Dr. Llloyd Tally starts the stress test video prior to his sections, about racial literacy. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

America to Me Real Talk Montclair
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For Montclair Local

It was standing room only at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon for the launch of the community-wide phase of “The America to Me Real Talk Montclair” Initiative organized by the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence (MFEE).

Community leaders, educators, parents, high school students and seniors packed the Sawtelle Dining Room, sitting at round tables, to begin the challenging work of examining how their thoughts, interactions, and words have been shaped by the presence of racism. This three-hour program — consisting of presentations, round table discussions and lunch — was the kick-off of a three-month process that will operate like a community read, but with a film instead of a book.

The 10-episode unscripted documentary series that will be watched in homes across Montclair in the coming months — “America to Me” — examines racial, economic and class issues in contemporary American education as seen through the eyes of teens in a Chicago suburban high school that looks and feels a lot like Montclair High.

On the bill for speakers were Dr. Lloyd Talley, University of Michigan School of Social Work; MFEE Board Member Kamillah Knight; MSU Associate Professors Bree Picower and Tanya Maloney; and Vincent Deas, program director, New York City Men teach. Bess Nelly was the emcee.

MFEE organizers said it is their hope that a community watch of this series will provide a framework for authentic conversations about race, and help move us forward in the difficult journey towards racial equity on which Montclair has long embarked. Sunday’s high turn-out was a sign that the will to do this difficult work is there.

MC Nelly Bess gets the crowd of participants energized. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

The event began with speakers Nelly, Knight and Lloyd who introduced the Initiative and spoke on what racial literacy means. Next, participants were taught “the racial justice lens” from MSU professors Maloney and Picower through which those in attendance would be viewing and discussing clips of “America to Me” in round table groups. After group discussion, Deas provided insights and shared inspirations from his work in New York City schools. After a shared meal together, MFEE president Masiel Rodriquez-Vars explained next steps and how the community-watch would look going forward.

“That so many people in the Montclair community care so deeply and want to learn how to raise the level of conversation and activism about race inequality renews my faith in the goodness of this community and affirms my family’s decision to move here,” said Seo Hee Koh, who moved here from Bergen County two years ago and participated in Sunday’s launch as a community member engaged in the round table discussions. “Like many other like-minded liberals in town, my husband and I claim to be progressive and care deeply about racial inequality, but I often wonder if our collective inaction cloaked in seeming goodwill is actually causing more gridlock and damage.” 

The MFEE “believes strongly that words matter, and in view of several recent events in Montclair, including the remarks on racism in our schools attributed to the superintendent, they believe that this work is more critical now than ever, because without deep internal self-reflection on racial justice, we all have the potential to inflict harm,” MFEE wrote in a press release.





Talley said that people often avoid talking about race because it triggers their stress responses. “The more we try navigating these encounters, however, the more confident and competent we become at doing it. Being mindful of our mind and our body’s response can help us read, recast, and resolve a racially stressful encounter,” he said. 

A community member there to participate in the day’s events, Marni Jessup, said that her favorite part of the presentation was “the attention to mindfulness and one’s emotional response to racial tension. Addressing mental health should always be discussed when dealing with difficult issues, but is often left out.”

Drs. Bree Picower and Tanya Maloney of MSU, co-facilitators for the “America to Me Real Talk Montclair” launch. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Facilitators Maloney and Picower spoke about the “oops/ouch moment”. If something causes you racial stress, say “ouch”, and let it be known, they said. On the flip side, saying “oops” shouldn’t be as hard as it is to say either. Being racially literate means being able to recognize when you have inflicted hurt, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and being confident enough to say, “I’m sorry.”

Maloney said the idea of a community watch of “America to Me” came from Montclair High School teacher Brian Ford. He was aware of the series being used in classrooms, and suggested taking it to the wider community.

In the past, MFEE funds have been used to enhance the educational programs in the Montclair  Schools, but MFEE Board member Knight said, “programs are the leaves. We have to get to the root.” The MFEE Board then began looking for ways to enhance the educational experience in a deeper and more abiding way, asking themselves how do we build a truly good school system from the roots up?

One of the problems in answering this latter question is the difficulty in finding a common definition of what makes a school system good. Is it successful because of its high test scores or the colleges its top students go to; or is it successful because of its continued commitment to working towards racial equity and the improvement in educational outcomes for all of its students?

One issue echoed again and again was that many people who move to Montclair don’t know its history. Among the many honored guests at Sunday’s launch was Carol Brown, the educator, mother, and Nishuane PTA president who first proposed the idea that became known as Magnet Schools. “We knew that many people were not going to be happy about the court-ordered desegregation of the district,” Brown told the audience, “so we came up with the idea of themed schools.” To this day Montclair is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the top magnet school districts in the country. But many


parents, educators, and students still see room for improvement. “We can’t become complacent because of our past successes,” MFEE president Rodriquez-Vars said. “When the idea that became ‘The America to Me Real Talk Montclair’ Initiative was first put forth, I was eager to begin right away, but I’m glad I followed the advice of Board member and MHS alum, Kamillah Knight, to slow down and take the time to do it right.”

Over the past 18 months, MFEE board members, along with selected “thought leaders,” have done just that. The “America to Me” Initiative is the result of months of research, education, and self-reflection by many different stakeholders, including the Township and the Civil Rights Commission. “You can’t just have people discuss these sensitive subjects without giving them a shared language and framework,” Rodriquez-Vars said. Sunday’s event was about learning that shared language, and the thoughtful way the organizers approached planning this Initiative was apparent in its roll out.

Marni Jessup, a parent and member of the community, said the day after the launch that “the most significant takeaway from yesterday’s event was how I felt when I walked in versus when I left. I went feeling a sense of obligation and was nervous to talk about race. I had a million excuses why I didn’t need to go…  but after the group discussions, I felt awake, and a real need to participate and perhaps even become a group leader. I was so happy to have gone rather than continue to ignore the racial injustice happening throughout our country.”

Participants in the “America to Me Real Talk” initiative launch. ADAM ANIK/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL