A Conversation with TEACH US ALL Director Sonia Lowman

TEACH US ALL, the directorial debut by Sonia Lowman, is a documentary focused on de-facto segregation and a need for true integration in schools, in the face of globalization.  The September 25th release by ARRAY — set to align with the 60th anniversary of the Little Rock Nine upon whom the film establishes itself — will be marked by series of nationwide screenings, as well being made available on Netflix. 

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The BFC/A will sponsor a free screening of TEACH US ALL at 6:30 pm on September 25 at the IU Libraries Screening Room in Wells Library.  Dionne Danns, an Associate Professor in IU’s School of Education, will introduce the film and lead a discussion after the screening. Other organizations joining the BFC/A in screening TEACH US ALL on this date are the Gary International Black Film Festival (Indiana University – Northwest), the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, as well as the Ark Lodge Cinema in Seattle. The film will be available on Netflix the same day.

Elijah Pouges (Class of 2018, IU Media School) had the opportunity to speak last month with Ms. Lowman about the film, her inspiration, and plans for the future.


Elijah Pouges: To begin the interview, I was doing some research on your background to understand you as a filmmaker. I read an article that you had written a few years back called “What Will You Climb For?” The article struck me as you talking about your experience with someone else’s humanitarian work and the magnitude to which it affected you. I want to start by asking, why did you climb?   This topic in particular was a huge thing for your first foray into filmmaking – de facto segregation and academic inequality. What inspired you?

Sonia Lowman: It’s interesting. I’ve worked in international relations for a long time. That’s what I studied. I was largely naïve to domestic social issues. I was focused on things happening abroad. My social consciousness sort of evolved with the global landscape. When I got burnt out in the humanitarian stuff, I sort of accidentally fell into the education space, looking for a communication job. I ended up becoming really passionate about education as I started to learn how intricately connected it is to so many other challenges in our society, and really, really, coming to believe that it’s the most important thing we should be dealing with. It’s not always the sexiest thing, by any means, but it’s so connected to all of these other things that are sort of sexier and make the headlines. For me, I feel firmly convicted that we’re not going to get all of these other things right, if we can’t get education right. That was sort of the awakening for me on the centrality of education in progressing a society and just becoming aware of the inequities. Then, what kind of created the beginning of the film was working for the organization I work for, the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes, who do a lot of work on history-based positive role models for young people. I was doing a lot of work on the Little Rock Nine and became steeped in that story. Then one of the people in the film, Jonathan Crossley in Little Rock, was one of our teacher fellows. We were doing a training he was at, two summers ago. He got a call from the principal of the Little Rock school district. Not the principal – the superintendent – appointing him as the turnaround principal of one of the lowest performing elementary schools [in Arkansas, Baseline Academy]. That just kind of happened serendipitously while I was getting to know him, as he was speaking eloquently and passionately about inequity. I started to sort of connect the dots. We’re coming up on the 60th anniversary [of the 1957 integration struggle of the Little Rock Nine]. From an impact filmmaking standpoint, I realized that this anniversary would be strategic timing to elevate a social justice campaign around equity and segregation. I sort of dove in with no prior film experience and having this sort of urgency surrounding the anniversary made me able to do it a lot quicker than a first time filmmaker [usually] would have, maybe. But I had to get it done for the anniversary. I had the campaign building simultaneously the entire time, and just this complete conviction and passion for the subject.

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Still from Sonia Lowman’s TEACH US ALL, courtesy of ARRAY.

E: I found the film arresting, and the research was thorough – an emotionally-engaging film. Kudos to you on that. You got into my next question kind of inadvertently. You said that the film kind of evolved from the story of the Little Rock Nine. Was it always your goal to include them as a part of the story, or like you were saying earlier, did they intertwine as you were learning about inequity and they came together and it aligned with the anniversary [of the 1957 integration struggle of Central High]?

S: It was always my intention to use that as the launch point so that we could tie it into the anniversary, because one of the missions of the Lowell Milken Center is to show young people the relevance of history in their lives, and because we are so disconnected from history and not taught African-American history in our public schools very well. I think it was important for me to always have the section that reviewed the Little Rock Nine story for a generation that’s pretty far removed from it, especially with the target audience being young people to a large degree. It was always intended to really circle around that. What’s interesting is that I did consult other filmmakers – successful filmmakers – at the start of the project. I had this really strong feeling, having grown up in Los Angeles and spending a lot of time on the East Coast, that I didn’t want to do a story that was just Little Rock 60 years later because I feel like it’s so hard for a lot of this country to connect with the South and the racial issues there, and really … we’re so used to saying, “Oh, we solved it, nothing happened here.” I really just felt like if we just did Little Rock 60 years later it would be easy for people to kind of …

E: It would be easy for people to disengage with the topic.

