A four-hour town hall discussion, held Nov. 4 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 that Sunday from some of the people who were involved in the filming. This is the second of a two-part series. These excerpts have been edited for clarity:

Ke’Shawn Kumsa

Kumsa, the charismatic but vulnerable student in Jessica Stovall’s class, is still as alienated from Oak Park as he was in the film. During the panel he participated in, Kumsa said he still doesn’t consider Oak Park to be his community. He did, however, praise some of his former teachers.

I think it’s important that we have safe spaces. To be at this school, you need someone to identify with or an activity. Like Charles stated in the second episode, in order to survive, you have to have something.

My aunt told me that you need somebody who is going to help you out, somebody who sees something in you that you don’t, somebody like Ms. Stovall, Mr. [Anthony] Clark. … You gotta have something to work for. You can’t just give up. At one point I was ready to give it up, but I had people who saw something I didn’t.

Charles Donalson

Donalson, the brilliant poet, is still in Oak Park, based on numerous accounts of community members who have seen him around town. Donalson spoke about how central OPRF’s Spoken Word Club was to his high school experience.

Honestly, without Spoken Word Club, there’s no way I would’ve graduated high school. I’m being completely honest. It’s not because I don’t like doing school work. It’s just because Oak Park isn’t set up for people like me or Jada or Ke’Shawn or anyone who is a person of color. Thank God I found Spoken Word and a love for writing poetry, but at the same time, if I hadn’t, y’all wouldn’t know my name. You have to find something in order to survive and that’s just not how it should be.

Nathaniel Rouse

The principal at OPRF for nearly a decade, Rouse, along with all of the school’s top administrators, refused to participate during the filming. For perhaps the first time in public, the principal revealed how he really felt about how he was depicted in the series.

I’m a man of faith. It’s clearly by the grace of God that I’m sitting here, willing to participate on this panel. It’s important for me to say that for many reasons. I’ve been here for 11 years. To look at the way that I was characterized was incredibly difficult.

Prior to me coming here, there wasn’t a principal. Prior to me coming here, there was no principal; the superintendent and the principal position were combined. So I was fortunate enough and blessed enough to get the position as a first-time principal. I was blessed to work with three superintendents, two assistant superintendents, seven human resource directors, four different history division heads, three different science division heads, two different English division heads and a smattering of wonderful individuals who have donated their time as board members.

To be depicted as the individual responsible for failing black and brown children, as a man who identifies as a black man — who breathes that air every day of my life — and to have been told every which way possible that that is who I am, to be identified as the problem, has been pretty devastating and really difficult to take.

If I can wave a magic wand and make the very, very difficult things I’ve seen for our students and staff of color [go away], that would happen in a heartbeat. That would have happened 11 years ago. I am one person in a very, very huge system. I do strongly believe in the need for us to aggressively have actionable items to address the issues for all students, but in particular the black and brown students in this [school]. That’s actually what I came here to do.

Steve James

The documentary series director and longtime Oak Park resident responded to Rouse’s concerns.

I said the same thing to Nate as I said to [former superintendent] Steven Isoye, which is that we really wanted them to participate in the film and be part of it and really allow us to see the work they do, hear from them and what they wanted to do and intended to accomplish. But neither of them, and it wasn’t just them but it was all of the upper administration, that refused to participate in the series.

So it makes it hard for us to fully portray someone who doesn’t participate, but we did endeavor to be fair and reflect what people told us and I don’t think we laid all of this at Nate’s feet at all. There’s plenty of responsibility to go around on this issue and we certainly tried to show that; that there are administration issues, community issues, America issues that contribute to what goes on in this school.

Jackie Moore

Moore, who was a board member when the documentary was filmed (she’s board president now), revealed how she felt about Rouse and other administrators not supporting the work of Jessica Stovall, who is currently on leave from OPRF to pursue a doctorate degree. Stovall said that a major reason why she left was because she didn’t feel supported.

Given my role in episode 9, I want to dispel some of the assumptions that Jessica [Stovall] and I were best buddies and that’s why I was championing her work. The very first time I met Jessica and heard about her work was when she was talking about her experiences after a sabbatical and the person that I am, being a researcher and data driven, I looked at her proposal and wanted to know more.

I have to say that one of the regrets I have as a board member in viewing the documentary is that I didn’t push harder. The board I’m assembled with now is pushing for things in a very different way, and I’m heartbroken for the reasons that Jessica and Chala [Holland, former asst. principal] are no longer here.

We’re three years down the road with some very different data to talk about and some very different feelings about how our teachers are connecting with each other. Jessica’s work had so much integrity and was so evidence-based. We didn’t have to hire a consultant to do that and that is a frustration I have.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com    

Join the discussion on social media!

Michael Romain on 'America to Me'

Michael Romain, an education staff reporter for Wednesday Journal, will blog his reactions to each episode of 'America to Me,' the 10-part documentary series airing each Sunday on Starz. This blog will...