A 10-part documentary series exploring the racial equity gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School, titled America to Me, is set to debut on Starz this fall, but the film’s producers aren’t content with a massive viewing audience.  

During a regular school board meeting on March 22, Oak Park resident Steve James, who directed the film, and representatives from Participant Media, the company that co-produced the film along with Chicago-based Kartemquin Films, laid out what they said will be a comprehensive social-impact campaign designed to get people, particularly youth, to grapple with the numerous social issues the film spotlights. 

“Collectively, we have this opportunity to use the stories in the film to do the kinds of things we don’t do in the film, which is to engage in issues,” James said. 

Carolyn Henderson, of Participant, told District 200 board members that the film series “provokes these interesting, thought-provoking, engaging and challenging conversations” that resonate beyond Oak Park. 

Henderson and Lesedi Shebane, another Participant representative, said they spent the last six months on a listening tour, engaging education leaders “about the issues and about what media can do for them,” Shebane said. 

They’re currently working on building a national advisory committee comprising education experts and leaders. D200 board President Jackie Moore has offered to be on the committee so that Oak Park is represented.

The committee, Henderson and Shebane said, will help create discussion tools and curated resources that will guide conversations with “key audiences,” including students, teachers and parents, across the country.

Shebane said each episode of the docu-series, which will air once a week over 10 weeks, might accompany a theme for discussion groups to explore. Some guiding questions, she said, might include, “How does housing influence what schools look like?” or “How do you inspire parent engagement and what does that look like?” 

Henderson said Participant regularly creates social-impact campaigns to run alongside the films its produces, including Lincoln, Spotlight, and An Inconvenient Truth. 

“Stories can help inspire us and move us to understand the world, but the social-impact campaign can be a little more didactic in purpose,” Henderson said, “helping us understand what’s the context or data or what are things people can actually do to make a change.” 

Henderson recalled screening the first five episodes of America to Me for a group of educators in San Francisco. One educator, she said, “was appreciative of the vulnerability [that appears on screen] and how we so rarely see that onscreen, which inspired him to be more vulnerable and humble when it comes to having these conversations.” 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

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