S: Totally.

E: Because I see you included the narrative of a New York [City] School and a group of students who came together to form a coalition of sorts. I thought that was a good turning point in the narrative to emphasize that this isn’t just exclusively in Arkansas, exclusively in the South, but it is an issue, unfortunately, with our whole nation.

S: Yeah. That was deliberate. Like I said, I got a lot of advice to not do that. I had to really kind of search myself because public, successful, filmmakers essentially told me that including them would confuse the narrative – “you’re taking on too much, just keep it focused on Little Rock and you’ll have a more focused story.” I would have had a more focused story, but I don’t feel like I would have had as relevant of a story.

E: Are you able to tell me with whom you consulted?

S: Yeah. I consulted with Davis Guggenheim of Waiting for Superman and Lee Hirsch from Bully, and those were both successful educational documentaries, as you know. Yeah, they’re supportive of the project and wonderful consultants. It was interesting because I felt like I was going against the advice and it’s my first film. I don’t know. It’s just a little nerve-wracking. But I had to follow my gut.

E: As a filmmaker, you make the final call. It’s your story. It’s an important story. You have to tell it through your lens. I commend you for doing that. What sort of response has the film received so far? Have you been able to screen it for the students that were featured?

S: I would say it’s been interesting for me because I was a little bit unprepared for the … in a sense, I guess the battleground that I was entering into. I knew [that] education was a highly politicized topic, but I have been surprised at really how highly politicized adults’ positions are, adults who claim to work on behalf of students. From a student’s perspective, the response has been strong. Parent response has been strong. A lot of different educator kind of networks and people who are really trying to push kind of new innovations in education, and obviously have a passion for equity, the response has been strong. Then, there has been some not so excited responses from people who are very politicized – it was interesting because I purposely put in some figures that are polarizing, and often back to back, to show that they’re often saying the same things and yet they create such incredible divisions that really distract and detract from doing what’s best for students. I’ve gotten a little more used to that.

E: Was it jarring for you to realize that education was this politicized thing? Because often times with this, as I’m sure you know after making this film, especially, is it’s children that lose ultimately. This is at the expense of the education of our nation – our future that we’re talking about. We’re talking about poor kids. We’re talking about poor black and brown kids. It just seems like there’s no reason for it to be. But, was that jarring for you to realize?

S: Without a doubt – it’s been jarring. It’s been confusing. It’s been challenging. I just have to keep reminding myself who I made the film for. The point is to try to help give a voice to a lot of people who don’t have a voice, or to help, especially through the campaign to really build up the leadership of students who feel marginalized in the system. I think from that perspective, and just kind of keeping the focus on students’ voice, and student activism, and student engagement and leadership – we should be listening to them. I think that I just have to keep emphasizing that and not get too caught up in some of the just, I think, insane politics of it. But, yeah, it’s been definitely eye-opening. It makes sense, I guess. Probably why education is in the state that it’s in.

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Still from Sonia Lowman’s TEACH US ALL, courtesy of ARRAY.

E: Yeah …

S: I’m sorry. I was going to say the more that if we can really consult students, the more we can kind of navigate through some of this because it’s compelling to hear students speak for themselves instead of adults speaking for students.

E: Absolutely. You have to address, or, rather, the population you’re dealing with has to be addressed. I think it’s absurd when you have students saying, we want to get an education. We’re not incapable of performing but we don’t have the resources, or we don’t have the basic things we need to succeed. It’s weird because when you think about politics, you’re thinking about, in theory, highly educated people. You’ve heard of the hierarchy of needs. How are children supposed to succeed when they’re not getting the bare minimum? And then to make that political… It’s definitely counterintuitive. I feel you 100% on that. You mentioned briefly, the movement. The website frames the film as kind of being a catalyst for a social movement.

S: I haven’t updated the website to reflect a lot of the tools we’re developing for the campaign because I’ve been so overwhelmed. But, I can send you an overview that outlines the different partner organizations or the different sort of tools or infrastructure we’re developing. The next couple of weeks, we’ll have a chance to get that updated on the website. I’ve been focused a lot on working largely with the group that you mentioned in New York – IntegrateNYC4Me – who’s actually expanding to be called Integrate Us. They’re building a social action curriculum for students, that I think is going to be really compelling to plug into that network of student activists. And then, working with educator organizations to develop tools for teachers, particularly, or high needs [classrooms]. Then, yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff. I’ll send it to you. If you have questions on the campaign, I’m happy to follow up with those.

E: Yes, please, absolutely. You talked about what you hope the film will accomplish. When you see the film now and you think about your audience, what do you want people to leave with after viewing it?

