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“Notes from the Field”

Written By Dena Robinson, Wide Angle’s Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Facilitator

On May 1, Wide Angle Students traveled to Washington, DC to the new National African American Museum of History and Culture (NAAMHC) to see Anna Deaveare Smith’s one-woman film, Notes from the Field. Originally a play, Notes from the Field is now available on HBOGo. It chronicles the narratives of over 250 people that Ms. Smith interviewed, ranging from a Native American fisherman who had been pushed out of school, to the civil rights pioneer Congressman John Lewis. The play dramatizes accounts of students, parents, teachers, and administrators caught in America’s school-to-prison pipeline system, which pushes youth of color into America’s incarceration and criminal justice system.

The School to Prison Pipeline exists nationally, but its impact in Baltimore could not be more evident. Every day, Baltimore’s students come into schools carrying the weight of generational trauma, communal pain, and sometimes anger into the schoolhouse gate, and are expected to free themselves of those chains and learn. Notes from the Field is emblematic of how difficult it is when the experiences of students of color, in our case Black students, are permeated by race and racism and socioeconomic status.  One of our students noted, “this film is an important thing to see for any age especially the youth because of the important message it sends to people that we need to rethink the system we placed in schools.”

In Baltimore, students are routinely suspended and expelled for minor infractions, ranging from complaints about “disobedience” to “having an attitude.” However, what seems to be amiss in our society is the understanding that our students are hurting and are carrying so much pain. As educators and advocates of children, our role is to love our children and to help liberate them so that they can reach self-actualization. As a former teacher, Ms. Smith’s performance brought me to tears because it was reflective of my experience and that of the students I taught. On the bus ride home, I told students about a former student of mine who was shot and killed last summer who had been pushed out of the school. I told them that he was pushed out of the school I taught at and for what, because he did not feel engaged? Because he could not focus in school due to trauma at home? Instead of holding him closer and loving on him more, the school pushed him away and pushed him out. And now he is dead. His death was preventable.

The students realized that the treatment of students of color in school is tied into a larger system that also impacts their lived experience: racism. One student reasoned , “they will not see our humanity . . . black people in the United States did not really do anything to them for them to hate us the way they do . . . they just hate us just to hate us . . . to the point that they actively try to harm and murder us.” This is the lived experience of our students. They are amazing future mediamakers, but they are also compounded by the daily realities of living as black students in America. While we teach them the power of media and storytelling, they also receive a daily barrage of messages from the media, and society at large, that strips them of their humanity.

However, our students are brilliant and resilient and they wish to take what they learned to change reality for them and their communities. During the film, students learned the myriad of ways of documentary storytelling. One student said, “Anna delivered a fresh new way to do a documentary in my opinion. Even though one man shows have always been a thing I never paid attention to them like that, in my 17 years of life.” The students were fascinated by the way Ms. Smith took on her character’s and brought them to life.

Wide Angle provides essential opportunities for students of color in Baltimore City. Each year, cities across the Nation that have the most underfunded and under resourced schools slash arts and music education programs, cutting into critical access for children of color.  As an adult who was in a filmmaking program like Wide Angle, I know how essential it is for children to not only see representation of mediamakers, but to realize and actualize their potential to become our future media makers. This resonated with many of our students, including one who said, “I just want to make films with three dimensional black characters for black people to relate to and inspire to be. I wanna make films that make little black kids especially black girls wanna dress up as my characters. I wanna make films that inspire black people want to pick up a camera and start creating their own projects and raise their own voice. If my films can make black people go out and fight for change like Anna Deveare Smith’s film did for me, then I will be happy.” Another said, “the film made me want do more community outreach for the next generation to come, and also be proud of my Blackness as a young, Black girl.”

This is why we do this work at Wide Angle. We do not only want our students to become great mediamakers, we want to eliminate some of the barriers they face so that they can reach the pinnacle of a life well-lived: self-actualization. Our students, and many students of color like them, have an immense amount of power. These children are our future, and one day, they will use the power of storytelling to create a more just world for all of us.

Excerpts in this essay were contributed by youth producers Joelle, Brooke, and Ade. Additional students that attended the trip were Ayanna, Jannah, Israel, Tayla, and Madison.

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