Racial Diversity at Sundance Film Festival

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Private School News//

January 3, 2014

There’s a noteworthy new documentary on the block, American Promise, that premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2013 and went on to air on PBS. The film follows Idris Brewster and Seun Summers, two African-American boys, when they begin their first year of kindergarten at Dalton, a prestigious private-independent school in New York City. Both boys struggle with learning disabilities, disciplinary problems, and failing grades, despite early indicators of high academic potential.

Race is a central consideration of the film. Early on, Idris’s mother, Michele Stephenson, says that she hopes that by attending Dalton, Idris will not only be better prepared for college, but also be more comfortable around white people, something she can’t do easily despite her own professional successes in an integrated workplace. While no open discrimination occurs, a racial tension charges the documentary. At some point, a young Idris says, “If I was white, I’d be better off,” leaving his parents understandably shocked.

This tension is not due to any official atmosphere of disenfranchisement at Dalton itself. Indeed, the school is lauded for its self-awareness in understanding “that diversity doesn’t work automatically, that it takes a special effort on [the school’s staff’s] part.” Part of Dalton’s stated mission is to “[cultivate] values of respect, integrity, compassion and justice to encourage community responsibility, combat prejudice and engage students as participants in a democratic society and global community,” which naturally encourages a diverse student population beyond the traditional applicant pool.

The issues of diversity and how to better accommodate students from nontraditional backgrounds run rampant in American Promise, though no single solution seems to be presented as a cure for some of the struggles Idris and Seun experience during their tenures at Dalton. Maybe more importantly, the documentary has started a conversation about the retention of diverse student populations at private-independent schools.

In Judith Ohikuare’s review of the film, she says that minority students transfer out of private schools because the schools aren’t “able to handle the diversity they think they want,” not because the students become financially or academically incapable. The same situation plays out in American Dream—Idris and Seun don’t graduate from Dalton together, with one of them transferring to a nearly all-black public school for his high school years.

In the end, both students are happy, functional members of society who credit their years in private education for helping them become the people they are today. American Dream is a success story of sorts for the modern diversity movement. More than that, it’s an illuminating look at private school life from a perspective that few of us ever have the privilege of witnessing.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Business Officers Vol. 11 No. 3 Should You Implement Diversity Training?
ISM Monthly Update for Human Resources Vol. 11 No. 3 Ask Michael
ISM Monthly Update for School Heads Vol. 11 No. 5 Public Schools Recruit International Students for Income Diversity

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 38 No. 12 Defining Diversity in Your School’s Culture: Implications for Planning
I&P Vol. 38 No. 13 Your School’s Statement on Diversity
I&P Vol. 38 No. 13 Tuition Discounts and Your School’s Sustainability


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