What is this “America to me” documentary you write about?

A reader has asked me a couple times for more details about the context of #AmericaToMe, so I am going to use this post to answer those questions.

 

1. What is it?

Basically, “America to me” (#AmericaToMe) is a 10-part documentary series (some say docu-series or docuseries) about the perspectives of students and staff at Oak Park & River Forest High School, a suburban Chicago school situated in a town and community that prides itself on diversity. The series focuses mostly on 10 students (mostly African-American, some Latino, some White, some multi-ethnic or bi-racial) and tells their stories, including other family members, their friends and teachers. The series focuses on race, diversity, and “equality” (quotes because the idea of equality is questioned). From the website:
“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.””

 

2. Where can I watch it?

Right now, I believe the only way to view it directly is via STARZ, and any streaming platform that supports STARZ (ie, Amazon Prime). You can get a free 7-day trial of STARZ, or pay a $8.99/month subscription. Alternatively, you can go find someone else that is watching it and watch it with them. To date, I have only found one venue in the Champaign area that is a planning a public screening; the details are still being worked out, but keep 2:00 pm, September 26th open. STARZ releases one episode per week – Episode 4 was released last Saturday (Sept 8), Episode 5 should be available this coming Saturday (Sept 15).

 

3. Why watch it?

This is a critical question. Overall, we still struggle with issues of racial tension, and I believe we still have systemic/institutional racism that is detrimental to the success of some 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 the documentary being exceptionally relevant for two reasons:

  1. The title of the first episode is “What’s so special about Oak Park?” In some ways, the whole point is that this could be Anywhere, USA (as confirmed during an interview with filmmaker Kevin Shaw). We have similar issues here in Champaign.
  2. It seems that the documentary takes pains to highlight the impact of teachers (and to a lesser extent, I think, administrators). I believe it really comes down to building relationships – for some of us (looking at white people here), that means recognizing the baggage we bring to the table with us, most of which we may take for granted.

I see the documentary as a conversation-starter.

 

4. How do I catch up and join the conversation?

Perhaps the first place to start is with https://www.americatomerealtalk.com. You can also find many folks posting in social media – I happen to follow the #AmericaToMe twitter hashtag (which is overloaded, meaning people have started using that hashtag for other things), and have seen several links for online magazines, newspapers, tv and radio stations that run segments based on the documentary.

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#AmericaToMe : Part 2

Right off the bat, my two take-aways are (briefly):

  1. White people really don’t understand what blacks (or other minorities) are going through
  2. What do I do about this? (And coming up with an answer is not a further obligatory responsibility to weigh down the black person with)

 

I watched episodes 3 (“There is no pain that compares to the struggle”) and 4 (“There’s nothing funny about Race!”).

 

Episode 3 is titled after a line in then-senior Kendale McCoy’s poem; a personal story about how his life could have taken a much different turn as he grew up with troubled parents, but his life now is “dope”, raised by his mother’s aunt and uncle. I think that line was chosen to highlight the daily struggles (pain) black folks go through as they journey in a white dominant majority environment. Later in episode 4, Ke’Shawn laughingly jokes about how he got in trouble “walking while black”, a reference to any number of racial profiling examples with perhaps the most infamous one being “driving while black.” That a teenager can make a devastatingly apropos joke about that tells me how messed up things really are. Another aspect is the attempt by several faculty to bring racial and cultural awareness to a higher level within the administration and they are met with “white male silence.”

Episode 4 might be highlighted by a physic teacher’s (Aaron Podolner) attempt to build rapport with a couple black students, whereby he shares his memoir on racial experiences; the student’s responses are quite polarized, with one (Charles) laughing and saying he has no problem with race, while the other (Jada) pointedly chastises Charles and Aaron.

On some level, I feel I can somewhat relate to Mr. Podolner – here you have a white guy who puts himself in front of the camera and thereby judged by everyone. He thinks he is doing the right thing, and at least he is trying to be different than “other white people.” But I had to cringe during his exchange with co-teacher Jess Stovall in episode 4, when Aaron falls into the pitfall of saying he “understands” the black experience – you can almost hear Jess, who grew up bi-racial in a practically all white Wisconsin town, say “wait, WTF did you just say?” but instead her response is much more gracious and she inquires how he understands.
In episode 3, Glenn E. Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group, said of white liberal people “[their] liberalism only goes so far until it challenges their situation personally.” “And that is what you have at OPRF.” It is obvious that this statement applies to the white males in power within the administration. I am curious, how does it apply to folks like Podolner, or Peter Kahn of the Spoken Word Club, or football coach John Hoerster? How does it apply to me? Is liberalism really that sacrosanct in the first place? (Note I ask because I believe Mr. Singleton is correct, but I have yet to understand how, like an ocean lapping up on a beach, liberalism goes so far until.)

 

What really boggles my mind about these “America to me” stories is how much pressure these kids, their parents, and their teachers are under. I recall Behavior Interventionist Michael Byars, and how it seems like he is one of the better things going on in Ke’Shawn’s educational experience (aside from Jess Stovall), a model of respect and mentoring – and yet Mr. Byars tells us that Ke’Shawn has been told not to talk to him.

 

On a more local level, for those that are familiar with Unit 4, I invite you to participate in a simple experiment. There were two board meetings back in April, one on April 9th and one two weeks later on April 23rd. In both we have a presentation by African-Americans, both basically putting forth ideas (really amazing, neat, fascinating ideas) for ways to address the achievement gap and racial disparities. And yet the environment in which these two presentations were made are radically different. Your task is to comment on the differences:

 

There are some really amazing things happening in Unit 4 right now, especially in regards to cultural awareness and addressing racial issues; from initiatives like Restorative Justice and A.C.T.I.O.N.S, to student-led R.I.S.E and “real talks” (mentioned in comments for the first post), to efforts to hire minorities and women, and further, programs like Operation Hope, Lead for Life, and other excellent partnerships. What is hindering the needle on the achievement gap from moving faster? Why is there still a significant racial disparity in discipline? And I have to ask myself, what is my role in answering those questions?

