'America to Me': Meet OPRF Teacher Anthony Clark

Anthony Clark - H Publicity 2018
Courtesy of the subject

Anthony Clark is ready to kick the door down.

The special education teacher made his first appearance in last week's second episode of America to Me — Steve James' documentary about the academic achievement gap between black and white students at Oak Park and River Forest High School in suburban Chicago — mounting a passionate defense of the school's reading program at a board meeting. And thought he doesn't feature as prominently in the doc as some other OPRF educators, he has for years been one of the most outspoken advocates for change at the school.

Clark, who was raised in Oak Park and graduated from OPRF in 2001, returned to the school as a teacher after stints at three other Chicago-area schools, including the prestigious Kenwood Academy in the Hyde Park neighborhood on the city's South Side. He is also the founder and director of local nonprofit the Suburban Unity Alliance, which focuses specifically on issues surrounding equity and restorative justice. (In March, running on a progressive platform that included Medicare for All, free public higher education and publicly funded elections, he lost his Democratic primary bid to unseat 20-year incumbent Danny Davis in Illinois' 7th Congressional District, but managed to garner 26 percent of the vote — over 27,000 ballots in the heavily Democratic district — despite a pledge to not accept money from PACs, and almost no traditional advertising.)

Clark, now in his sixth year at OPRF, admits he's had "an antagonistic relationship, essentially, with the administration since I've been in that building." His proposal to start a hip-hop club at the school received pushback from administrators, though it was made an official club after a pilot program. Then later, when he created a curriculum for a hip-hop history course, the administration voted it down, only to reverse the decision the following day after Clark's Facebook post about the "no" vote sparked an outcry from community members. (A white male was hired to teach the course.) And last year he was briefly suspended over a series of social media posts reacting to a white student who posted a photo of himself in black face on SnapChat. (He was reinstated after a number of parents — including the mother of the boy who posted the photo — students and fellow teachers came to his defense.)

"I'll be quite honest with you: I love my students to death, but I would've been gone by now if it wasn't for the fact that I'm from the community," Clark says. "I'm born and basically raised in Oak Park. So it's hard for me to leave."

Indeed, in talking to him it's overwhelmingly apparent the amount of thought he's devoted to the systemic issues plaguing his school and his hometown. And he is refreshingly candid about the ways in which the administration provides what he terms "the optics of change," while working to maintain a status quo that has, for decades, disadvantaged students of color.

Last week Clark sat down with THR to discuss how he got involved in the doc, his frustrations as a black faculty member and why he takes such a dim view of the equity work being done at the school.

Let me ask about when you first got wind of the project? What do you recall of the early conversations around it potentially happening among teachers or community members?

I first heard about a possibility of a documentary from John Condne, who is a producer for the project, and since I have a working relationship with John because we utilize his classroom for my hip-hop club. I had no idea who Steve James was at the time. Of course growing up as a black male, I saw Hoop Dreams probably a hundred times.

So it was intriguing to hear that the director was apparently from Oak Park and was interested in coming to the high school and documenting the achievement gap between black and white students. And I think Condne mentioned me. Because at the time — and it hasn't really changed — I have a high level of frustration with the systems in our community, with institutions within the system, such as the high school. I've shared an antagonistic relationship, essentially, with the administration since I've been in that building. So for me, I saw the documentary as possibly an opportunity to magnify the message of what really needs to occur to create systemic change for our community because each year we're losing so many students academically, socially, because of what I call the "opportunity gap" that exists, because of a lack of stakeholder-ship, lack of ownership, so many of our students — as well as faculty members and administrators — that we've lost have in the building. So that’s what I thought about it, because, I mean quite honestly, I feel like my perspective and my willingness to voice my concerns and opinions, like I'm just known to talk shit in an effort to push everyone into that realm of uncomfortable it takes to create change and whatever happens, happens. 

In your capacity as a special education teacher, you're seeing first-hand what some of these kids are facing and the type of resources that are lacking to help these students succeed.

