On Monday evening I was in the large audience at the Lake Theatre as OPRF High School organized a showing of the first two episodes of America to Me, the documentary series about the high school that debuts on cable television’s Starz channel Aug. 26.
It was extraordinary in every aspect. It reveals and reports on complex matters of race and equity at our public high school through its storytelling. Powerful, moving stories about the lived lives of young people; interactions, from tone deaf to heart-rending, between students and teachers in classrooms; intimate glimpses into the lives at home of students; and bold truth-telling, evidenced in these first two of 10 episodes, by three black women who see clearly the baked-in systemic racism of this old institution, its lip service to equity, and its utter inability to drive change for all the talk of our allegedly progressive values.
Those women are Jackie Moore, a school board member three years ago when filming took place and now the board’s president; Chala Holland, then an assistant principal for instruction, who left OPRF that year in great frustration and is now principal of Lake Forest High School; and Jessica Stovall, a Fulbright scholarship-winning English teacher.
Steve James, noted documentary filmmaker (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), longtime Oak Parker, and dad to students who came up through the high school, is the creator and director of America to Me. He gained extraordinary, virtually unlimited, access to the school for a full year of filming. While the school board approved it and some members championed it, Steven Isoye, the school’s then-superintendent vehemently opposed allowing film crews into the school. And he kept members of the top administration from being interviewed by James’ crew. It isn’t by accident that Isoye found a new job well before this film was completed.
A point made in a post-viewing panel was that the filming was three years ago and that OPRF has made headway toward racial equity. That’s a fair point. More interesting though was the conversation Friday in the office of Joylyn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent these past three years. She was joined by Moore, the board president; Nathaniel Rouse, the longtime principal who candidly acknowledged he opposed the project; and Karin Sullivan, the school’s communications director.
Pruitt-Adams, who has brought intense focus to racial equity and helped craft a strategic plan that is steeped in this hard topic, is past ready for action. There have been, she said, too many “moments of denial” at OPRF. With this documentary as a further spur, now is the time “for the bandages to come off, to take action. It will be difficult.”
On both Friday and at Monday’s viewing, Pruitt-Adams talked about how the film accurately captures “the lived experience of our students.” She talked about the “micro-aggressions” both students and some staff of color endure daily at OPRF. “I’ve experienced biases in the community and inside the school,” she said.
Rouse said OPRF has struggled with racial equity for decades. “There are challenges in equity work,” he said, pointing to efforts to talk through white privilege, to understand and not doubt “the lived lives of black students,” to talk equity while understanding that it is not calling out individuals as racists. “Why can’t we have this conversation, just once, about race?” said Rouse.
As we closed the conversation, I asked Sullivan, the PR person, what was the worst-case scenario as our villages watched this blunt documentary. I expected a typical PR person’s answer and didn’t get it. Instead she said, “The worst-case scenario is that nothing changes for our kids and our community. For many of my years here, I’ve been one of those white liberals who moved to Oak Park for the diversity without questioning much beyond that. In my seven years at the school I have learned so much about race, about being white. If I want the best for our students, then I have to be willing to look at my role in all of that. I hope our community can stay open as they watch this. If the documentary just comes and goes, we will have failed.”