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D.C.-area teens produce TV special on race in America — with more to come

From left, students Kevon Gates, Heidi Fuentes and Michelle Tillery discuss their District Knowledge Network broadcast with WJLA-TV. (William Marshall Jr. for MJT Television)

An hour-long TV special, which just capped its second week on District airwaves, begins with images of families in immigrant detention centers, as a voice-over asks, “Isn’t everyone welcome in America? Why is it that my people are being deported each day?”

The voice behind it is that of a D.C. high school student, 16-year-old Maximo Stowers-DeWolfe. And many of the other people behind the special are more students just like him.

The town-hall-style program, titled “Race in America: Teens Speak,” has been airing on the government-run District Knowledge Network (DKN) since Dec. 5, with its most recent showing Saturday night and additional showtimes planned for January. Roughly 30 D.C.-area teenagers participated in the show’s production, as they explored three core questions: What are the effects of racism today? What caused it? And what could potential solutions be?

The project started in June as a part of the “Do the Write Thing” summer program in D.C., in which students learn skills such as poetry writing, songwriting and workplace professionalism. The program also collaborated with the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Program, a locally funded initiative that helps those between 14 and 24 years old find summer jobs, so the students were paid as they learned video-production skills and researched for the special.

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The broadcasts’ organizers had selected race in America as the topic for the broadcast at the beginning of the summer. The subject was already on the students’ minds because of the nationwide protests against racial injustice that began in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by former police officer Derek Chauvin, said Maurice Johnson, who was a full-time teacher for the television program and director for the town hall.

“We knew because of Black Lives Matter and all that came out, that the kids would have a pretty thorough understanding of it and how they felt about it,” Johnson said. “Once we got into the research, we realized that was definitely the right way to go.”

From there, students took off with it, Johnson said, dividing the subject of race into subareas they were interested in. They knew they didn’t want it to “just include a broad topic of racism,” said Joel Slewion, 14, a student at Georgetown Preparatory School.

“We wanted to go farther than that — in how it was caused, representation, how it affects the youth and things we could do about it,” Slewion said.

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Students acted as producers, writers, hosts and guests. They spent time researching the broad topic together and decided to curate it into four segments, to address the effects and causes of racism, as well as possible solutions. The last segment was a question-and-answer session between the students and panelists.

In August, during the last two weeks of the program, the students were drilled over how to produce and host each segment in real-time every day until it became “natural form,” said William Marshall, an instructor for the program. The students had to move through the first three segments in about 15 minutes each..

“Once you begin to empower them, they take over,” Marshall said. “They know they have the confidence of what needs to be done to pull something like this [off]. … I think they were able to convey the conversation in a provocative way that other students their age can understand.”

The students brought in historians such as D.C.-based scholar C.R. Gibbs to talk about the history of blackface and trace it back to the medieval period. They also talk with D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III and former D.C. first lady Cora Masters Barry about the effects racism has on people today, such as through immigration and restrictive voting laws. They asked their panelists whether critical race theory should be taught in schools, and discussed how to teach about historical events and acts of violence that affected people of color, such as the long-neglected Tulsa Race Massacre.

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Michelle Tillery, 17, a host of the special and a student at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in D.C., said talking with Gibbs resonated.

“You get taught history in schools and teachers, but it’s really something different to hear it from someone who has spent all this time studying it and has books on it,” Tillery said.

As the students wrote the script, Tillery said she knew she wanted to write a poem, to be incorporated on the show, that reflected how she felt about racism.

“I wanted to convey the importance of slavery and the effect that has had on the Black community. And how we’re not defined by that event, how we can still go on, do great things and change history, and how we deserve respect,” Tillery said. “We shouldn’t have to face discrimination and racism.”

The group plans to do more shows, said Marshall, the program instructor. The next one will address guns, violence and racism in D.C.

Slewion, the Georgetown Prep student, said working on this first show helped emphasize for him the importance of representation in the media and how parents have an impact on their children.

“Children tend to pick up a lot of information and behavior from how parents raise them,” Slewion said. “When they start passing down thoughts of racism toward people of color, their children can start to inherit that in the world.”

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