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The Space for Change

By Lauren Pabst

Students at Oak Park Forest High School in Illinois take the stage at a town hall discussion of 'America to Me.' Photo: Paul Goyette. Courtesy of Lisa Zimble

Journalism works to hold the powerful accountable, whether it is public officials or private corporations, provoking a public reckoning with wrongdoing and forcing change.

Documentary films, especially in recent years, have also been held up as drivers of social change; presenting untold or long-forgotten stories in a cinematic format can generate new levels of awareness.

But documentaries and journalism do not, by themselves, create change. They present evidence and the building blocks for the levers of accountability by exposing wrongdoing or telling stories misrepresented by the larger media anew. They can provide context where before there were only soundbites.

Journalism and documentary can create the space for change.

For social change to take place, that space must be claimed by engaged civic actors and organizations, whether they be public servants in a position to act or grassroots activists who work to force action where it did not seem previously possible.

By bringing new information and new stories to light, journalism and documentary present a choice to the public: Will we act on these revelations? Will we use our civic power to take this information and run with it? And, importantly, are mediamakers willing to be in dialogue with the activism their work relies on?

On a rainy night in November, about 300 people gathered at Oak Park River Forest High School to discuss the docuseries America to Me, which had just concluded its 10-week run on the Starz channel, focusing a spotlight on this west suburban Chicago school and community.

America to Me follows a diverse group of students, parents and teachers over the 2014-2015 school year, to examine how even in the resource-rich educational environment of Oak Park River Forest High School, located in a liberal community, inequities still persist for students of color.

The series, directed by Steve James, Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish and Kevin Shaw and produced by Participant Media and Kartemquin Films, explores how the overall culture of a school, which might work well for its majority white students, can make many students of color—and even teachers of color—feel unwelcome.

On the night of that screening, just outside the doors of the school, a crowd of Oak Park River Forest students led by Students Acting For Equity (SAFE) had gathered for a demonstration. The reason for the demonstration was that, two days earlier, racist graffiti was found on school property aimed at teacher Anthony Clark, who was featured in America to Me. The students also called for the firing of a teacher who they said used a racial slur in class. (That teacher has since admitted using the slur and has been reassigned.) Huddled under the awning of the school, out of the cold drizzle, students of color spoke about feeling targeted by hate in the school environment.

Inside, in the town hall discussion, The New York Times’ John Eligon was wrapping up the first panel. (The Times’ Race/Related was a sponsor of the event, along with the MacArthur Foundation). Outside the doors of the theater, there were shouted chants. The student protesters entered the theater and took the stage with the chant, “Whose school? Our school!”

Oak Park River Forest School Board President Dr. Jackie Moore handed the students the microphone. “We are demanding equity,” said one of the students in a bright yellow shirt and headband, “—what we’re here to talk about today. Really? Is that what we’re here to talk about? Because when we were outside protesting about equity, a lot of you guys walked past us to sit in here and talk about equity, without us, the people who it actually counts for.”

“Please. I am begging you: that you do not fall into the trap that just because we get a documentary, things are better; just because it’s four years later, things are better,” said another student.

From 'America to Me' (Dirs.: Steve James, Bing Liu, Rebecca Parrish, Kevin Shaw), which was screened and discussed at Oak Park Forest High School, where the series takes place. Courtesy of Kartenquin Films

“We believe you,” came a voice from the audience, which included black alumni of Oak Park River Forest, who spoke through the evening about how they saw their own experiences reflected there. Captured through the series is the story of Danielle Robinson, mother of student Ke’Shawn Kumsa, who recounts the criminalization of her medical problem during her time at the school in the 1990s: how a security officer emptied out her locker into a trash bag after she used the elevator without permission while recovering from surgery.

The students of SAFE have concrete demands: racial consciousness training for teachers, students and staff; the establishment of a policy about using racially charged language; the immediate hiring of more teachers of color, especially black teachers; and the adoption of a strong racial equity policy, framework and protocols. SAFE’s petition has collected over 1,000 signatures as of this writing.

Dr. Moore, along with Dr. Joylynn Pruitt-Adams, superintendent of the district (her predecessor Dr. Steven Isoye left during the filming of the series), listened solemnly to the students as they expressed their deep hurt at what they described as a lack of urgency around addressing issues of racism at the school. “I thought we were chipping away,” said Dr. Pruitt-Adams on a panel later that night.

Dr. Moore, Dr. Pruitt-Adams and Principal Nathan Rouse thanked the students for their activism and committed to working toward their demands.

Isoye and Rouse, we learn in America to Me, opposed the filming of the documentary series but were overruled by the school board.

By allowing cameras into the school, the school board, led by Dr. Moore, enabled the creation of an unflinching record of the realities of students and teachers during that school year.  

Because of that record, here was a literal space the students of SAFE could claim and hold that November evening. The students could provide a real-time update on issues of race at their high school and inject urgency into an evening dedicated to discussing how to build on the lessons laid bare by the docuseries.

As the students filed off the stage and the town hall program resumed, Eligon asked the audience who among them, honestly, was made uncomfortable by the disruption. A few hands went up.  

