By Ellen McGirt
Updated: October 2, 2018 11:57 AM ET | Originally published: October 1, 2018

The belief in proximity has become central to successful inclusion work. It’s a simple idea that’s tough to execute: If we invest meaningful time getting to know people who live different lives than we do, we may be able to see past the biases that blind us to their full humanity.

This is the unique beauty of America To Me, a ten-part docuseries from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, that’s unfolding now on Starz.

The series tracks a year in the life of students, teachers, parents, and administrators in a diverse, suburban Chicago public high school, a melting pot of kids from different backgrounds, trying to get out of puberty in one piece.

The series asks probing questions about race, class, and society – and why, for example, the ACT scores for black students have flatlined over time, while white student scores have improved.

But it’s also a deep dive into the teenaged psyche, at the tenderest age: The quavery-voiced choir tryouts, the perennially lost freshmen, the novel-reading jocks, the lunchroom drama, the woke class clowns, and the beautiful truths that tumble out when a kid is asked real questions about their lives. That many of the truths reveal the biases of the white world tasked to protect them, shines a light and holds up a mirror.

The series premiered to raves at Sundance and has been called a “binge-worthy longitudinal study of race” by Indiewire, and I understand why. I’m about halfway through the series and I’m completely hooked.

The series is the focal point of a currently running, ten-city campaign created by show producers Participant Media along with Kartemquin Films, which will bring together students, teachers, administrators, and others to have tough conversations about race, bias, and achievement in U.S. schools over ten weeks. More on that here.

In a few weeks, I’ll be following up with Participant Media’s chief impact officer, Holly Gordon, (the force behind the Girl Rising movement) for more about what the campaign accomplished and what the team behind the film has learned.

Not everyone is excited about the series, of course. The school’s charismatic principal was concerned about the filming and chose not to participate. We learn about this halfway through the first episode — in response, a school board member beautifully summed up the challenge and necessity of having difficult conversations.

“If you’re feeling as though you can’t be honest,” she says, treading lightly, “or you’re afraid to say what you’re feeling because there is a camera there…and we’re talking about race…” she paused to collect her thoughts. “What camera is in your head as you’re going about your day? Something is happening that makes this such a hard topic.”


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