When the 10-part Starz documentary series America to Me finished airing earlier this year, Oak Park and River Forest High School became the center of a national dialogue on race and equity.
But on Nov. 4, during a panel discussion on the documentary held at the high school and hosted by the New York Times and a variety of local organizations, such as Excellence with Equity in Education (or the E-Team), a group of students rushed the stage and interrupted the discussion. They had heard enough talk. They wanted action.
"Is this Oak Park?!" the students chanted. "Whose school?! Our school!"
On the stage, the panel's moderator, John Eligon, the New York Times' national correspondent on race, asked panelists how they planned on responding to the students' demands.
"What are you going to do differently to help us address this equity issue?" Eligon asked Jackie Moore, the District 200 board president who was among the featured panelists.
Moore paused, seemingly surprised by the question, before she quipped, "Short of getting arrested … my whole self is in this work."
Indeed, Moore's imprint on that moment was unmistakable. The young people who led the protest were members of Students Advocating for Equity, or SAFE, an OPRF club that was founded as an outgrowth of a retreat on equity that Moore organized in 2013.
Moore is a founding member of the E-Team, one of the local organizations that co-hosted the panel discussion. This year, the organization won the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation's $50,000 Big Idea prize for its work in the area of educational equity. Last year, the organization, founded by Oak Park teacher Frances Kraft, was a runner-up for the prize.
And Moore was one of the six board members who voted in favor of allowing Steve James, a longtime Oak Parker whose kids graduated from OPRF, to film inside the school for a year — over the very vocal objections of former D200 Supt. Steven Isoye and most of his administration.
"I'm a revolutionary at heart," said Moore, when she was asked to recount that moment on Nov. 4 during a recent interview. "I was one of those students who protested and circulated petitions in high school and college, so I was proud of the students. I was proud that their voices were being heard and that they took a national spotlight and used it in a way that was provocative and powerful."
What made her most proud, she said, was that the students merged their passionate protest with intelligent, clearly articulated demands.
"I met with them about a week [before the protest] and talked with them about their curricular unit, about being informed and doing the work it takes to do a protest and to have solutions be part of your protest," Moore said. "Don't just be against something — talk about what you're for."
'I asked questions and pushed'
Moore grew up in Dayton, Ohio, and attended a small college prep high school "far away from the 98 percent black, working-class neighborhood I grew up in." In school, she developed a penchant for "pointing out injustices" and pushing against certain harmful aspects of the status quo.
"If something wasn't right, I wanted to understand why," she said. "I asked questions and pushed — whether the issue was a racist bus driver or classes that had content that was suspicious, things like that. I wasn't afraid to stir the pot."
When Moore moved to Oak Park from Houston with her husband, Mark Fields, 23 years ago, she found herself fighting similar battles on behalf of her four children — Jordan, Merrick, Lindsay and Kendall — all of whom went through Oak Park's elementary and high schools.
Moore said she wasn't going to let an educator or someone else in the schools decide who her children were, based on their race.
"I had to say, 'No, that's not who they are,' and I had to teach my kids to say that as well."
In 2008, Moore's oldest son, Jordan, died in a car accident.
"During those four years after [Jordan's death], I didn't really volunteer or anything," she said.
And then in 2012, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Hackman visited Unity Temple to talk about his pioneering work in early childhood development. At the time, Moore was on the board of the Collaboration for Early Childhood — the organization funded by Oak Park taxing bodies that provides resources for parents of young children in the village.
Moore worked the front table during the event with fellow board member Jeff Weissglass, who told her that he was planning to run for the D200 school board. At the time, Moore said, her two sons had graduated from OPRF while her twin daughters were preparing to enter as freshmen.
Moore seized the opportunity to grapple with "the whole idea of two schools and the different experiences that black and brown students were having," and to tackle a more than $100 million fund balance the high school had accumulated ("I recall using the word 'obscene'; it just felt like we were sitting on money").
Since her election to the board in 2013, Moore has placed the concept of student voice at the center of the board's equity focus. For instance, recent efforts by students, particularly SAFE members, to develop a first-of-its-kind racial equity course and to pressure board members to enact a comprehensive racial equity policy can be traced, in part, back to Moore's retreat in 2013, held at the Oak Park Public Library.
The event, she said, was prompted by her frustration with the race-based discipline disparities at OPRF. Moore felt barraged by data telling her what students already knew. What was needed, she said, was concrete action to eliminate the disparity.
"Our black and brown students were saying how they didn't feel that they were heard at the time," Moore said. "One recommendation that came out of that retreat was the need to cultivate our student voices."
In addition to the creation of SAFE, the retreat also led to OPRF working with an organization to teach student-leaders how to advocate for themselves, similar to how Moore taught her own kids. A year after the retreat, Moore said, the high school held student-led discussions on a range of racial equity-related issues.
By the time the board voted in 2015 to allow James to film at OPRF for a year, a slow shift in the district's approach to racial equity was already afoot. Filming students' experiences, Moore said, would serve as a learning tool for the outside world.
The documentary, she added, "was a way to validate the experiences students talked about, but that had been diminished.
"Living in Oak Park is a choice for me and something I'm proud of, but I didn't want us to get stuck resting on our laurels of racial diversity and feeling as though we've done enough by just being here, when there are people in our community who have had experiences that are negative because of race — myself included," she said.
"Being on the board wasn't personal," Moore added. "This wasn't about my own kids. If that's true, I wouldn't have gone into a second term. But it was really about feeling as though I knew how to advocate for my own kids and I wanted that to be the experience of all of our kids in Oak Park."
Answer Book 2018
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