On Tuesday, November 1st, the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) initiative convened more than 200 students, education leaders and community members in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, to examine opportunity barriers facing young people through the lens of the personal experiences of two young men featured in the POV documentary All the Difference.

Filmed over five and a half years, All the Difference traces the paths of two teens from the South Side of Chicago who dream of graduating from college. Statistics predict that Robert and Krishaun will drop out of high school, but they have other plans. Oscar®-nominated producer/director Tod Lending’s intimate film, executive produced by author Wes Moore, follows the young men through five years of hard work, sacrifice, setbacks and uncertainty. As they discover, support from family, teachers and mentors makes all the difference in defying the odds.

Lending said that he wanted All the Difference “to tell a story that would be a counter-narrative to what we see every single day in the news. We need these types of stories of hope.” The film is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a national public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities keep more students on the path to graduation, college and careers.

My Brother’s Keeper was launched in 2014 as a call-to-action for civic leaders to engage with young men of color and address the unique challenges facing minority groups in education. MBK has brought nearly 200 mayors, tribal leaders, and county executives across 43 states and the District of Columbia to accept the MBK Community Challenge “to build and execute robust plans to ensure that all young people—no matter who they are, where they come from, or the circumstances into which they are born—can achieve their full potential.”

Cameron Webb, White House Fellow, White House Office of Cabinet Affairs, facilitated the evening program and handed opening remarks to Michael Smith, Special Assistant to the President, My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, Joseph Tovares, Senior Vice President and Chief Content Officer Corporation for Public Broadcasting and James Cole Jr., Deputy Secretary of Education, US Department of Education.

Cole, who was proudly sporting the iconic red and gold Urban Prep tie, remarked, “I want to stress that this work that we do is not just about creating opportunities for the bright few. It’s about making sure we do a better job of investing in all of our young people in our community so that we’re all better off.”

The screening of All the Difference was followed by a panel discussion on graduating high school and another on postsecondary education. Mario Cardona, Senior Policy Advisor for Education for the White House Domestic Policy Council, moderated the first panel, with Oscar-nominated director Tod Lending, film subject Krishaun Branch, Tim King, President and CEO of Urban Prep Academies (the charter school featured in the film), and Joaquin Tamayo, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education.

King immediately noted the significance of the event, “We just saw a film focused on two young men, one of whom is the grandson of a sharecropper. The other is a son of a mother and father who didn’t finish high school. And these two young men are in the White House watching a movie about their lives.”

Krishaun, at times fighting tears, emphasized that the journey to becoming a college graduate wasn’t easy. He felt the pressure, as an older brother and cousin, to serve as their role model. He also spoke of the influences of his peers and environment that threatened to derail him from completing high school and college. “But I stuck through it […] and I continued to go to Urban Prep. And after a while I started to want to go to school, I started to hate missing school. And that’s when I was all in with the mission of going to college and being successful, and being like the men that I saw on a daily basis [at Urban Prep]. And it worked. I’m a college graduate.” His family, including his young son, Krishaun Jr., were all in the audience.

Michael Smith moderated the second panel on postsecondary education, with film subject Robert Henderson, Wes Moore, Bestselling Author and Founder/CEO of BridgeEdU, Marcia Cantarella, PhD, Author/Consultant on Higher Education, Access and Diversity, and Kim Hunter Reed, Deputy Under Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education.

“Oh my goodness, I’ve never cried so much at work,” Smith joked. He described how his day started with an hour-long morning meeting in the Oval Office with President Obama, discussing the work of MBK. “And now I have this extraordinary opportunity to end this day with all of you,” said Smith, “Having the conversation about what we’re going to do to keep this work going and shining a spotlight on these young men […who] have persevered.”

In his remarks, Wes Moore brought up the important role films like All the Difference play in creating change, pointing out that “statistics can provide context, but it’s stories that lead to humanity, and that lead to action.”

All of the panelists agreed that support systems, from a variety of sources, are crucial. Kim Hunter Reed talked about the importance of making sure that institutions are prioritizing equity for students, especially when it comes to financial aid. “The question of our time is, do we see all of these students as our kids?” said Reed. “And are we committed to talent development in this country?”

Dr. Cantarella pointed out that there are also tools that can help students on their path to college completion. Dr. Cantarella wrote accompanying All the Difference college-bound resource materials for students and teachers. She explained that one of the guiding principles behind the College Bound Students Handbook, was “to have the students feel empowered and understand that everything they’re doing is actually going to build them to a place where they can go anywhere and do anything.”

The evening touched on the historical, cultural, and systemic issues facing young black men today, and many mentioned the overall message of hope. Cole remarked, “My biggest takeaway from this film, and about these boys’ and young men’s experience, is hope.”

The audience Q&As after the panels surfaced important issues including financial aid, institutional and structural changes, supporting parents, and action steps that can be taken on individual and national levels to support students of all backgrounds in reaching their full potential. Said one audience member in closing, “We are now all deputized as leaders.”

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POV Staff
POV (a cinema term for "point of view") is television's longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films. POV premieres 14-16 of the best, boldest and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country. POV films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues.