On Sunday night, Steve James’ docuseries “America to Me,” a 10-part examination of racial inequities at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago, came to an end on Starz.
At the center of the series (which was filmed during the 2015-16 academic school year) were the students, who spanned all four grades and varied in race, socio-economic background and interests. Among them was Jada Buford, an African-American senior and aspiring filmmaker who had a prickly relationship with some of her white teachers and classmates; Caroline Robling-Griest, a white freshman who struggled with debilitating anxiety related to her quest for academic perfection; and Ke’Shawn Kumsa, an African-American junior who had difficulty maintaining interest in school.
Buford, now a film major at Howard University, was familiar with some of the racial politics percolating behind the scenes before James and his team came to OPRF. “I come from a family that has taught me to be racially conscious, and so I was aware of those issues,” she said. “My family has history with Oak Park, so I knew how they would treat black students.”
Robling-Griest, now a senior at the high school, “definitely” noticed “the racial divide in my classes, right from the beginning, in the building,” she said.
In a joint phone conversation, Buford, Robling-Griest and Kumsa (who later transferred to and graduated from a different high school in Cicero, Illinois, and is working to support his family and save for college) reflected on filming “America to Me.” These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Now that you’ve seen what was happening, has your perception of the leadership changed?
Buford: I wasn’t too surprised that the superintendent and the principal didn’t want to be a part of the film.
A revelation I had after watching all the episodes: Just looking at my scenes with my physics teacher, Mr. (Aaron) Podolner, I realized that I used a lot of emotional labor that people of color experience when they are in these learning environments. When you go to school, you’re supposed to be focused on your learning; I’m going to this class, and I’m thinking about how the subject is challenging. But then I’m also thinking, “Oh, how do I say this in a certain way so my teacher won’t put me in an uncomfortable position?” And that stinks! Q: You pushed back against people like Podolner in front of the cameras. Did you have concerns about how viewers might perceive you?
Buford: Yeah. I was taught if something is wrong, you always speak up. In the beginning, I was definitely concerned about being perceived as this angry black girl because I would hold my teachers accountable for their actions and for what they would say.
A lot of people walk through the hallways of high school in fear of, “Oh I shouldn’t say this; I shouldn’t say that.” That goes along with the teachers and administrators, too. My senior year, I just got sick of being silent. And so I decided to speak for people that couldn’t really speak for themselves and try to be an advocate. If somebody is saying something ignorant, I’m going to nip it in the bud and try to make my environment more comfortable.
Looking back on it, it’s really disheartening because it’s like: Can we just exist? When I was watching I was like, “Wow, I shouldn’t have had to go through that. I shouldn’t have had to basically try to teach my teachers what not to do.”
Robling-Griest: It’s great that you, Jada, had the courage to even speak up on those issues. In our high school, there’s an environment that isn’t necessarily open to the opinions or experiences of all students. And they feel like they shouldn’t even attempt to explain what they want to say because it’ll be taken a certain way, or it just won’t be understood. Q: Ke’Shawn, in the documentary there’s a moment where your mother, Danielle Robinson, who was herself a student at OPRF, revisits the school for the first time since being kicked out for using the elevator without an elevator pass. (According to Robinson, her stomach had been stapled after having a cyst removed but the dean denied her a pass.) Were you aware of her story before this?
Kumsa: My mom told us that story a long time ago, but she said she still feels like Oak Park is a nice community. But we knew what it was.
Q: Have you talked to her about her experiences since the documentary was filmed?
Kumsa: We kind of just laughed about it, actually. Like, whoever would’ve thought the story would have ended up in the movie? She had already told me to watch my back (at school) and everything. Now we’re just like, “Wow, now everybody knows.” Crazy!
Q: Caroline, you’re in your senior year now. Have you learned how to better confront and manage your anxieties?
Robling-Griest: To an extent I still have to deal with it. But I’m able to step back from it a lot more now, and assess what I’m nervous about. And I think I also have a lot more confidence in myself. I can say, “It’s going to be OK.”
Q: What did each of you learn from this experience?
Buford: I think when people watch it, they’re going to think about how systemic racism works and how the education system isn’t working the way it’s supposed to. And I really feel like in order to have some sort of progress, there needs to be a shift in the power structure.
One of the most powerful things that I took away from the series was when Ms. (Jessica) Stovall said that there’s a lack of urgency. I think, for the people watching, they should want to have some sort of sense of urgency to change things, and prioritize black students and disadvantaged students.
Robling-Griest: I agree with that, because looking at the film — as a freshman, I had no knowledge of the things the board would talk about. They don’t really share any of that with us. And it seems that the default for those board members was to be passive, when the point of their job is to make the school experience better for all students. And they weren’t doing that.
Looking back on it, I feel more racially aware than I was as a freshman. And I understand more that you have to seek out people and hear their story and their experiences and just listen. And fortunately, the school is doing a lot more now to make changes because I think more people are becoming aware of the situation at the school, in regards to the people who are in power. I think they’re doing a lot more about teachers having conversations about race. Certain teachers are learning how to include all their students. Kumsa: What I took away was: (At the time) I was noticing the people who weren’t helping me during school, but I never noticed how many people were helping. So when I watched it, I looked back on that. It kind of helped me grow up faster, because I saw, even through all the stuff that was going on with Oak Park — the racial gap, the diversity, the girls and the boys getting treated differently — I still had teachers like Ms. Stovall, Mr. (Jonathan) Silver, Mr. (Anthony) Clark, who were helping me out. So that’s kind of what I got out of it; showing me that there’s people who are going to help you if you’re willing to seek help. Because they see something that you don’t.