Educator Jessica Stovall ’14 MA features prominently in Steve James’ 10-part documentary series America to Me, which follows a dozen students through life at suburban Chicago’s Oak Park and River Forest High School. James began filming the project in 2015 as a way to explore how students, teachers and staff are addressing decades-long racial and educational inequities. The series presents an intimate portrait of the challenges faced by students of color, even at a progressive school, an issue that Stovall, now a graduate student at Stanford, has been passionate about since she began teaching more than a decade ago. As the series reaches its conclusion, we caught up with her to hear more about how the documentary changed her teaching — and how she hopes it might change conversations around education and equity in America.
How did you first meet Steve James and get involved in the documentary?
I laugh now because when I talked to Steve in the initial meeting, he said, “I’ll just be in your classroom for a week or two. There might be some teachers I’ll follow for a semester, but that’s pretty much it.” And I think I had my final interview two-and-a-half years after filming. If I would have known then the amount of involvement I would have had, I probably would have run away screaming.
Why did you support the project?
I spoke at one of the school board meetings and said that I supported having this amazing tool that we could learn from. The documentary was a mirror to the school, a way to learn about things we could do better.
As an institution, we said that we cared about equity, and now it felt like it was time to walk the talk. If we wanted to be a national model for racial equity, we should be doing everything we can, even at the expense of being vulnerable in front of the entire nation.
How did you deal with having cameras and documentary crews in the classroom? Did you learn anything from the experience?
The documentary team was actually very small. There were four directors who worked on the project, and those directors ran the cameras. So, if Steve James was the director that day, he was the only one recording. Then they had a sound person. Occasionally, there would be a producer who took copious notes. So, at max, it was a three-person team.
The film crew also really took the time to get to know students and what we were teaching. So it felt like it was their classroom too, and that was special. If a student was absent one day, they would ask about them. They grew to love the students as much as we did.
As someone who is very socially anxious, I also got amazing feedback, because when I taught a lesson, someone would often come up after and ask “Why did you do X, Y or Z?” It forced me to really think. I had to analyze the teaching moves I was making, and that was an unexpected benefit.
It sounds like the filming brought a different awareness to the work you were doing.
The production team got me through that rough year in a lot of ways, because they were so supportive of who I was an educator, who I was as a person. And I really didn't have that coming from anywhere else in the school, so I loved the filmmakers being in the classroom.
You had allies?
Yeah, and I guess that's why America to Me was so important. It gave voice to people in our school who have not traditionally had a say. It was powerful to have someone state, “I think your perspective matters.” And now it will be interesting to see what changes occur now that the school board and administrators have heard these voices.
Tell me about your Fulbright experience in New Zealand.
I’ve been really passionate about eliminating racial predictabilities for student academic achievement. In the last 11 years I really tried to do that on a micro level in the classroom, and the more I did that work, the more I recognized that until some of the more institutional and systemic problems were addressed, I was always going to be going uphill. So I decided to take a break in 2014 and did a Fulbright.
I spent a year in New Zealand studying their best practices for supporting indigenous Maori students. I chose to go to New Zealand partially because — at face value –— they have similar educational gaps between the indigenous Maōri and white students as we do with our black and white students, but their philosophy and the urgency with which they are treating it is very different than what we do in the United States.
What role do you think America to Me can play in helping the community at Oak Park and River Forest High School — and people across the country — grapple with these sorts of challenges?
I want people to start questioning who has agency and who does not, to examine whether representation is truly equitable. And, if not, what they need to change in order to give voice to those who might not be best positioned to make institutional change. Over the years at OPRF, there have been many initiatives to create programs that support black and brown students. But, unfortunately, it’s often white families that dismantle those programs, because they don’t always understand that it’s not necessarily for their kids.
More generally, when you have conversations about race, there will often be someone who says “It's not really race. It’s class.” Or there will a person who says, “No, it's bad parenting.” There are these go-to answers. America to Me dispels these notions — the more you get to know the kids and their lives and grow to care about them, the more you realize that these dismissive generic answers are part of the reason why we don’t engage with issues of race.
What do you think the impact of the documentary will be?
While I'm not sure if the documentary will make any change directly, I think the conversations around the documentary will make a difference in the community. A lot of us were very vulnerable and open about our lives, and I hope our stories can be catalysts for people who want to take action, because people will see themselves in our stories. That’s a really powerful and unifying concept, and I hope people rally around it.
Daniel Fernandez is a Medill senior from Saratoga, Calif.