Roughly an hour before a four-hour town hall, based on the documentary series America to Me, was scheduled to start at 6 p.m. on Sunday inside Oak Park and River Forest High School’s Little Theater, a group of students, parents, teachers and community members rallied around a defiant theme outside the high school’s main entrance.
They wanted the town hall audience to know that despite the 10-part series — which aired over a period of two months on Starz — the school’s race problems are far from resolved.
They also came armed with a series of structural demands that they said would address OPRF’s many racial inequities and what they feel is the school’s atmosphere of racial insensitivity.
The demonstrators had plenty of present-day examples to bolster their claim. On Nov. 2, Oak Park police were investigating a racial epithet scrawled on a shed near the high school’s tennis courts. “White power,” it stated, and “F— Dancing N— Anthony Clark,” referencing the popular activist and OPRF teacher who helped organize Sunday’s demonstration.
The week before, one of 15-year-old sophomore Naahlyee Bryant’s favorite teachers used a racial epithet three times in class. Jordan Murray, an OPRF senior, said he woke up one morning a few days before the rally to find his car spray painted.
“The writing said, ‘F— you, go Trump’ and all of these things,” Murray said. “When I looked on Facebook and heard about what happened with Mr. Clark, I started to believe I was being targeted.”
Murray said he helped write “Crossing Austin,” a student play performed earlier this year about how the nearby Chicago community of Austin is stigmatized within Oak Park.
“In my opinion [that play] is the reason I’m being targeted,” Murray said. “This needs to stop! We can’t sit idly while things like this are happening around us.”
As the students voiced their concerns, they were encircled by a crowd of roughly 100 people, including OPRF Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams and District 200 board President Jackie Moore.
John Eligon, the New York Times national correspondent who was due to moderate two panel discussions, observed and took notes. Steve James, the longtime Oak Park resident, who was the lead director of America to Me, took out his cellphone and, naturally, started filming.
Trinity Anderson, a 16-year-old junior who is a member of the Black Leaders Union, said she thought the documentary ended on a much too optimistic note.
“The documentary did not fully tell the true ending of how we still don’t have equity today,” she said. “It gave a happy ending and that’s not what we have at all, actually. The reality is very sad. The documentary opened people’s eyes about what we have here, but it definitely didn’t change anything.”
Anderson, along with members of the group Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE), have been pushing for district administrators to implement a series of eight demands.
They include implementing a “student-initiated racial equity curriculum,” hiring more teachers of color and ensuring that black history courses are required aspects of the general curriculum.
As of Nov. 5, a moveon.org petition that the students created to generate support for their demands had garnered 690 signatures out of a goal of 750.
“We want to put pressure on the school to implement more policy that will push against the agenda of white supremacy and against systemic discrimination that we face in the school,” said senior Grace Gunn.
Supt. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams told students during the rally that took place before the town hall that her administration has already taken action toward delivering some of the students’ demands, such as announcing in September that the district will begin to develop a racial equity policy and the creation earlier this year of a new HR strategy designed to recruit, hire and retain more teachers of color.
During a Sept. 18 board meeting, OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse told board members that district officials would work on developing a board policy and administrative procedures “that focus specifically on our commitment to racial equity.”
Pruitt-Adams also promised students more equity-related curriculum changes in the future.
“I am here because I want to hear you,” she said. “In order for Oak Park to come to a different place, we have to have your voices heard.”
But the student-activists were not satisfied with containing their protest to the school’s main entrance.
Roughly a half-hour into the town hall, chants of “Whose school?! Our school!” wafted into the Little Theatre from the student center lobby.
“What are you going to do differently to help us address this equity issue?” Eligon asked Moore, who quipped, “short of getting arrested … my whole self is in this work.”
Just before the students swung open the doors and walked toward the stage chanting, “Is this Oak Park?!” Moore urged the roughly 350 audience members to listen to the students’ voices.
“We have to listen, we have to build relationships,” she said. “They know what they need. We just have to be willing to listen and take risks and not be afraid to make change.”
Some minutes later, Bryant took the mic and picked up where he’d left off during the rally more than an hour earlier.
“When I go into class, I feel like I ain’t nothing sometimes, just because I’m the only black in the classroom,” he said. “I’m tired of OP throwing us to the curb and just looking at us, saying, ‘F y’all.'”