#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.

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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.

Two invitations

IEP - Interest Flyer

From Sheri Williamson:

I would like to extend an invitation to Unit 4 parents to participate in my new public affairs radio show on WEFT.

To give you background:

Beginning in September I will be starting my own public affairs radio show on WEFT 90.1. I’m hoping to use the show to address different issues in the community including those specifically related to education and our schools.

The show will be called “In the Know” and focus on spreading awareness around a variety of topics. I will have weekly guests, feature trending subtopics and research, and inform the community on where to find local services. I will also highlight how community members can get engaged and support local agencies and organizations who provide services.

Additionally, I’m planning on having a monthly discussion on my show with local parents and teachers. Some of the first topics I’ll be discussing are new ways for parents to engage – even outside of the PTA. This includes the possible formation of parent peer mentor groups. Other early topics include the show 13 Reasons Why, bullying, IEPs, and teaching empathy. 

I’m planning to live stream from the studio on Facebook as well as take questions via Facebook and Twitter before and during live broadcasts.

If you would be interested in being a guest on the show please feel free to email me: swlmsn79@gmail.com. I would love for parents with experience and/or interest in lending their voices to these topics to be part of the discussions.

Best,
Sheri Williamson
(217) 721-6540

 

Mentoring

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It takes a village, part 2

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In Kijita (Wajita) there is a proverb which says ‘Omwana ni wa bhone,’ meaning regardless of a child’s biological parent(s) its upbringing belongs to the community.

 
 
Previously, I mentioned I talked with Angela Smith and Orlando Thomas on the topic of discipline, a conversation which ranged into the topic of community partnerships and collaborations. Specifically, Ms. Smith and Mr. Thomas both suggested I talk to Ms. Karen Simms. It was great advice. 🙂
Ms. Simms presented at the Feb 13th BOE meeting – I encourage you to look through the documents posted on BoardDocs:
I recently had the privilege to speak with Karen Simms. I first gave a little background about why I had visited Ms. Smith and Mr. Thomas, namely Mr. Terry Townsend’s letter of complaint to the OCR. Ms. Simms indicated she was quite familiar with the Consent Decree and the Plaintiff class. She went on to say that one of goals of the Promise Zone initiative is to “build on the work of the consent decree”, specifically by changing policies and practices. This is important as district leadership and boards change over time.
When I mentioned that the information she presented on the Promise Zone looks like Imani Bazzell’s work with “Great Campus” and “At Promise of Success”, she said that Promise Zone “gives teeth to Imani’s ideas.”
I have a lot of respect for what Imani has done in regards to “Great Campus” and “At Promise of Success”. Here are two earlier blog posts on that topic:
I love it that certain entities have been working hard to create tailored environments for some of our most “at risk” children. I want to be careful about using a label like “at risk”; perhaps another way to say it is that Promise Zone creates a village for students that do not otherwise have a village. In Ms. Simms’ Feb 13th BOE presentation, on slide 5 she references the work of the Community Schools initiative (also shared at the Feb 13th BOE meeting) and that of Cradle to Career. At the bottom of the slide, she has a quote that is most apropos:

Community building must become the heart of any school improvement effort.
— Thomas Sergiovanni

A few years ago I suggested that perhaps we are asking the wrong question when we ask about money – we should be asking about how we can provide optimal learning environments. It seems to me that Promise Zone tackles this question for minority students that are currently not served well by the status quo.
In time, I truly hope this idea catches on and is able to scale up. I firmly believe we need more overlap and intersection between what we call “community” and “school”.
PS – for those that wish to watch the Feb 13th BOE meeting, it is up on Vimeo:

New Board members

For the April 4th Consolidated Election, there are three open slots on the school board; and for those three spots, three candidates filed the necessary paperwork prior to the deadline in December of 2016, and thus each are running uncontested. From the Champaign County Clerk’s website:

  • Gianina Baker – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term
  • Bruce Brown – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term
  • Heather Vazquez – Member of the Board of Education – 4 Year Term

 

All three interviewed for the open position in January of 2016 (a board appointment, not an election). For those that are interested, here is some more information from the Jan 2016 interviews (including applications):

https://thecitizen4blog.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/school-board-member-applications/

 

Gianina has already served for one year. Mr. Brown and Ms. Vazquez are replacing Lynn Stuckey and Jonathan Westfield. I believe all three will be sworn in at the April 10th Regular BOE meeting.

 

Congrats to all three!

 

Feb 13th BOE meeting: more on community involvement

The agenda posted for the Feb 13th BOE meeting has a couple community engagement pieces you might want to learn more about: “My Family’s Promise Plan Pilot” and a draft of a new policy to support Community Schools “Policy 831 – Community Schools“.

 

I had an excellent chat with Orlando Thomas and Angela Smith last week. I had asked a few questions about discipline, and came away from the meeting being very much encouraged about the work going on in Unit 4. One of my take-aways is that the school district yearns for more collaboration with the community. And it seems that the two agenda items listed above is very much in line with the need for more partnerships.

 

Another take-away was that our public schools could really use more mentors (eg the one-to-one mentoring program and also TALKS mentoring). So much so that when I asked Orlando how the community can help right now, that was his number one request. In fact, Orlando has been asking for more mentors for many years now. As a one-to-one mentor myself, I would be happy to talk to anyone else if you are interested.