'America To Me' Reminds Us That Racial Inequity Impacts Middle-Class Students Too

The series director and Starz are also giving students a chance to use their voice and win a $25,000 scholarship with the "Share Your Voice" contest.

Stories about Chicago’s young people of color often lean on misconceptions and violent stereotypes without addressing the full scope of their existence. But a new docu-series aims to show a different side of their story.

“America to Me” gives the mic to 12 black and biracial students at Oak Park and River Forest High, a top-performing diverse public school that sits in a suburb near the West Side of Chicago. Steve James, who also directed “Hoop Dreams,” uses this 10-part documentary to highlight how many families sent their children to Oak Park in hopes of a better environment, only for the students to face other issues. 

“Crossing that dividing line and living in Oak Park, for many families of color, feels like they have made it and their kids are assured a great education,” James told HuffPost. “Many of these families soon discover that living in Oak Park isn’t the end of racism and struggle.”

Though the school touts it diversity numbers, racial inequalities in its halls can’t be overlooked. The Sundance hit highlights exactly how little has changed since the school was integrated in the 1970s. Though there are faculty and students making strides, James ultimately credits the “lack of leadership and commitment to real change that I saw from too many people in positions of authority” for this educational inequity. 

“So many filmmakers (including myself) and documentaries have focused attention on underfunded public schools in besieged communities of color,” James, a longtime resident of Oak Park, said. “I felt it was time to focus on a school like OPRF where racism, microaggressions, and systemic obstacles are deeply imbedded in ways that are not so obvious, at least to many of us white residents.  I also wanted to tell the stories of mostly black and biracial kids who grow up in more middle-class and working-class environments. Their stories matter too.”

In their own right, the kids in this film are fighting to create a better environment for themselves. But they’re also just kids, having fun, navigating through life and trying to make the best out of the struggles they encounter, whether that be homework or broken hearts. And they find outlets to help them.

Kendale, for example, is a writer who’s struggling to balance time between his black friends on the wrestling team and his white friends on the band. There’s also Jada, who creates films and ends up bumping heads with a teacher. And Chanti, who turns her feelings about gender fluidity, toxic relationships and more into spoken word.

“The arts are such a vital means of expression for kids and adults. They offer a way to express one’s joy and passion, and also cope with hardship, pain and prejudice. This is especially true for under-served kids who frequently don’t get the same exposure to art and creative opportunities afforded more privileged kids,” James told HuffPost. “Art is great for everyone.  It is sometimes a life raft and a means of redemption for kids of color.”

From now until Oct. 7, Starz is accepting submissions for its “Share Your Voice” spoken word contest. The network challenges students ages 14 to 19 to record a 60-second original spoken word video and answer the question, “What does America mean to me?” Students can enter by sharing their submissions on Instagram, Twitter or their website using #AmericatoMeContest. Then the public will vote for one of the five finalists to decide the winner. The prize is a $25,000 scholarship. 

“We believe a contest is a great way to spur interest and the participation of a wide variety of young people. This is America, after all! We love competition. But in the spirit of Spoken Word competitions, its ultimately not about who wins. It’s about participating, and becoming inspired to speak out powerfully and personally.”

“America to Me” debuts on Starz on Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET. Watch the trailer below.