Making History: How Filmmaker & Educator André Robert Lee Prompts Student Dialogues Around Race
This February, we’re bringing you a special series of conversations for black history month called “Making History.” In this series, we’re highlighting black leaders in education, who have either inspired the next generation through example or directly through their work.
Up first, we’ll hear from André Robert Lee of Point Made Learning and Point Made Films. He’s an organizer focused on tackling race relations in the US — through talks, presentations and film. His films include The Prep School Negro and I’m Not Racist, Am I?
Listen in to our interview with André to find out what he’s doing to get students talking about these touchy subjects, and what kind of results he’s seen from his work.
Play the podcast episode above, read the transcript below, or download it on iTunes to learn more.
Hannah Nyren: This is Hannah Nyren, with EdTech Times. And today I am speaking with André Robert Lee. So André, can you tell us a little bit about what you do?
André Robert Lee: I am a filmmaker, so I direct and produce movies. And I’m teaching right now, teaching a film course in Philadelphia, at a high school called Germantown Friends School, which is the high school that I went to. That’s one life. I also have a little clothing line on the side called Government Cheese, which is another half of a life.
André Robert Lee: The main thing I do is I direct and produce movies. I use my film as a tool to help folks think about “what does it mean to consider and lean into difficult conversations on race and identity?” I directed and wrote The Prep School Negro, which is my first film. And then I’ve produced the second film of my company, Point Made Learning that I’m a part of, is I’m Not Racist, Am I? Each film deals, in different ways, with issues of identity, race, privilege, economics, and poverty: all those fun life topics, micro life topics. I make those films. And then what I do, the reason I mention the Government Cheese, the teaching, and everything, is I’m sort of like a Renaissance man in a way.
André Robert Lee: Because, what I’ve been able to do with my company, Point Made Zone, actually what we’ve been able to do is, as opposed to going the normal route and taking our films to film festivals and making it, being done, and moving forward, we actually use our films as tools to help communities. And when I say communities, I’m thinking of places that range from high schools, to colleges, to churches, to conferences, to anywhere where someone can walk into a room and have a conversation around these issues. So we make our film and then we would never just let our films be screened without someone there to facilitate a conversation.
André Robert Lee: So I tend to go into schools mostly, that’s where the majority of the places are. We’re trying to move it into the private sector now with my film. But I mostly go into schools, and we show the film, and have a discussion immediately following the film with the school community. And that can range from professional development day with faculty and staff, to time with students, to my favorite thing: to have an entire schoolwide required screening, where all of the students have to watch together, and engage in dialogue. After that, we tend to do things which we call “Look Deeper” workshops where we expand upon the film, and go a little further into the conversation after the screening and the immediate workshops.
André Robert Lee: And the whole idea is to help people — I just used another conversation, we like to think of ourselves as “constructive disruptors.” We like to address the community, and look at how we look at race, how we look at racism, how we talk to each other about these complicated issues, and how we plan to think about what we’re going to do about them. We don’t walk in and say we’re going to fix racism by the end of the day.
André Robert Lee: That’s kind of a crazy place to be in. But, we, and by we I mean Point Made Learning, our educational consulting wing of our Point Made Films company, we really believe in saying “Let’s help your community think and plan as you approach this conversation.”
André Robert Lee: So it’s kind of funny, I have a two-sided card at Point Made. The one side says Point Made Films, it says producer, director. And the other side says Point Made Learning, and it says executive director for [business development] and strategic partnership.
Hannah Nyren: It’s good how you’re using that medium to communicate this information and help facilitate learning. I think that that’s an important thing we’ve come across a lot, is that just putting something on a piece of paper isn’t enough help people to get it. It needs to be interactive, engaging, an experience, so that the lesson actually hits home. So that it’s not forgotten the next day.
Hannah Nyren: So why do you think it’s important for students today to be having these conversations. Why do you think it’s important for you to facilitate these conversations about race and equality?
André Robert Lee: You know when I was little and people would say, “What will you do when you grow up?” My answer was always “I want to change the world.” And I don’t know what that meant. I don’t know how to do it. When I got older I was like, wait, how do I do that and pay the rent? And I’ve been lucky enough with my teaching career parlaying into my filmmaking career that I get to do that.
