3 Lessons in PR and Education Equity from “America to Me”

Last year, just before school began, Starz premiered its critically-acclaimed documentary series, America to Me. The 10-episode series profiled students, teachers, parents, and school administrators at Oak Park River Forest (OPRF) High School in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois.

I recently finished watching the mini-series as a way to broaden my own understanding of racial equity in education. That’s because OPRF, with one of the most diverse student bodies in Metro Chicago, also suffers from a widening achievement gap between its White and Black students.

It’s only natural that I viewed the series through the lens of a PR professional, and I couldn’t help but notice the tie-ins to the skills needed by communicators. These skills are best exemplified by OPRF’s teachers, a handful of whom do their part to narrow the achievement gap. In the process, they serve as a master-class on how to build mutually beneficial relationships that allow them to serve their students’ needs—the same way communicators should conduct themselves to provide quality client service.

Here are some tips to consider along with examples from the show (spoilers ahead):

  1. Use research to prove your pointAmerica to Me showcases how race plays a factor in student-teacher relationships. To persuade OPRF’s school board into taking more concrete action in addressing the achievement gap, English teacher Jessica Stovall conducts a multi-school study with other Chicago-area schools that observes the communication styles of White teachers in predominantly Black classrooms. Part of Stovall’s goal is to implement mandatory racial bias training with the school’s teachers, among other initiatives. By providing the school board with data to help inform their decisions, Stovall hopes they will be convinced of the need for this training as a step towards more equitable solutions for minority students. Her actions are a reminder to communicators that the first step in creating a client’s plan is to gather the facts that will inform and support your communication strategies. The most effective plans are based on research.
  2. Meet them where they’re at – OPRF’s talented Spoken Word Club provides an example of what educational equity could look like. The diverse team of students are led by a teacher who allows them to use their performances to speak freely on issues like racism, social injustice, and domestic violence. Just as this club provides an inclusive environment, communicators need to be sure that they understand the needs of their clients’ audiences in order to meet them where they are at. Grassroots outreach is a common strategy that illustrates this point because it involves direct audience communication. Like the Spoken Word Club teacher, sometimes our clients need to take a grassroots approach to be effective at engaging with their audience.
  3. Go above and beyond – In profiling OPRF’s minority students, America to Me sheds light on reasons for the school’s achievement gap. The profiled students endure struggles in their respective classes for intrinsic and extrinsic reasons. Despite their setbacks, the students are supported by teachers who meet with them outside of school hours to receive tutoring and make up assignments and exams. It’s with this extra push from their teachers that these students learn how to be successful. The same holds true for communicators, because not all challenges can be anticipated. We’re often tasked with going the extra mile to come up with creative and practical solutions for our clients.

America to Me provides insightful material for educators to consider, and it offers examples for how communicators should serve their clients as well. When we counsel clients on their strategy for building relationships with its audience, it’s important that we do our homework or research to make sure we understand the audience’s needs, where they get their information, and what it takes to bring change. If we can do that for clients, there’s almost nothing that can stop us from overcoming challenges—just like the students of OPRF.

Cedric Brown, MS, APR
Senior Account Executive