How hard is it, in a liberal and diverse community, to have a candid conversation about race?

It’s a hard question to ask, let alone answer. But that’s exactly what director Steve James explores in the 10-part documentary America to Me, which offers a unique peek inside the lived experiences of students at OPRF High School.

I sat down with Steve to talk about why it was so important to cover the very personal stories of those who are not often covered. 

What’s the big deal about Oak Park, anyway? On the one hand, there is so much to brag about in the community, from the beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright homes to chemist Percy Julian and author Ernest Hemingway, who both called the community home.

But at OPRF, according to the Illinois State Report Card, 78 percent of white students meet or exceed SAT standards while only 25 percent of Black students meet or exceed them. A student profiled in the series says, “There is nothing at OPRF that I can’t get from any other school.”

Steve sent his children through the Oak Park school system with one child who had a very different experience because of academic need. He asked himself, “What would it be like if he were black?”

While black families “claw their way into Oak Park,” as Steve put it, the series shows OPRF as a tale of two schools. The majority of students, 65 percent, are in the AP/Honors track. The rest of the students are in what they call the “college prep” track. Outward appearances suggest a liberal and diverse environment, but it’s very separate, providing different levels of service for black students.

What was surprising to Steve is that “Change seems to be hard in a place like Oak Park, and serious motivation for change doesn’t really seem to be community-wide,” he said. There’s a palpable fear around equity which gets expressed in the undercurrent of statements like “that sounds like a great idea, after my kid graduates.”

While America to Me highlights a few other roadblocks, like mindsets and readiness, Steve and I agree that fear is the foundation: the fear of disrupting the white power structure.

When embarking on major change, you must have the stomach for conflict. Shifting culture and changing mindsets will ruffle some feathers. Oak Park has been trying to address and “fix” their achievement gap for 30 years.

This fix requires more than committees and forums. It needs leaders who aren’t afraid to challenge white power structures and dismantle systems of inequity.

It’s worth noting that the current principal (Nate Rouse) and the former superintendent (Steven Isoye) chose not to be interviewed in the documentary and were only recorded at public events. In fact, most people in the school and community didn’t want the documentary to happen.

“People who fear it thought the film would paint the school [and community] as a failure in dealing with issues around race and equity,” Steve said. “It is an extraordinary place, but in order to do justice to a place like this, you must hold a mirror up to the school and community.”

Steve hopes viewers get hooked on the students. They’re the reason it’s worth investing 10+ hours to watch the story of a well-funded, public high school. Their stories are funny, powerful, real and familiar.

While many viewers may come to the series expecting to see how good the students have it, they will actually see how race plays out in a place where maybe we should have solved these issues already. Though set in Oak Park, viewers will see themes that resonate everywhere, like racial identity, the black male experience, low expectations, discipline, classism and more.

In watching the first five episodes, so many emotions came up for me as a former leader in that community. And as one still fighting to change the paradigm in education, I’m filled with both pride and heartbreak watching our students boldly share what it’s like to live the words of Langston Hughes, which inspired the series title:

“Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain seeking a home where he himself is free. America never was America to me.”

LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partner and a former middle school and high school principal in Oak Park. She blogs at EducationPost.

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