André Robert Lee: So I think the reason I think it’s important for students to have these conversations is, it’s how we begin to change. You know, one thing we’ve done in our film I’m Not Racist, Am I?, we have a scene where the kids play this game called “The American Dream Game.” It’s a game developed by a woman who’s a professor at [The University of] Michigan, and we went to her and we said “What do you think about us making a life size version of it?”
André Robert Lee: So the kids play the game, and in the game you pick various roles of various characters. You never, like a black person would never play a black person. A black person would play a white person or a latino person. A white person would play as them. They play the game, and move around the board, and it’s all about these chance cards that help you think about “what does it mean to move through life as someone else?” And you gain a really deep empathy.
André Robert Lee: Now, it’s one thing for me to come in and give a lecture about what happens to latino women. It’s another thing to play this game and have kids play this character of a latino person — just take on the role for an hour or so, and experience situations. And all the chance cards, which is how you move around the board, are based on real life situations, we don’t make these things up. So, the thinking and experiences, people are actually interacting and moving around, talking and debating, and they’re figuring it out together.
André Robert Lee: It’s one thing when I walk into a room, like I said a second ago, and give a lecture about what people should think. It’s another thing when an audience arrives there on their own. When they begin to say, “Whoa, there’s imbalance in the world. This is what it’s like to experience this for three minutes, what is it like for someone to have this as the day-by-day experience? And what can I do to engage in a conversation, and what can I do to take action to interrupt this inequity and lack of justice?”
André Robert Lee: I was once at this screening, actually in Silicon Valley, at this really intense, incredible high school that was started by a number of people who were Silicon Valley parents who were not down with the private schools and who sadly didn’t seem much taken with the public schools, so they put some money together and started up a school. I think it fell into the charter school, public school arena. But it was an intense and incredible school. And we had a great screening of the film, I’m Not Racist, Am I? and a deep conversation with the students. We did a screening for the parents that night and one of the parents said “Well this is really great André, we love this work you’re doing. But what are you doing on a policy level to affect change in America around inequity when it comes to education and justice?” And I was a little bit like “Whoa”. And I said, ‘Well, you know actually, I had an answer but I changed my answer as I speak, ‘cause when I first began to think, my first answer was “you know what, I don’t do anything on a policy level.” And then I paused, hesitated, and said “Actually you know what, I am trying to impact policy by impacting and affecting individuals.”
Hannah Nyren: Right.
André Robert Lee: If I can have an individual thinking about how they participate in the conversation, what their role and responsibilities are — that is how you just spread that weight around the country. I wish I had some of the conversations I’m having now as an adult at fifteen. I think I would think about the world in a very different way if I had someone to interrupt me and say: “You know individual meanness is not what it’s about. It’s about systemic racism.” And if I had compounded that at fifteen, I think I’d have a very different perspective on my life and I may have had different experiences if I had that understanding and removed some of the personal experiences so I felt ownership of inequity, and actually said this is bigger and beyond me and I can start to think about changing it as a teenager.
Hannah Nyren: So how are you going to change the future then? How are you going to get that moment every day and that makes people think and discuss these topics?
André Robert Lee: I’m fortunate that I get to actually see that. You know my team, they kind of jokingly call me “The White Whisperer.” My favorite thing is at a screening or at a workshop, and when someone says “Total malarkey. I don’t agree. I’m a nice person. I don’t have a racist bone in my body. And this idea of racism is a myth. And this means nothing.” I love that moment. I’m like great, tell me more. Tell me why you disagree with that. I love when someone challenges me of that notion about discussion of privilege as opposed to being behind a closed door and whispering to one another and sadly being misinformed.
André Robert Lee: I’m not completely right. Our approach has worked with so much humility. Each experience is the chance to learn. So my dream and my work and my efforts to change the world is on an individual level. Getting people to show up, please join in the conversation and have an interference right now. Right here, right now. We’re not going to fix this by the end of this conversation but we’re going to begin it and start going and we’re going to figure out what we can do, and each individual has a responsibility to do just that, figuring out what they can do.