S: I mean, it largely depends on kind of who’s viewing it in terms of what might be next steps, concrete steps. But I think some of the overarching things are really around this sense of collective responsibility, the sense that we are not going to fix it as a country if we don’t address education in a way that really puts students at the forefront of articulating and creating that change. I think if you’re talking about kind of what I want adults to take away from it, is a sense of collective responsibility – it’s more than just your own child, but it’s all of America’s children. If you’re a student, I want you to take away the urgency of continuing the civil rights battle and demanding what you deserve and fighting for the change you need to kind of continue that legacy of the Little Rock Nine and their peers, that it’s more relevant than ever. I think something that is subtly reinforced throughout is this idea of community ownership and that the success of our schools, and our students, and our teachers, is not possible without sort of an entire community approach. We can’t just let schools be in sort of these isolated things that we drop our kids off to anymore. I don’t know if they were ever that, but they’re certainly not that now. That’s really going to take sort of rolling up our sleeves and becoming, taking ownership of our schools as communities, if we’re ever going to sort of turn this around. Those are sort of largely abstract. And then there’s the social action campaign, which has sort of concrete steps for each of those sort of different audiences, if you will.

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Still from Sonia Lowman’s TEACH US ALL, courtesy of ARRAY.

E: This is more on the production-end of things. How did your partnership with Array come about for this film? I believe they’re your distributor, if I’m correct?

S: Yes. We sent the film to them for review, and they came back with an offer. It was, I think, the absolute right partner at the right time. I think it’s really complimentary to her [Ava DuVernay] film 13th, through the connection of the school to prison pipeline.

E: Absolutely.

S: Yeah. I think they’re the perfect champions for it, and we got incredibly lucky. But, I also think it’s just really the right timing. It was sort of meant to be in that sense.

TeachUsAll_TourGraphic_1000x1000E: Given your background in international relations and you saying this was your first foray into dealing with domestic issues, do you feel like the film reflects what you personally believe should be done for education – if you were put in the position of power, what would you first address in terms of achieving integration? I know it’s a really big question. But it’s just like what do you see as being missing when we’re talking about integrated schools?

S: Again, if I were put in charge, I think it would be two-fold. The top thing being really putting students in position of leadership to take part in it. Having a student on a Board of Education with a voting membership, the local school boards, basically… it’s interesting because it’s similar to what I started to feel was necessary in the international relations world too. It’s different when you have people sort of parachuting in from the outside, people telling you what to do, versus a model that works on building local capacity and creating a leadership within a country so there’s not that dependency. It’s a similar thing in essence that if students are your affected population then they need to be consulted, and their needs to be articulated by them. We can’t be addressing the needs of students if we’re not talking to them. I think that would be my first thing. From there, it’s sort of ever-expanding … I think teacher quality and the power of the teacher, the teaching profession needs to be completely elevated in this country. They need to be recognized as [agents of change].

E: Absolutely.

S: These are people on the front lines of social change. Our entire country depends on the teachers. We often don’t treat them like that.

E: Absolutely.

S: A whole kind of revolution around the teaching profession needs to happen.

E: I agree with you. If we look at countries that are more egalitarian, like Japan for example, teachers are heralded the same way we treat doctors and legal professionals here. There’s that same level of regard for teachers we should have because teachers are dealing with the children and the children are what push the nation forward. So, yeah.

S: Yeah, no totally. The organization I work for is all about that, elevating the teaching profession. It should be regarded at the level – exactly what you said – a lawyer, a doctor. It’s just as important, if not more important, in many ways. Teachers really need to be celebrated as heroes. They need to be paid and compensated, and given professional development opportunities so they can grow and they can be their best. There’s just a lot that needs to happen. But, I would say certainly those would be the first two things I would start with, really putting students and teachers at the forefront of this change, and respecting them as these change-makers, the highest potential for impact.

E: Wonderful. The last thing I want to know, this was your first foray into film. I think it was a really good one, personally speaking. Do you have any other projects in the work? I know you’re busy with the campaign and really establishing the grassroots movement behind Teach Us All, but did you have any other cinematic adventures that you have on the horizon?

S: Of course, I do, but nothing that I can really comment on because I haven’t really started pitching them yet, but I’m certainly working on some stuff. Some of it’s related to the work I used to do in international humanitarian relief. Some of it’s related to continuing this work in education. As soon as I get the right opportunities, I’ll hopefully be able to start pushing those projects forward too.

E: It’s been a pleasure talking with you Ms. Lowman.

~Elijah Pouges


To reserve seats for the 9/25 screening of TEACH US ALL at the IU Libraries Screening Room, visit iub.libcal.com/event/3555499.  This free program is sponsored by the Black Film Center/Archive and presented with #DirectedbyWomen.

View the trailer online at https://youtu.be/zHgLX7O8hOc

About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

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