If you want to witness the true greatness of America, turn off your television sets, stop listening to the noise out of Washington and go see the movie “STEP.” Soon to be in theatres nationally on August 4th, STEP is a dazzling and emotional documentary film about our affiliate school, The Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, and the powerful journey of members of its step team. The school was created in 2009 and was modeled after the school I founded in 1996, The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, the first of five of our New York City schools. These schools are all girls’ public schools, grades 6 to 12.
As an Executive Producer for STEP, I have been buoyed by seniors Cori Grainger, Blessin Giraldo, and Tayla Solomon ever since they started sharing their stories with Amanda Lipitz, the film’s director and producer.
When you meet Blessin, Cori and Tayla you will see exactly what the world should see more of: the power and promise of young women of color. Their stories are there in every corner of this country. However, most often, they are simply ignored.
It is infectious to watch how the step team’s powerful foot stomping, hand clapping, call and response, and synchronicity morph into deliberate and passionate steps to a brighter future. In fact, the choreography of Step goes far beyond the dance floor. Central to the girls’ stories in this film, we are compelled and blown away by the strength of their mothers who share their own aspirations and fears. They open their doors and their hearts to us and we are privileged to witness their fierce devotion and determination. (Cautionary advice: one shouldn’t see this film without an ample supply of tissues.)
Cori, Tayla and Blessin and their families face the kind of systemic barriers and stereotypes, including racism and dire economic circumstances, which would derail even the strongest among us. Yet, like so many of our students, they do not succumb to the pressure of poverty or let it crush their dreams. The dedicated and powerful staff at their school – and at all of our 13 affiliate schools around the country – are the giants in this movie; they are the pillars of support and love that see these young women through.
We know what works in our schools: a solid principal who motivates, a coach who is perceptive and tough, a college counselor whose sole mission is to see that every senior graduates and enrolls in college. Our 18 schools that make up the Young Women’s Leadership Network work everyday to upend the college degree divide because we know that when students move into higher education, they move out of poverty. With more than 8,500 students in our schools, our families know that without college, their daughters and granddaughters will likely be stuck in a modern day caste system of the haves and the not even close.
An independent study shows that students from our network, The Young Women’s Leadership Schools, not only enroll in college at twice the rate of their peers, they earn bachelor degrees at FOUR TIMES the rate! But numbers don’t tell the full story. Tayla, Cori and Blessin do – in their own words.
In its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, STEP was an instant sensation. I’m convinced in this era of incivility and rancor, there is a national hunger for our students’ stories of hope and perseverance.
I am confident that the lights will always burn bright for our students, especially because as Blessin so aptly says, “Step taught me if you come together with a group of powerful women, the impact will be immense.”
I am not a movie reviewer, but I do know what STEP symbolizes at its core: in America, when we stop hating and arguing and defeating, only good can happen. The promise of this nation is breathing; and while it may look different, the American dream is alive and can be found in the places you might least expect.