André Robert Lee: I feel like I’ve seen it a few times already where people are like “Huh, I didn’t think about it that way. I don’t know if I agree with you completely but I like you for challenging me and helping me to think about it in a new way.” That’s the moment. That really is like the moment right there, and I really appreciate that, and I try to strive for that at every possible turn and have that patience when people are not all the way there and encourage them along. And when people say stuff that’s crazy and offensive I think, “OK, how can I work with you?”
André Robert Lee: You know, I was — I was at a screening at a school in the Midwest And during my talk, a teenager yelled out and called me the N-word. And no one in the entire school did anything. I don’t compare myself who Dr. Martin Luther King, but I do think about his work — I’ve tried to understand it for so long. He talked about the need to approach his work with love. And in that moment I got it right away, because I had a choice of like slamming that kid and calling him a name back and making him feel bad, and hurting him or reaching back, across the aisle, with love and saying “I need you to understand how that makes me feel. And I want to understand why you think it’s okay to scream that, say that. What’s going on with you.?” That moment — I would go back to that school. I had some great conversations afterwards. And that right there is the moment to model behavior and to deal with it.
André Robert Lee: A lot of kids were saying after, “Oh my gosh, that kind of thing never happens here.” And I said “You can never say that again because it just happened. And now you have to deal with it as a community.” Like it was on the table, it was not hidden anymore. It’s hard and it’s painful and it hurts. And I was very shaken, and I was probably speaking through like tears but I was happy to be in that space, because I could affect change in some hopefully some dynamic and effective way.
Hannah Nyren: The thing is I think that makes sense. You said that, you know, when you were fifteen you weren’t necessarily think about it in the same way you are today. And I also think that a lot of high school students don’t think that there’s racism surrounding them. They think that, you know, we’re past racism. And I think that sort of instance is one of those moments where it’s forced to come out and they’re forced to see the underlying racism that surrounds them and they’re forced to have a dialogue about it.
André Robert Lee: I remember once when I first saw this tour with the other film, Prep School Negro, and I was really nervous of thinking I’m going into these communities and starting this these hard conversations, and then saying “Thank you!” and leaving. And a woman said to me “You know, you’re planting seeds. You’re like Johnny Appleseed, don’t forget that tale, that tale exists for a reason. So someday there will be these big black beautiful trees.”
André Robert Lee: I’ve been fortunate to have many moments like this, and I’ll relay one: I was walking down the street in New York City where I live and this woman I saw on the street said “Oh my god!” and she stopped, and I was like “What?” a little panicky. And she says “You, you, you came to my school when out I was in 9th grade, and you showed your film, and you gave this discussion, and it was amazing, and it was so great.” And she starts crying. And I was like “How can I help you? Why are you crying?”
And she says “I just want to say I’m now a freshman at NYU studying film, and I really would like to use my art as a tool to start conversations.”
André Robert Lee: I mean, I never met her. I came to her school, and it was the beginning of my screenings so I probably wasn’t perfect, or not as good as I could be now — I’ll never be perfect — but I’m much better now than I was when I started. And to know that that one child, to know that she felt empowered and enthusiastic about the experience and empowered by it, that is mind blowing. I get to witness people experiencing the art, and see it, and being transformed into their daily life. That is really unique and wonderful gift. That I don’t take for granted. I really appreciate it.
André Robert Lee: I stand on the shoulders of some giants that never got to be the giants that they could have been in our world because they were enslaved here in America.
André Robert Lee: You know, I am the descendant of enslaved people. And I love that notion that we are the gifts, and the dreams of our ancestors. We really are. And it’s incredible to think about it from that perspective and to work to try and change this world. I believe in people, I really do believe in people. And I want the best for all of us. And I’m so honored and fortunate that I get to use my heart as a tool to fight for that.
Hannah Nyren: I think what’s great about that story is not only did you inspire her to pursue her dreams and empower her to do more and be more, but she’s also going to be spreading her message to other people. So that way, you know, you’ve extended this mission to the next generation.
André Robert Lee: I hope that the message becomes loud and clear for many people who can find a way to figure out what their gift is and to share that. Because right now, our world is in a tough spot, and specifically our United States are in a very tough spot around these issues when it comes to equity and justice. And we need all the help we can get.
Hannah Nyren: Thank you so much for speaking with me today, André. It’s really good to see how you’re inspiring the next generation.
André Robert Lee: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.