In Chattanooga, Tennessee, we live in two cities.
The first is the smart city: Volkswagen, Amazon, and a history of wealth. The second is a world away: bottom-rung public schools, food deserts, and high crime rates. The gap between the two grows deeper every day.
At the center of the second city, The Howard School endures as the very first Black public school in the South, built right after the Civil War. It’s survived a century and a half of change—eras of success and collapse. But in a 2007 study, Howard was classified a “dropout factory” with a graduation rate of 28%. Proficiency rates were among the lowest in the nation. In 2011, the state moved in to oversee the school year.
That same year we at Fancy Rhino got a small grant to make a short film about public education. We knew the State was moving in on Howard; the school could be closed, and the ‘11-12 school year was sink or swim. So we decided to be there to witness.
But we couldn’t observe without taking part. We started teaching a film class, working students into the process of making the film. We started to like those students a lot. We started to care about their futures—and to want to tell their stories right. We didn’t know then what we know now: that telling a story always implies acting in it, whether you meant to or not.
Below is the pitch letter we sent to the school after Principle Paul Smith denied our entry on campus the first visit. There was a history of bad blood between the school and the press.
This letter gave the studio the keys to the school. Teachers encouraged us to teach a film class and create the ensuing documentary. But it all started here:
July 23, 2011
Every student at Howard High School deserves to be seen as more than a statistic to be printed or a theory to be proved. Each of them wakes up in the morning and must enter into their lives with the weight of an unfolding story on their shoulders, a story in which they see, speak, listen, think, hurt, hope, hate and love. Voices attempt to speak on behalf of these students, but they can only be someone speaking about someone else, offering solutions to situations they have not experienced and will never fully understand.
We believe it is time for the students of Howard High to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. We believe that every day at Howard High, tales of goodness go untold and the reality of the struggle goes unseen to those beyond the campus. We want to change this, but know we aren’t capable. We know that the story lies in the students themselves, and it cannot be told if not from their own lips.
We are asking for permission to give the students of Howard a chance to tell their story. We know they have the words, the hearts and the minds. We are asking for a chance to give them a microphone, a lens and an audience. We would propose a film club in which participating students work under art instructors and with members of the Fancy Rhino team. The details of this project and club will obviously have to be detailed with the needs of the school and its students prioritized first. It could be scheduled once a week, teaching students about storytelling, personal narrative, and the visual medium. Under the guidance of the team leaders, the students themselves will help film and craft a documentary about their lives, their peers’ lives and the life of Howard High.
We don’t pretend that this will be an easy project. We understand the complications when an outsider steps inside your campus. We expect to confront daily struggle to which we’re not altogether ignorant. We live in communities close to Howard (East Lake and St. Elmo) and have worked with many of its students. Where we are ignorant, we know there are many in the Howard community eager to bring its true story into a more personal realm. This project would do just that by equipping the students to craft the stories of their own lives into a viewable product for the community and the world.
The good implications of succeeding at this project are a thousand fold. Most importantly, those who view Howard from the outside will be brought inside. Our goal is to introduce a new tone of intimacy as we help people on the outside see that the children of Howard are the children of America, that they are our hope and our future in no less of a way than the students of a “blue-ribbon” high school.
The students themselves will be enriched. We will put tools in their hands that empower them. As they work, they will be given a chance to see outside and experience how the world opens for you if you take your own voice seriously and use it wisely. It is our hope that each student involved will end this project knowing that when they speak, someone will listen. We hope to work hard to plant seeds that will, through painstaking care, blossom into a more dynamic relationship between the students of Howard and the larger community.
Film is what we do. We are a business, but we are made up of individuals who prize the community we live in and are earnest in our desire to help. We would enter into this endeavor with clean consciences and good faith, and we are confident that you would neither be disappointed by the process nor the product. As Fancy Rhino, we will use all our resources to push the documentary created in collaboration with these students as far and wide as possible. By influencing the conversation in Chattanooga, we hope to see a ripple effect beyond Chattanooga.
It is a sad fact of life that often those who are speaking should be silenced, and those who are silenced should be speaking. Communities are loud and filled with strife. Laziness and callousness can spread quickly and leave us wondering who to listen to. We believe that it is time we turned our ears and eyes to Howard in order to hear what needs to be said and see what needs to be seen: the true experience of the students and faculty of Howard. Please give us the chance to see from their eyes.
The Team at Fancy Rhino: Drew Belz, Isaiah Smallman, Kelly Lacy, Bethany Mollenkof