“What I do know from covering race, from covering protests around the country, is that there would not be an officer from the Chicago PD convicted of murder if people had not been made to feel uncomfortable through the protests in downtown Chicago,” he said. “What America does with that discomfort—that is the question now.”

Students at Oak Park Forest High School in Illinois demonstrate outside a screening and discussion of 'America to Me.' Photo: Paul Goyette. Courtesy of Lisa Zimble

In March, at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri, after a screening of the documentary film The Commons, Courtney Symone Staton took the stage to read a prepared statement. As she spoke, colleagues from the Youth FX NeXt Doc program unfurled a banner that read “Decolonize Documentary.”

The Commons, directed by Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley, explores the protests at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill demanding the removal of a Confederate statue known as “Silent Sam.”

Staton is a current student and organizer at UNC-Chapel Hill and lead producer and impact producer of the film Silence Sam, a student-led documentary that also follows the movement to remove the monument as well as the silencing of student activism by university administrators.

“Three of my friends emerged as characters in a film called The Commons: Maya, Michelle and Angum,” Staton said. “And yet, despite being featured as characters, they did not know they were part of this film until I told them on Friday night after watching it at the True/False Film Festival.

“There are multiple injustices done in showing this film.

“By only showing our protests and a small part of our student sit-in, the film reasserts the idea that students are not willing to have civil discourse or organize effectively, when in fact, students were actively holding meetings with administrators and faculty leaders.

“The directors of The Commons did not tell enough of our truth and because of that, the film these filmmakers have presented is a falsehood….

 “By filming us without our consent, you contribute to the violent history of state surveillance and to the continued marginalization of black people by the documentary field and people of color,” the statement continued. “You contribute to the traumatic legacy of white people ‘studying’ us for science and their own gains. Your art, like the University of North Carolina, was built on our backs. And to this we say: ‘Nothing about us, without us, is for us.’”

Staton’s statement called for The Commons to not be shown again publicly until what it called injustices could be corrected.

Earlier in the festival, in speaking of their approach to filming The Commons, Galinsky told the Columbia Tribune, “We weren’t going to make a film that had characters. We weren’t going to make a film that created context and explained it for people. We were just going to do what we do, which is capture that event in a non-advocacy way and in a non-journalistic way. Somewhere between those two.”

A few days after the screening, in a post on his blog, Galinsky responded,

“We hear the concerns of the activists and understand the importance of listening to them. Further, we sincerely apologize that our film has caused anguish to the individuals who appear in footage from the protests. We recognize that we could have communicated more effectively as we made our film. Although we reached out and offered all of our early footage to support their film, Silence Sam, and let them know we were making a film, we should have made more of an effort to get direct feedback from the filmmakers and activists as we worked to finish The Commons—and included them in the process in a direct way. Our film would have benefitted from their perspective and we hope that it still can.”

The post continues:

“As white individuals, we have a responsibility to challenge our own perspectives and positions of power when filming protests that involve historically marginalized groups. We are committed to understanding these broader perspectives, in relation to our film, and as part of a larger dialogue about documentaries and media in general. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns within our film and work together to get both films seen and help foster an even more inclusive conversation around these issues.”

The True/False Film Festival released a statement that read in part, "We support the screening of The Commons at this year’s festival….

“These unjust power dynamics around race, privilege, access and representation are the foundational questions of storytelling and are ingrained in documentary history since its beginning….

"These questions are large and knotty, and exactly the ones we need to address personally, organizationally, and in the systems that frame and govern our communities."

What is clear from these and other recent events is that there needs to be more spaces for dialogue and debate. And more people and institutions that can and will question and critique business as usual. That’s why MacArthur’s Journalism & Media program, in addition to being a longtime supporter of the well-established journalism and documentary organizations, has also recently has begun to support more emergent organizations Brown Girls Doc Mafia, the Asian American Documentary Network, the BlackStar Film Festival and Youth FX’s NeXt Doc program, which represent a new generation of groups creating space and claiming space for documentary filmmakers of color.

Through our Journalism & Media program, MacArthur is working to challenge an unjust status quo and create opportunities and spaces for people of all backgrounds to discuss and debate the issues facing society.

In Chicago, we invest in the Media and Storytelling program at the Field Foundation, which applies a racial equity lens to its grantmaking. This program will support media organizations in neighborhoods that have experienced divestment, providing more resources for storytellers from communities that have been underrepresented and, crucially, misrepresented. The goal is to create more complete, just and inclusive news and narratives of the city, told from multiple perspectives.

We understand that to realize the potential of public interest media, institutions and individuals have to be willing to take criticism, to be open to ideas and insights that look and sound different from what they are accustomed to, to be made uncomfortable.

The organizations we support are working toward a culture where media made by the people from communities that are most affected by issues can be taken as the official record and can spur action, a culture where journalism, documentary and community media all have accountability leverage.

Creating this culture takes an entire society of people with the courage to act and the courage to learn.

Lauren Pabst is a Senior Program Officer in journalism and media at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which provided funding for America to Me.