You have a background in Computer Science and Engineering. How has that impacted your career and direction as a filmmaker?
My career as a filmmaker began when I realized that films have the power to move hearts and impact lives. I started out with a career in the computer industry. I majored in mathematics and computer science and took my problem-solving skills to IBM where I worked as a computer programmer and later as a systems engineer. While at IBM, I took a production course at a local cable access station and immediately fell in love with the process and the medium. The experience was life-changing. I left IBM to start producing video projects full time.
People always ask how I could leave a computer science career with a prestigious company and start my own business. Now, in my chosen career, I combine the problem-solving skills that I developed in college and IBM along with my social consciousness to create films that, I hope, make a difference. In the end, I can make a bigger impact and reach more people with filmmaking while fulfilling a greater purpose.
What compelled you to tell the story of Spencer Technology Academy?
I served as a judge for an eighth-grade homeroom competition for the 5th Annual College Week event at Spencer Technology Academy. I was impressed with the enthusiasm displayed by grade school students as they talked about attending college. The experience proved to me how a community that is overwhelmed with a sense of despair and powerlessness can achieve great things with self-determination and purpose. Given the challenges our schools and communities face, I believe College Week provides a rarely seen insider’s view that can help override stereotypes—it’s a film about cooperation, unity and overcoming extreme odds.
At its core, College Week instills in young children a sense of self-worth and the idea that they can accomplish amazing things in life. The majority of these children don’t have positive role models who place an emphasis on education. In fact, teachers may be the only people in their immediate circles who can impart a love of learning and have completed higher education. A prime example of the successes of College Week is the story of Kaylah Elder, who participated in the event when she was in sixth grade. Kaylah recently graduated from Clark Atlanta University, the college that her homeroom represented during College Week ten years ago.
My late father was a role model for my siblings and me. He never made it past his second year in high school, but he understood the value of a college education. He was a constant presence at our schools and made sure that we got the support we needed to attend and successfully graduate from college. Honestly, College Week is a tribute to my father.
How does crime affect students and faculty at Spencer?
While not directly addressed in the film, crime is a theme in College Week; it’s set in an elementary school in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, one of Chicago’s largest and most crime-ridden communities. It’s sad to witness what students face in communities like Austin. “What does all this violence say about the future of our communities, our country?” It’s especially tough to hear fifth graders recount a murder they witnessed as though it was a common occurrence. As a Black filmmaker, I chose not to focus on crime as the lead story but rather felt an urgency to celebrate the heroism of our teachers and leaders and how as a community they work together in the face of it. Teachers with little support are called upon to serve as parents, counselors, mentors, as well as big sisters and big brothers—they have wide shoulders and big hearts.
Do you have any advice for viewers looking to support schools such as Spencer Elementary in continuing the tremendous work they are doing to help students?
After watching College Week, it is my hope that viewers from varied and mainly underserved communities request, and if necessary demand, that schools in their communities institute some way to adapt and model the College Week experience. Efforts like this one are worth the time invested because our children need to feel that they are not “throw away kids”… students, especially from underserved communities, should feel empowered to know that they can dream big and make contributions. But, to do that, they must know that college is a viable option for them too.
What was your memorable screening of ‘College Week?’
My most memorable experience was at a focus group screening in which attendees expressed heartfelt messages about how the film impacted them. For example, one woman in her late 60’s stated that she attended a predominately white high school where she was one of a few African American students. She said that she will never forget how she was discouraged from going to college and encouraged to pursue a trade. College Week made her cry because of the love that the teachers showed their students, a love she never received in school.
What does the film tell us about a changing America?
For a changing America, College Week illustrates the importance of innovation in education. With federal, state and local government budgets in peril, it’s critical that schools in underserved communities take control of their own destinies. Long before President Obama announced an initiative to get more low-income students to enter and graduate from college, Spencer Technology Academy had already taken this important issue into their own hands. More programs where all stakeholders are invested in the survival and growth of their children are needed in underserved communities. When this happens, schools become beacons of hope in their communities again.
As president of GRACE Productions, Inc., Derek Grace has produced documentaries and promotional videos for the past 20 years. Before pursuing a career in video production, Derek spent 10 years as a computer programmer and systems engineer with IBM Corporation. Derek received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and Computer Science from UCLA, and a Masters of Science degree in Computer Science from the University of Colorado at Boulder.
College Week will have its national broadcast premiere Tuesday, June 7 at 8/7c (check local listings) as part of WORLD Channel’s AMERICA REFRAMED series. The film will also stream free online on www.americareframed.com for 90 days following the broadcast.