‘American Promise’ Stirs Diversity Discussion

The national broadcast of Joe Brewster's and Michèle Stephenson's, American Promise, premieres on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 at 10 p.m. on PBS.

Through visual representation, all things can be brought to light.

Couple Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson explore this idea firsthand in their enthralling new documentary, American Promise.

This story depicts Idris Brewster, the couple’s son, and his best friend Seun Summers, as the duo attends The Dalton School, an elite private pre-K through 12 school in Manhattan, NY.

Constantly trying to deliver on their parents’ high expectations, the boys have trouble dealing with the pressures of their “diverse” environment. Implicit bias and longtime undiagnosed learning disabilities create stumbling blocks as the families affected try their best to help the duo succeed. Read on to learn more.

JET:  Why did you choose to make this film?

Joe Brewster: The impetus for the film is that I was a math major and a high school in Los Angeles recruited me to be a physician. I always felt that it was important to do something in my own community–to be a teacher or something where I would impact a lot of people. And so I went on to Harvard for medical school and I was inspired by a few social psychiatrists then. But the question is “What can you do using your own interest?” My interests are art and film. I always thought film could positively impact people and make a change. Film could bring an awareness. With African Americans, I feel strongly actually that there are so few images of us and those images seem to be the same. Anything that you do that’s different really adds to the mosaic of us, of who we are and who we can be, and we don’t feel like there is enough of that.

Michèle Stephenson: Yes and absolutely, I think part of our impulse to continue documenting the film and work around the question of Black male achievement because it has a very personal resonance. We are raising two African American boys, but also as artists we really want to contribute to Black male representation that’s out there in the media. We feel that in many cases we don’t see any upper diversity, the wide range of representation of our community. We felt that it was important to be able to tell our story to that representation especially with regards to the boys. Being able to see them for who they are in all of their complications and all their ranges of emotions.

JET:  How did you begin this journey?

JB: We began shooting this film 14 years ago. The notion is that we would celebrate diversity in this environment that we don’t often see on television and never see the African American perspective. We invited, I think half the class of Black people enrolled in the process, three girls and two boys and over time it whittled down to two boys–both African Americans from Brooklyn. But what we were faced with was the fact that the diversity was not enough. The level of diversity of that particular school was able to support our kids, but we were confronted with perceptions of our kids that came from nowhere. We actually understand where they came from, we understand that a person’s bias that is unconscious perceptions that we have about each other that are universal. It became a bigger challenge for us and a huge challenge that came at the expense of our sons’ academic growth.

MS: We were confronted with what some experts have called “implicit bias” or “unconscious racism,” which is kind of the new face of racism today and it’s about how we all embed unconscious decisions about other groups that inform our actions and attitudes without us even realizing it. I think our African American boys have burdened the brunt of assumptions and what happens is that it’s reflected in this question of the Black male achievement gap. The expectations that they are around is what they wind up doing and how we all internalized these expectations.

JET: Why did you initially choose to put Idris in Dalton?

JB: We were looking for a very strong educational environment. We looked around our neighborhood and our preference was for a public school, but what we discovered was that the quality of the public schools in our immediate area was quite low. We also discovered that the highest level of public education through the gifted programs were more segregated than the private schools. Many of the White families in our area were able to receive vouchers to go to other schools in other boroughs. So we began to consider the private schools…Dalton promised us that they would make that institution demographically mirror the city of New York. That was a very exciting proposition that a school that rigorous, would be 20 to 30 percent African American, so we jumped on that. In addition there would be some levels of support, it was a big number, so we got some help and we went in that school thinking we had covered the bases physically and socially and emotionally. But the social and emotional bases were not ultimately covered.

MS: We were both public school educated parents, so we didn’t know this environment but what we did know is that we had gone to prestigious universities and graduate schools and understood how much of a headstart and leg up that the graduates of these college preparatory schools had in these university environments compared to us in terms of our levels of preparation. We felt that our son was entitled to that level of preparation and had the right to have this separation so that he can navigate these college waters or take advantage of the school selections that would be available. So that was another motivator and the fact that they were embracing this diversity but we felt that the school bit off more than it could chew in realizing that diversity in numbers is not always enough. That there are more levels of work that have to be done. Yes they also have to be done by institutions and parents and the entire community to really make this type of initiative work on multiple levels.

JET:  Overall, how do you feel Dalton met the needs of your son?

MS: I think that we feel like overall, the high school experience for the boys was much better than at the middle school and I think to a certain extent the lower school level, too. I think that there are more assumptions being made at the lower school level that has a harder impact on these boys. First, there were numbers; the high school admitted many more students of color which allowed a larger cohort of similarly situated boys and girls. Then secondly while the number of faculty of color was not a lot at all, the one African American male teacher that they did have, the administration definitely made sure that both Idris and his other colleagues could spend time with this teacher both as an advisor and a teacher in the class. He was an English teacher.

JB:I would answer that question over time, because obviously their needs weren’t adequately met early on. Without providing the support to their self esteem and assessment of communication and assumptions, these kids can not thrive in that environment. So despite our disappointment what we accounted early on, we think they’ve made those encounters… In fact to some extent, we think that we were partially responsible for that… Dalton is just one institution that we are dealing with: they are the hospitals, they are the police stations, they are the prisons. We are encountering implicit bias everywhere.

JET: How can this film help us make a change as a society?

MS: It is also important to realize that we all benefit from addressing these questions. There is an economic, a social, a community, a larger societal, a national cost to perpetuating things as they are. To perpetuate the consequences of acting on these biases. So even in a community like Dalton these constant changes benefit, not just the minority students but the entire community because our society is changing. The make up of our nation is changing and we have to be adept at being able to tap into the potential of everyone because it benefits us all.

This film serves as a conversation starter, but the couple has taken it a level further. In conjunction to the film, they have recently written a book titled, Promises Kept, that helps open dialogue about what parents can do to engage in conversations with their children about different issues. They hope to continue on their outreach campaign in hopes of “changing the trajectory of the conversation” and bringing awareness for the need for change.

Watch the national broadcast premiere of American Promise on Monday, Feb. 3, 2014 at 10 p.m. on PBS. Below is a trailer for the film.