A four-hour town hall discussion held Sunday night in the Little Theater at Oak Park and River Forest High School provided community members, and those affiliated with the Starz documentary series America to Me, an opportunity to evaluate, reassess, vent and speak their various truths about the production — the 10th and final episode of which aired on Oct. 28.
The town hall was divided into five different panel discussions, respectively featuring parents, current and former students, educators and filmmakers — most of whom played a role in America to Me.
The event was sponsored by the New York Times (whose national correspondent, John Eligon, moderated the first and last panels), the Oak Park-based E-Team, OPRF High School, Participant Media and the MacArthur Foundation.
The following are oral accounts given Sunday from the people who were involved in the filming. This is the first in a two-part series. These excerpts have been edited for clarity:
Parrish is a documentary director, cinematographer and editor who was a segment director and cinematographer on America to Me.
For a long time our country has approached racial equity from an integration lens. We’ve felt like if we can integrate students in schools and share resources, then we can have equity. I think looking at the challenges that OPRF faces shows that that isn’t enough.
For me, I really started to feel like traditional structures of education that we have in this country are kind of like the miner’s canary, described in the book by Lani Guinier [The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy].
Part of the idea in her work is that, oftentimes, people who are marginalized, people of color in particular, are like the canary in the coal mine. When miners went down to the coal mines, they’d have a canary they’d bring on their shoulder and when the canary died, the miner knew to come back up.
And so I feel like the fundamental problem, which is a problem for all our students broadly in our education system, is this really outdated, factory model of education that is all about compliance. Learning is fun and exciting and we all have that desire, but when we built this system it became about ranking and ratings and who is the best — I think it dehumanizes all of us.
Shaw is a director, producer and cinematographer who was a segment director and cinematographer on America to Me.
Going into this, I didn’t have any particular expectation, per se. I knew about Oak Park. I was born and raised in Chicago. I had friends in Oak Park growing up, so I’d been in this area and I kind of knew what the reputation was — the good and the bad, especially being a person of color. So when I started telling some of these stories and following the families I was attached to over the course of a year, I wasn’t surprised about a lot of the things they were going through. It was just kind of like, um hmm. It was kind of disappointing.
You feel those things, especially for me, walking down the street, even in Oak Park sometimes, you do feel like eyes are on you and you don’t belong and if students were feeling like that in this school, then it’s easy for me to understand where some of that disconnect was coming from.
Stovall — the OPRF teacher who saw more success trying to win over the vulnerable, but bright and charismatic Ke’Shawn Kumsa than she did gathering a headwind of support from administrators for a racial equity curriculum she designed — said her time at OPRF was “like being in an emotionally abusive relationship.”
About two months ago, Stovall took a leave of absence in order to pursue a PhD in Race, Inequality and Language in Education at Stanford University.
It is really painful to be back in this building. I’ve only been gone for seven weeks, but I didn’t think [returning] would be as hard as it was.
It’s great that I’m [getting the doctorate at Stanford], but I didn’t leave because I wanted to get a doctorate at Stanford. I wanted to retire from this building. I spent 11 powerful, transformative years and I gave it all I’ve got. The reality is that when you are told you don’t have the knowledge, capacity, intellect to be able to do racial equity work, when the same people who said that have never been in my classroom, never been to a professional development program I’ve given, never read a piece of my literature, what is informing [them] if they’ve never seen that?
If things had changed for the better, I absolutely would be in Room 313 tomorrow morning, greeting those kids a happy Monday, and I’m not because things have gotten so much worse and I felt like I had to leave. I will say that I took a leave of absence. I did not quit because there is a part of me that is really hopeful.
Chala Holland, former assistant principal at OPRF, left while director Steve James and his crew were filming America to Me in 2015 to take a job as principal at Lake Forest High School.
Deciding to leave was very difficult. … I was feeling four years of exhaustion, as well as navigating my own emotions. Part of that, too, was knowing that it was time for me to go. I have a drive and fire inside of me, and I felt like it had reached its capacity in the building under the leadership, under the way things were going, and I felt it was time to go. I felt like a caged bird in some ways, trying to break free.
I was an assistant principal and I wanted better for the kids here, but I also knew that I wasn’t willing to compromise my passion and my gifts by staying complacent in some ways within the current structure. I needed to break free from that and feed my soul and engage in the work I believed in, in a different context, but just as meaningful.
Every day, every week, I’m in communication with people here because my relationships and my commitment to this district and school are not based on me being here; it’s based on the work I believe is possible here.