Black History Month: Flavian Prince Tries to Interrupt The Pipeline.

The late Beauty Turner figures prominently in a powerful new documentary.

The late Beauty Turner figures prominently in a powerful new documentary.

I wrote yesterday about Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities.

Today, I am posting about a film that also deals with education: Interrupt The Pipeline.

The film’s genesis occurred a couple of years ago, when Flavian Prince was working as an administrator at an alternative school in Champaign, Illinois.

Within a short period of time, he made four important and related realizations:

a. He was receiving many students from jail, including youth as young as 12 years old.

b. The vast majority of those students were black.

c. Many of them were former public housing residents who had relocated with their families from Chicago in search of a better life after their homes had been demolished as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Plan For Transformation.

d.Part of the pattern was driven by a strong mismatch between the inner-city students and their interactions with their new teachers and administrators, who were woefully unprepared to teach them.

Last year, Prince moved to Chicago and started teaching at John Harvard Elementary School in the city’s Englewood neighborhood, where, again, his students were almost all black.

Harvard was a turnaround school.  This means that, while the students stayed the same, an almost entirely new crew of teachers and administrators were hired to help boost the students’ previously poor performance.

But Prince quickly understood that his students at Harvard were experiencing the same confluence of race, poverty, and physical and psychological dislocation through the city’s housing policies.

He also saw quickly that many of his students were headed to the same destination as the youth in Champaign.

Pushed and motivated by his students and their fates, Prince decided to do something about it.

Interrupt The Pipeline, a film that was a collaboration between Prince and his students, is the result.

Full disclosure: I worked with Prince on the film and The Chicago Reporter, the publication where I work, undergirds an accompanying chapter guide. I am also a board member of the mentoring program he has created.

Interrupt the Pipeline starts in Chicago and ends in Champaign, but Prince and his students show indelibly how the two are linked.   

Prince’s students drive much of the action-they did a lot of the filming, appear throughout the film, and did all of the music-but a wide array of adults, including parents, business owners, community activists like the late Beauty Turner, and teachers also appear in the film. 

The film has many poignant moments that illustrate the students’ innocence and youthful vitality being strained and shaken by the confluence of factors with which they must contend.

One particularly painful story involves Daniel, whose mother has moved him, despite her instincts, from school to school out of fear for his safety.  This included sending him to her former elementary school-a move she had hoped never to make.

In one scene, filmed in a car, Daniel recounts to Prince a litany of violence and death he has witnessed during the past five years .

Daniel calls his father to see if he has the forms Daniel needs to register for high school. 

“Hello, HELLO?” he yells repeatedly into the phone, trying in vain to make himself heard.

Telling his father that he is right outside the house does not elicit an invitation. 

The father does not have the forms. 

And Daniel says afterward that he is giving up hope. 

In another scene, Corey, who wants to be a massage therapist, stands in darkness outside the door to his home after having told about being shot at the week before.  A siren blares in the background.   Anxiety grows as the shot, which is taken from the ground and shows the boy at the top of a flight of stars, head slightly bowed, stays on the screen for 10, then 15 seconds. 

Corey’s admission into his house is just a temporary relief, though, as the viewer knows he must return to the same dangerous streets the next day.

In a different way, the Champaign section of the film illustrates the utter mismatch between students’ background and needs and what the system is providing. Student after student from Prince’s former alternative school tell heart-rending tales of violence they experienced by adults at school and of being arrested for jaywalking-he shows many students at the nearby University of Illinois campus crossing the street with impunity.

The result: the students are placed on an academic track that heads to prison, rather than to graduation, let alone a college education.  One of the film’s most jaw-dropping interviews comes with the man who provides the single hour of academic instruction per week for suspended students.

Interrupt the Pipeline is far more than a collection of individual stories designed to elicit pity from the viewer toward the helpless victims. 

Far from it.

Beyond the agency the students demonstrate in making the film, in interrogating a first-year teacher at Robeson High School about what it has to offer them, the film includes healthy doses of analysis, some of which is provided by Chicago Reporter Editor and Publisher Alden Loury and former colleague Fernando Diaz.  The fiery Turner is her inimitable and inspiring self-her embrace and encouragement of Sharonda, one of Prince’s students, toward the end of the film is profoundly moving. 

And Prince himself plans to make the film part of a larger effort to engage and empower youth.  He has created Project MAROONS, a mentoring program that will combine mentorship, internships and a curriculum in which The Chicago Reporter may appear prominently.  Part of Prince’s vision is to have the students eventually become mentors themselves for younger children. 

A first effort by Prince and his friend and fellow filmmaker Daniel Rudin, Interrupt The Pipeline has some rough patches with sound and transitions between scenes.  The film’s focus takes a while to emerge, crystallizing in the Champaign section.  Still, these minor challenges, which respectively illustrate Interrupt The Pipeline’s grassroots foundation and reflect a storytelling approach, in no meaningful way detract from the film’s power, moral outrage and call to action.

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