Two summers ago, I wrote an essay called “The challenges of being a black Principal in today’s racial and political climate.” It was a reflection of my experiences as a leader in Black, White and “diverse” spaces. It started a much needed and real conversation about race and equity in Oak Park.
Influential director Steve James now continues that conversation with his 10-part documentary premiering on STARZ on August 26th, “America to Me.” It offers a unique peek inside Oak Park River Forest High School, known as simply “OPRF” in the community.
This summer, Steve and I had a casual breakfast at Oak Park’s Cozy Corner. We shared our experiences of the community from our different perspectives. Ultimately, our discussion and “America to Me” both tackle a central question: “How hard is it, in a liberal and diverse community, to have a candid conversation about race?”
Getting at this question through the lived experiences of Oak Park’s high school students was Steve’s primary goal. To make the series, he worked with 12 students and their families. “It was important to document lives that were different,” he noted. “It covers the tracking system and the kinds of kids who aren’t normally profiled. It is focused on the personal lives of students and their families.”
Oak Park Is Not The Promised Land
Steve and I talked about the Black families who scraped and saved to get to Oak Park. This story is not new to us. Parents across the country are looking for the best school option for their children. For many, the suburbs seem to solve that problem.
Black families “claw their way into Oak Park,” as Steve put it, so that their kids can go to this high school. Similarly, there is a feeling that you have “arrived” if you are a Black teacher or leader because you “get to” work in the district. But statistics on Black student achievement cast a different light on the schools.
The documentary asks, “What’s the big deal about Oak Park?” One 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 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 SAT standards. A student profiled in the series says “There is nothing at OPRF that I can’t get from any other school.”
Steve talked about sending 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?”
In the series, you will see 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.
Real Change Requires the Stomach for Conflict
I asked Steve what surprised him most in making the documentary. “Change seems to be hard in a place like Oak Park,” he answered. “Serious motivation for change doesn’t really seem to be community-wide. There seems to be a palpable fear around equity.” It gets expressed in the undercurrent of statements like “that sounds like a great idea, after my kid graduates.”
While “America to Me” will highlight 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 leading in an environment 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 will challenge white power structures and dismantle systems of inequity. This means you won’t be popular and you will appear in the comments section of Facebook community pages and Wednesday Journal articles.
I think it is important to highlight that the current principal (Nate Rouse) and the former superintendent (Steven Isoye) chose not 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.
This did not surprise either me or Steve. “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.”
“It’s the Hardest Film I’ve Ever Made”
For Steve, making a film like this about his hometown was tough. “It’s the hardest film I’ve made. It’s been three and a half years of my life, and it was not easy.”
Steve hopes that 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 the characters have it so good, they will actually see “how race plays out in a place where maybe we should have solved these issues already.” While it is set in Oak Park, you will see the series tackle themes that resonate everywhere, like racial identity, the Black male experience (both for students and teachers), low expectations, discipline, classism and more.
I have watched the first five episodes already. They brought up so many emotions for me as a former leader in that community and as a leader in the hard work of changing the paradigm in education. The first episode shows us the origin of the series title, in the words of Langston Hughes:
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.
I will be leading some conversations about the series in the coming weeks as well as writing recaps for each episode. I hope you’ll join the conversation about Oak Park’s experiment in integration, equality and equity.