I think Oak Park is a unique situation. Because we cannot say that Oak Park as an institution lacks resources. We have resources, the issue is who are the resources tailored to and who are the resources made available to? My first teaching job was at an alternative school in the Austin community, right next to Oak Park. And, literally, I mean it was damn near a prison. Like the staff, the administration, we were all super-close because essentially we had to be. We had to create that family dynamic because we were teaching students that were in and out of the criminal justice system, many were on parole, kicked out of their original secondary institutions. We didn't have textbooks, we had a limit placed on the number of copies we could make for our classrooms, we maybe had one or two computers in the class. Having that perspective and then coming to Oak Park I think grounded me, in being able to call out bullshit and being able to say "Hey, in a community like this that identifies itself as progressive, as liberal, there is literally no excuse." It's not like we lack funding. It's not like we lack quality teachers. So then you start asking yourself, what's the problem then? Then you start looking at, well, leadership is a problem. I've seen strong leaders, I'm not necessarily seeing strong leadership within this building. Then you start looking at OK, how is faculty supported? And yes, we have a faculty senate, we belong to a union. But as a black faculty member, I mean it's kinda hard even sometimes to articulate or define, but you just do not feel like you're nurtured within that building, you do not feel like you're appreciated within that building. You do not feel that you're provided with tools and the support necessary to prosper. The reason I came back to Oak Park in the first place is because [the school] placed an article in [local newspaper] The Wednesday Journal where it stated that it was forming a steering committee to, finally, address the achievement gap. And in reading that article, I mean, it spoke to my soul. I experienced that achievement gap. I was that black male student that was in predominantly honors classes, the only black kid in there, having to feel like I had the burden of carrying my entire race within that class and not feeling supported. So I applied. That was my dream when I got out the military as a disabled veteran, initially, to go back to Oak Park and work.

I literally did not get a sniff the first three, four years of my teaching career. It took me becoming part of the steering committee, getting my face out there, and people thinking, oh, this guy is dynamic, he has great ideas, for them to say then that, oh, we want to hire you. So think to yourself how many more teachers of color are qualified? I have multiple degrees, I'm dedicated, I'm motivated, it's not like I just clock in and clock out. How many more teachers of color don't even get a sniff, don't even get a consideration?

I know you said when you started the hip-hop club you didn't get support.

When I first proposed the hip-hop club there were reservation and pushback because I'm going to be working with the quote-unquote "at risk" youth. So I have to do a pilot program. Then we have to basically force our way into the school environment and show that the talents that these students of color have are valuable talents and need to be celebrated. From that, we became an official club, but still, it's the micro things that lead to macro. Every day security hovering around the room that my club is in. You could have chess club, where students would be by themselves while the sponsor would be doing whatever the hell he or she was doing. But let me leave my classroom for two minutes and it's a huge issue. Over the radio: "Where is Mr. Clark?" or I'm receiving an email asking are the students by themselves. You see that constant pressure where you're not welcome in this building, essentially. So that's frustrating to have that happen.

I think honestly if you're a person of color in that building, particularly you're a teacher, administrator or staff, you have to make a decision. You are either going to be a person that makes your money and you get out of the building, or you're going to be a person that's impacted by what you see on a daily basis and try to do something to change it. I assume white teachers don't necessarily have to deal with the mental toll that teachers of color in that building have to deal with. When you, every day, come into a building and see students of color failing, students of color being failed, students of color being disproportionately represented in our disciplinary system. You see yourself in these kids. And you quickly learn — I mean even that steering committee, those plans were essentially scrapped. They've had multiple steering committees since. They have lord knows how many more experts, outside experts being hired and coming in to consult. It's not necessarily about change, it's about providing the optics of change. It's about institutions and systems counting on the fickle nature of communities to where, OK, this is an issue on Tuesday but we guarantee you by next Monday they're going to move on to something else. As long as we addressed it in this moment, we don't have to address it systemically.

One of the things I heard is that some of the opposition to James coming in to film the documentary was he was coming from whiteness, coming into the school to tell the stories of students of color. And obviously one of the big cultural shifts that has occurred very recently is, who is allowed to tell what story. And the narrative I'm teasing out is that this was partly coming from the people who do the equity work within the school.

