend to prioritize other quick fixes.

– Good intentions can sometimes be damn oppressive

Near the bottom of the AmericaToMeRealTalk website organizer page, there are links to further “Raise your awareness”. One of those references a paper by Dr. Robin DiAngelo entitled “White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement“. White fragility is new to me but it totally makes sense. My take away: this is why white people can’t handle the angry black man – worse, whites just don’t get it at all. White people just want everyone to be happy and get along. It makes me wonder, what pushed out a passionate, student-centric administrator like Challa Holland?

– White people don’t understand what systemic racism, institutional prejudice and racial inequalities really are

And yet black folks live it. And others, for sure.

I think, and I could be wrong about this, but maybe the intended audience of this documentary is the dominant majority – the ruling class with all the authority. The Spoken Word club is such a magnificent response because it gives a voice to those are otherwise mute, figuratively speaking. Another amazing aspect of the documentary (so far) is that we get to see some heroic adults who intuitively perceive that the decks are not “equal” by any means. These teachers, parents and staff members are fighting for the kids.

But the backdrop is much darker. There is a story about a mom reliving her short tenure in ’94; she tells the story of a teacher who refused to teach because the students weren’t going to learn anyway, and later another story about being abruptly kicked out of school. One staff person talking about the expectation of acting a certain way, and accounts from the security guards and what they have to endure.

– Let America Be America Again

As I was preparing for the first episode, my brother-in-law pointed out that the title comes from Langston Hughes. I had no clue, and no recollection ever reading it before, so thanks again to http://www.americatomerealtalk.com I found his poem.

The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s,
Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.



Where to go from here?

I am reaching out to others in my area in an effort to start a conversation about this. I don’t know if I am doing it all wrong or not, but I feel compelled to do something. I have also reached out to local educators. I am grateful that we have some amazing people in Unit 4 who have been doing “real talks” and racial/cultural awareness for quite some time already.

There is too much violence, too much greed, too much oppression, too much harassment.

Kudos to folks like Kevin Shaw (@KevinShaw23) and Steve James and all the other folks who worked so hard to produce a high quality look under the racial covers at a modern high school. Thank you for enlightening us. Thank you for provoking and challenging us. May we take your warnings to heart and invest better in our kids.

11 Responses to “#AmericaToMe : Part 1”

  1. mstegeorge Says:

    Wonderful that you are blogging about this, Charles.
    Where are you watching this series? It’s on STARZ, right?

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Indeed. You should check it out! Also, I am still trying to see if I can get involved in a local discussion group. Interested? Blind Pig? 🙂

      But more importantly, I am trying to figure out how to be a part of the change that is already happening. That’s a little more challenging because so many people are plugged-in in different ways. I kind of want to ask students “What do you need? What are currently the biggest societal issues we need to address, and how can we address them?”

      • mstegeorge Says:

        I am absolutely interested in this. How much do you know about the charter school proposal that was made last spring?

        When do you think a Blind Pig gathering would be good?

      • charlesdschultz Says:

        George, I was holding off on replying because I hear that Parkland might have screenings. Still trying to find out more, but since it’s a long weekend, I might not hear back until Tuesday.

  2. mstegeorge Says:

    I read Larry Cuban’s blog, and he recently had a post on the desegregation and resegregation of America’s schools. https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/a-witness-to-the-desegregation-and-resegregation-of-americas-schools-kristina-rizga/

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      I know you are a big fan of Larry Cuban – good stuff. 🙂 The AmericaToMeRealTalk (https://www.americatomerealtalk.com) website has similar discussions as well. I am reminded that once we try to fix problems without first forming relationships and building trust, we end up creating more problems.

  3. pattsi Says:

    Would it be possible to explain the reference point about which you are writing? Second, can you be more specific as to what is happening locally–I assume about race issues and school segregation.
    To get more information about the North End Charter School talk with Nathaniel Banks and the minister at Jerricho Church along with Craig Walker.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Pattsi, I’ll break my response in separate replies as they are slightly different topics.

      The reference point
      probably best to start with what the Producers have to say:

      Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Life Itself) examines racial, economic and class issues in contemporary American education in the multipart unscripted documentary series America to Me. Poignant and funny, epic and intimate, America to Me spends an academic year at Chicagoland’s elite Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF), allowing its students, families, faculty and administration to tell stories of the pressures and challenges teens face today in their own words.

      I heard about it from friends and family before it was released a couple weeks ago, and the premise intrigued me. I signed up for an account on STARZ to watch it.

    • charlesdschultz Says:

      Secondly, I do not know exactly what is happening locally. I hope to learn more. In regards to a screening, Parkland might have one. I have asked around in Unit 4, but need to ask more. I know in the past Unit 4 has had a number of student-led efforts including “Real Talks” and RISE (Racial Identity Student Experience), not to mention the social justice meetings. These have been outlined in board meetings in the past, and I think the NG even covered a couple of them (I would have to do some digging to find those links).

      About the North Champaign Academy, I did send an email to Nathaniel Banks back in February, but have not heard back since. I’ll reach out to the three gentlemen you mentioned to learn more. In the meantime, I came up with a number of other resources (there are a lot more, including WILL, Smile Politely, etc etc):

      NG Feb 27 article announcing group to request Charter:

      NG May 3 article about May 2nd BOE denial of charter request:

      BOE Board docs:
      May 02, 2018 – Board of Education Special Meeting (lots of attachments)
      Apr 09, 2018 – Board of Education Regular Meeting (pubic hearing notice and docs at the bottom)

      BOE Vimeo:
      April 9th: https://vimeo.com/264086855 NCA makes a presentation to BOE

  4. pattsi Says:

    Yes, I watched the BOE meetings when Nathaniel and Craig presented about the north end charter school. I also went to an information meeting at Jericho. Unit 4 ought to grab this hiatus to make paradigm changes in curriculum and ways of teaching to show that Unit 4 can respond to the expressed need being made by Nathaniel and Craig. I do not believe that I have seen you at the monthly Community Coalition meetings. Not that there is progress among that group, but one can learn what various organizations are pursuing. The violence in this community continues on an upward curve. This is an indicator BUT folks are not prone to step back, take 10 deep breaths to evaluate that what is being done is not working so maybe new approaches might need to be explored. In addition I have been reading about changes in the delivery of education to 4-day school week, not just in rural areas, but in larger cities, aka Denver. And last but not least, even though years of research shows that starting school later, say 8:30 A, significantly reduces behavioral problems, yet this is not discussed here.

  5. What is this “America to me” documentary you write about? | Citizen4: A citizen's blog about Champaign Unit 4 Says:

    […] members of society. The title of the film is based on a Langston Hughes poem, as referenced in my first post on this series – I agree that America today is not the land of the free. But it can be. I see […]

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