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Documenting the ‘Black Male Achievement Gap’ and Building a Campaign for Change

March 08, 2014

Seun Summers in American Promise
Seun Summers in “American Promise”
American Promise documents the education of two middle-class African-American boys in New York City from kindergarten through high school.  With the documentary as a springboard, the filmmakers are spearheading a larger social justice campaign to support better educational opportunities for African-American males.

By Tom Isler

Think of American Promise as an academic Hoop Dreams.  

Instead of basketball prospects Arthur Agee and William Gates, American Promise introduces us to Idris Brewster (son of the co-directors Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson) and his best friend, Seun Summers, two middle-class African-American boys from New York City. Instead of Division I uniforms and NBA stardom, the boys dream of bachelors degrees. (Or, at least, their parents do; Idris entertains basketball fantasies before adjusting his goals to admission to Stanford.)

Like Hoop Dreams, American Promise is a longitudinal documentary. The filmmakers spent 13 years filming Idris and Seun – from kindergarten through Manhattan’s prestigious Dalton School, and beyond – and present a fascinating, troubling and intimate portrait of parenting, education and the “black male achievement gap” in American schools. (The film’s web portal on POV has more on the achievement gap. For further information, see, for example, the Institute for Black Male Achievement.)

But American Promise is more than just a documentary. It’s an advocacy campaign that serves as an example of how socially conscious filmmakers are supporting a larger agenda, with their documentaries as the centerpiece. (Check out our previous post about case studies in effective advocacy campaigns.)

Here is the mission statement from the American Promise’s YouTube channel:  “The American Promise campaign is working to mobilize families, educators, and young people to take part in conversations and actions around how we can better serve our black boys, ensuring that all our young people are equipped with the same opportunities for excellence.”

There is more on the film’s website:

“Black boys in America are in crisis right now – particularly academically. The issues they are facing are bigger than public vs. private school. American Promise holds a magnifying glass to our son and his best friend to really explore the unique factors that they face as middle-class black boys coming of age at home, at school and in their community. Partner with us to tell this story, and help us shine a light on these issues. American Promise will be an important tool in encouraging all educational institutions to critically examine their approach with young men of color. We can’t solve problems until we understand the issues.”

In addition to the film, the directors have written a book, “Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life,” and have created other resources for parents, educators, and students, including a mobile app called “the Promise Tracker,” for parents and caregivers of African-American children to “create teams and collaboratively set and monitor goals that will encourage the academic success of our young men.” The filmmakers also have produced a how-to guide on creating support groups for parents, dubbed “Promise Clubs.”

Meanwhile, the filmmakers teamed with Storyhunter and POV, PBS’s documentary showcase, to commission three other short documentaries (which were broadcast on PBS and are available online) about “the achievements and challenges that America’s young black males face.” One of the films, A High School Behind Bars, by directors Annelise Wunderlich and Richard O’Connell, shows how a charter school in a San Francisco county jail is trying to combat recidivism. The other two focus on fatherhood and a jazz music program designed to help get kids into college.

Here is a five-minute video summarizing the American Promise campaign.


How did the filmmakers end up being spokespeople for a national awareness campaign on implicit racial bias in the classroom – and how might others try to replicate their success? 

Finding a narrative

When Brewster and Stephenson first started filming kindergarteners in 1999, their goal was to document a diversity experiment at one of Manhattan’s most exclusive private schools. They wanted to tell a story, and their motivations were primarily artistic. Writing a book, making television appearances, meeting with lawmakers, and building a mobile app were not part of the plan. Although Stephenson had worked with the human rights group Witness, which uses video to raise awareness of human rights abuses, at that time “the idea of documentary being part of a larger campaign was not as evolved,” Stephenson recalls.

It took three or four years – and even the withdrawal of some of the film’s young subjects, including girls, from the project – before the filmmakers sharpened their focus on the black male achievement gap and the unfolding lives of Idris and Seun. 

As footage accumulated over the years, the filmmakers cut scenes together and started to get positive feedback – and money – from the artistic community. Brewster attributes their early momentum to their storytelling skills, which are a critical component of any visual advocacy project, he says.

“The big message is: If you don’t have a powerful story, you really have very little you can do to engage people.” He adds: “Finding a narrative for the cause is essential.”

Documentaries need not be feature length to affect an audience and inspire engagement with a subject. At various times throughout production, the filmmakers screened 25 minutes of edited footage to audiences and found that they could move an audience with excerpts as easily as they eventually would with their feature film. “You have to have a narrative that moves people,” Brewster says.



Seeking out experts

By the time the boys hit middle school, the filmmakers started to reach out to experts studying the achievement gap. “We knew of the achievement gap, but we didn’t know the extent to which it permeated black middle-class lives,” Stephenson says.

The filmmakers met with professors of education and psychology, among others, shared their footage, and started to learn more about the subject. What Idris and Seun were experiencing, what Brewster and Stephenson had captured on film, validated what the filmmakers were hearing from their experts and reading in academic literature.

Although the filmmakers conducted on-camera interviews with experts, they ultimately decided not to use that material in the film, because it tended to pull the audience out of the immersive, personal stories of Idris and Seun, and weakened the impact of the narrative.

