#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.