#AmericaToMe and cultural awareness at Urbana 116

This week I had an opportunity to visit an Urbana school that hosted a screening of “America to me” with discussion leaders from a club at Parkland College, Urbana teachers and a large group of students.

[I am not directly involved in either group, and thus I am purposefully omitting names]


There was a brief introduction, then we watched Episode 7 of “America to me”, followed by a time of dialogue between the Parkland group and the Urbana students. I am going to use this post to detail some of my observations, but in summary (for the tl;dr crowd):

  • racial identity is tricky – germane to this episode, what does it mean to be white?
  • listening is important – especially true for white folks as we tend to try to fix things before we know the problem, and in doing so we talk too much and listen too little. But so true for all of us.


I have already commented on Episode 7 in and of itself; the observations below build on what I gleaned from the Episode guide and incorporate the experience from the screening.


Racial identity

During Episode 7, there is a point at which Ke’Shawn questions Diane’s “racial experience”. There was a very loud and dramatic reaction from the audience during this scene, prompting a very similar dialogue afterwards. Someone with lighter skin (like, very light) will have a certain experience that is utterly different than someone else with darker skin. It seemed to me that part of the issue is when a lighter-skinned person tries to say they “understand” (or attempts to relate to) the experience of a darker-skinned person. We saw this in earlier episodes with Mr. Podolner, and we see it later in Episode 7. But what about someone who identifies as “brown” and/or biracial? It was eye-opening for me to witness a live conversation between people of different racial identities and ethnicities, for they too are a little confused and are trying to hash it out. This was a great example of “real talk”, and I am glad everyone involved felt safe enough to participate.

Also during the post-screening exchange, the concept of white privilege was acknowledged as being a factor in one’s lived experience. It made me wonder about folks who are biracial – do they feel that they live a mixed racial experience with degrees of white privilege? One person said that it is important to not be perceived as something you are not. There was discussion about how even a person who is biracial and yet is still very white has a lot of white privilege and can use that to make changes.

What I found fascinating about this conversation is that each person has a very real story to tell, a very real experience that cannot be denied. To honor and respect those stories, it is paramount that we listen to each other.

Listening is important

During the screening, I was the only white male, and only one of three white folks in the room (the other two were students). I believe everyone else was Latino/a, African-American, and/or multi-racial. For me, I felt it was important to play a more passive role and allow others to share their stories, for these young people to find their voice and use it. Unfortunately, too many of us are comfortable with the status quo and do not speak loudly enough against it. Too many of us, especially if we come from a “Christian” background, are quick to assign blame and tell people how to fix things. Pointed fingers does not a safe and welcoming community make.

I think the discussion leaders did have some very important things to share; they are finding their own voice, and it is precious to see them living it out. I do wish that the students would have been given more opportunities to speak up. Several students did, and I applaud them – they shared a couple poignant issues that are local and real. Given the strong caricatures painted by the “America to me” episode, I was very curious if students related to any of the OPRF students featured in the film. I would want to learn and hear more details. One was expressed by a young, vocal, confident African-American girl who talked about the n word and how it wasn’t funny at all when white people say it. The discussion leaders did mention that there is an “America to me” episode about that exact thing – in fact the “America to me” student they spoke of, Jada Buford, has her own website and has posted her short film “Dear OPRF”:


I would also have loved to have had an opportunity to speak with the teachers, the coordinator and the principal a bit more. I have contacted them since the screening and will be meeting with at least one of the administrators – I feel I have so much more to learn. For instance, I would like to know more about the program that allowed three or more classes to carve time out of their school day to put on something pretty amazing like this. Is there a safe way for the community to get involved? What about more teachers and administrators who can witness what our kids need?


At the back of my mind, I am also remembering that Urbana 116 has been in the news lately in regards to an abrupt change in the discipline policy to adopt restorative practices; has the ongoing talks about and within cultural awareness had an impact on those decisions? Most of my exposure about the restorative approach is through Unit 4 and PBF, as implemented at the ACTIONS center. Knowing that Urbana 116 has been involved in social justice for a while now, it seems fitting that the administration want to pursue a practice that is more equitable and works to disrupt the status quo in regards to discipline.



I was honored to sit and take notes at this special cultural awareness opportunity. It helps me see issues from different perspectives, and clarifies, even if just a little, of how we all can fight against injustices we see around us. Observing a group of sincere and honest young adults grapple with their realities and the various experiences each lives with is quite humanizing and grounding. While there was a statement about finding and using one’s voice to make changes, I wish the message was pounded home much more vigorously – these kids can change the world. Some of them just might do that. But they can’t do it passively. I think part of my job is first to listen, then maybe to empower them (including the discussion leaders).

As I walked away from this event, my belief that we need to have more conversations like this is reinforced.



#AmericaToMe episode guides

Early on while starting to watch the STARZ “America to me” documentary, I came across the supplemental “real talk” website. Among the various resources listed, I started looking through the episode guides, and was impressed that someone really put some thought into questions for group discussions. I do not yet have a group to discuss with, but I am finding these guides helpful in an effort to process what is going on the documentary. More importantly, some of the action steps (called “ENGAGE”) help move one beyond just words.

The RealTalk Episode Guides:
https://www.americatomerealtalk.com  (you have to scroll down to “Episode Guides”)


I am slowly working on my responses:


I have watched up to Episode 7 now, and still am planning to write more about Episodes 5+. The stories become more poignant and more revealing, as we see how different folks approach race discussions, and more importantly, the reality of race in their lives. (some amazing quotes along the way as well.) In other news, I have been chatting with local folks and we may have screenings pretty soon. Very excited about that. More to come.

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.

#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.


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.