But the filmmakers had learned so much and were developing their own specialized knowledge in the field, that a new project was born: a companion book. The film would move audiences emotionally and raise awareness, anecdotally, of a nationwide phenomenon. A book would add context, research, statistics, and academic insights. A book also could lay out concrete action steps for parents and educators – again, something the filmmakers did not want to include in their film for fear of undermining the impact of the personal stories. 

Defining the target audience

As Brewster and Stephenson began designing a larger outreach campaign, one of the crucial preliminary steps was to define a target audience that they could realistically reach. Brewster dubbed them “the low-hanging fruit.” To Brewster and Stephenson, that meant people “who were motivated to hear the message,” but not necessarily those who had an existing interest in the achievement gap, per se. “There’s a difference between low-hanging fruit and preaching to the converted,” Stephenson observes.

Idris Brewster, left, with Michele Stephenson (credit: John Stuyvesant) Idris Brewster, left, with Michele Stephenson (credit: John Stuyvesant)

In this case, Brewster and Stephenson focused their efforts on parents and teachers of children under the age of 12. “We knew we could have the largest impact with the least amount of resources on that population,” Brewster says.

Stephenson continues that the main objective was to raise awareness and begin a conversation about “what we as individuals can do that’s transformative.”  The filmmakers wanted to make it easy for people to hear the message and know how to (begin to) combat the larger, structural forces contributing to the achievement gap. “We wanted to access people where they were so they wouldn’t be doing the heavy lifting.”

The teacher guides and resources for parents, which had short lists of concrete action items, were the main components of the early campaign.

Building partnerships and getting past ‘no’

The next step was to partner with organizations and foundations that were already working on the achievement gap or with the target demographics, such as the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, among many others. Launching an advocacy campaign, on top of 13 years of film production, is expensive, and sharing the costs with organizations that had mutual objectives was essential.

The filmmakers found the process arduous. “Sometimes it took two to three years to cement a partnership,” Brewster admits.

The key was to start early. The filmmakers actively sought to build partnerships with kindred organizations three years before the film was finished. It takes time to develop trust and “buy-in,” according to Brewster. “Everyone is suspicious and everyone is focused on the money.” 

The filmmakers also had to learn “to live with ‘no’ not being ‘no,’” Brewster explains. “We received so many ‘no’s’, basically we would have given up if we had accepted that.” Instead, the filmmakers viewed a closed and locked door as an opportunity to try another key.

For example, after one potential partner turned the filmmakers down, Brewster went back to his research and data, to refine his pitch and find information that would better resonate with the group and its mission. He finagled another meeting. “They’re one of our largest funders,” he says.

The filmmakers urge caution when selecting partners. “We’re filmmakers, we’re not trained to do this,” Stephenson says. “There’s a lot of trial and error in the process.”

As more documentary filmmakers and producers seek to build advocacy campaigns associated with films, companies have emerged offering consulting services for that purpose. (Brewster and Stephenson work with Brooklyn-based Picture Motion, for example.)  Brewster maintains that even the consultants and self-proclaimed experts are still figuring out how to maximize the desired impact of a documentary. “People say they can do this, and charge huge amounts of money and won’t be able to deliver,” he warns. “I’ve seen it over and over and over again. People are in a gold-rush mentality. The overwhelming majority are giving you mediocrity.”

Engaging with social media

When the filmmakers thought about building social media platforms to support their mission, they were careful not to focus too much on their own message or projects. “I get stuff from filmmakers who say, ‘come see my film’ or ‘come to my screening,’ or ‘here’s my opinion on this,’” Stephenson explains. “While that builds awareness, it doesn’t build community or engagement.” 

“When you are in the digital media sphere, you can’t be about ‘here’s our product, please join us,’” she continues. The focus needs to be on the population the advocates are trying to reach and providing them with helpful information supportive of the ultimate mission.

With an effective social media campaign, Brewster and Stephenson were able to reach far more people than ever will see their film. “We estimate a couple million people saw the film via television, festivals and theatrical,” Brewster says. “We believe ten times that many, maybe more, know of the project.” He attributes that to the film’s Twitter account and Facebook page, and other outreach efforts, both directly from the couple’s media company and through strategic partners.

Adjusting goals

Already, Brewster and Stephenson believe they have “impacted the conversation.” Today, “implicit bias is now at the forefront” of the conversation about the achievement gap, which was not the case when the film premiered, Brewster says. “It is so exciting to have been part of this campaign.”

In the short term, awareness continues to be a primary focus. On that front, the effort the filmmakers have been putting into their project seems to be working. They have received 1,200 requests for community screenings; appeared on television 30 times in the past six months; and broadcast the film nationally on PBS (both on television and online) following a theatrical run.

In the long-term, the filmmakers hope to change people’s behavior and perception. “That happens over a longer period of time,” Stephenson explains. The early returns are positive. The filmmakers have survey data from audience members, and the overwhelming majority of viewers, even those who do not yet buy into the concept of “implicit bias,” acknowledge that they need to change their behavior to better serve black youth, Brewster reports.

“We know we’re having an impact,” he says. “Everybody is trying to figure out how to measure it. No one has got it down yet.” 

In the coming months and years, the filmmakers plan to reassess their efforts, evaluate how people are using the tools that the filmmakers have provided, and adjust the campaign accordingly. “The next phase is even more exciting,” Stephenson says.