Yeah so in my background, you know, I'm the founder/director of Suburban Unity Alliance, a nonprofit in the community, co-founder of a small business where we employ at-risk youth, I ran for office. So I'm heavily involved with equity work outside of the building as well. And I think one of the biggest things that we push in regards to the message of intersectionality or in regards to being allies in verb form, of course it's inherent if a white individual is telling a story of black individuals, you're going to miss things. There's going to be blinders. But the point is, in regard to intersectionality, you push white individuals — when we're fighting against racism, they are the allies; if it's sexism, I'm an ally as a male, so on and so forth — but you push white individuals to use their privilege. And how I view it, yes, it's not perfect, yes there's inherent flaws in this story that's being told, but I feel like Steve James essentially used his privilege. Because I feel like a black director probably wouldn’t have even made it through the fucking front door if they asked to tell this story. (Laughs.) So he utilized his privilege as a white male, as somebody who filmed Hoop Dreams, to get into the building to be able to tell some of these stories. Because if he wasn't even able to get into this building, we wouldn't be at the point now where so many allies are realizing that they need to wake up and do more.

And then I think also it compounds with the fact that I as a black male in the school, this is my sixth year teaching, I'll be honest with you, I detest the equity work that goes on in that building. Because the focus is not placed on minority empowerment, the focus is placed on the majority's ability to help us. Like, we won't be able to move forward, empower students of color, unless we hold the majority's hand, unless we get them to understand white guilt, unless they are comfortable enough to move forward. So essentially it is that old white savior mentality that existed since slave times. Slavery, as it was constructed, was over in 1865, June 19th. So you're telling me yet and still we have to politely knock on the door and wait for a white ally to open it for us, to walk through. I'm at the point now, because we're losing so many students, I want to kick the door down. Why are we not placing focus on black empowerment and then telling our white allies, "Look, this is what it is, either get with it or not"? Because we are losing too many students. Elijah Sims, he was murdered in 2016. We are still fighting for justice for him. Demetrius Paskel, I sat with him on a daily basis to get him to graduate. He was murdered in 2016 as well. We can't afford to continue this cycle of constantly talking, constantly having meetings, constantly trying to convince allies that change is good. It's extremely frustrating. And what's crazy about it, if you think about it, I'm back in the fucking classroom. So I was in honors classes when I went to the high school, the only black male in there, and essentially the onus was placed on me to speak for black people and to answer these questions. But now I’m in these equity meetings as one of the few black people and the onus is still placed on me. Like, the more things change the more things stay the same.

I interviewed Steve back in January and one of the first things I said was like, man, everything looks the same. The dynamics are the same. That was kind of a shocking thing to me about watching, was how much hasn't changed.

Yeah. It hasn't changed. And honestly, it's gotten worse simply because when you maintain status quo you cannot move forward, but it's inevitable that you're going to regress. Because what does change mean? Change means that power as it currently stands is going to be threatened. Change means that certain individuals that are in leadership positions are possibly going to lose those leadership positions. Change means you're going to have to possibly work harder. Like that threatens so many people that are essentially comfortable within their bubbles, comfortable within their power. And I think you see it with Chala Holland, in a sense. When she left, they replaced her with a white male and he — they were trying to roll back the reading program; you see that in episode two — he rolled back many of the things she implemented. So you see these things occurring. White males constantly being hired, white individuals constantly being hired. Every year you come back to the school and you say OK, we need more teachers of color, let's see, new teacher hires? Predominantly white. So it never stops. This year, yeah, we have a few more teachers of color, but it never stops, bro. And it's a system that's in place to empower the majority, not to empower those that are marginalized. And the problem with Oak Park is you have liberals, you have progressives that are progressive to the extent that it doesn't threaten their privilege. Once you get to the point where you're telling them, well, your student may not be able to be in honors classes or AP classes, or well, we're going to have to take some funding from this program and put it to this. Once it starts getting to that, then you even start seeing self-identified allies pulling back. "I'm progressive as long as it's not at my front door."

And I think as a whole this community, it has its issues, but we truly have so many individuals that I think want to make a difference, that want to be allies in verb form. And I think this documentary, unfortunately, it takes a white ally to co-sign or repackage the message that the people that have been directly impacted and oppressed for years have been saying for people to start listening. But now that they're listening, I feel like we're getting more and more people that are ready to take action, that are caring. And time will tell. Time will tell if this documentary really leads to systemic change.

America to Me airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Starz.