I have yet to see the film Freedom Writers, but if I do, it will probably be because of the Power Shuffle.
When I saw the trailer for Freedom Writers, my immediate thought was, “Jeezus, not another White savior flick!” It mattered little to me that the film was based on a true story. Indeed, it’s very existence irk me.
How many films do we need about an idealistic White teacher succeeding with her “at-risk” students (read: low-income youth of color in Da Ghet-to?) What are the messags these films seek to drum into our heads, and what are their impact? (For one answer, read great editorial by Bronx high school teacher Tom Moore in which he breaks down the problematic messages that such films convey about the teaching as a profession.) Why is that we rarely see films about the many educators of color who are also successful unless they are paramilitaristic conservatives whose approach to education is long on discipline and short on pedagogy? Where are the movies about progressive educators of color who are successful not simply because of the innovative (even radical) strategies they use in the classroom but also because they are working with (and not against) parents in organizing campaigns that seek to challege structural barriers to the efficacy of public education.
When will we see the films about the freedom schools established by activists in the 60s or their current descendants in cities across the United States? About the creation of the historically black colleges and universitiesand their success in producing the majority of this nation’s African American professionals? Why did it take years for documentarian Lillian Jimenez years to produce Abriendo Camino, her film about visionary educator Antonia Pantoja who founded ASPIRA which won a landmark decision against the NYC Board of Education that translated into major victory for bilingual education nationwide?
Still I try to withhold judgment on a film until I have seen it for myself or heard the opinion someone’s whose political sensibilities I share. That means if none of my closests friends or trusted colleagues venture toward the theatre, I am unlikely to do so as well. But Elisha recently learned something about Freedom Writers that just might entice me to take the risk.
“She uses the Power Shuffle,” she told me over the telephone last week.
“Really?” Not only have Elisha and I both used the Power Shuffle in our workshops, I wrote a critical scene in Divas Don’t Yield in which Irena and Lourdes participate in the Power Shuffle at the women’s conference they attend in San Francisco. (Pages 289-294 to be exact.)
“Yeah, but I don’t know if she credits it.” Elisha was blessed to be trained at the TODOS Institute, a ground-breaking organization based in Oakland, CA that was renown for its innovative curricula in unlearning “isms.” The Power Shuffle is an exercise pioneered by the founders of TODOS to lead participants in an exploration of their various identities (e.g. race, class, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) the power differentials assigned to these social constructs, and the impact it has on how they see themselves and interact with others of similar and different identities. Although I learned about the Power Shuffle before I met Elisha, it’s through her that I discover its origins.
“Probably not,” I scoff with unchecked cynicism. “They’ll say that’s just because it’s superflous information that doesn’t move the story forward, but leaving it out also serves to make her seem more heroic. People are going to think that she [teacher Erin Gruwell played by Hilary Swank in the film] invented it, and that’s not right.” I also suspected that because the Power Shuffle is a very thorough tool that leaves very few identity constructs unexplored, and, therefore, takes quite a while to execute, the makers of Freedom Writers probably truncated the exercise for the sake of limited screen time.
But then again, I haven’t seen the film. And truth be told, since I didn’t know who created the Power Shuffle before I wrote Divas Don’t Yield, I did not credit them either or spell out the complete exercise due to space limitations. One of my hopes for including it in the novel, however, was to inspire others to learn more about it and use it in their own classrooms, workshops and other learning environments. Maybe its appearance in Freedom Writers will do the same.
So here it is, again, folks. The great thing about the Power Shuffle is that it works wonderfully as originally conceived or modified to suit your needs. And according to readers of Divas Don’t Yield, it carries an emotional impact even when one is following a fictional character through it.
Imagine what it would be like to actually experience it.