Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
The new documentary Southeast 67 tracks 67 kids from Southeast D.C. who were granted college scholarships in the 1990s.
In 1991, the year Tenille Warren entered high school in Washington, D.C., the city's homicide rate peaked. Her southeast neighborhood of Anacostia was center stage for that violence, which played out against generational cycles of poverty, addiction, and incarceration. Warren, a gifted artist, saw finishing high school—let alone getting to higher education—as the stuff of fantasy.
Yet she was a "Dreamer"—one of 67 D.C. public school students, all African American, promised college scholarships by local magnate Stewart Bainum through the I Have a Dream Foundation. Like many of the 67, Warren's life veered away from that promise; though she graduated from high school, she got sucked into a dead-end job at Safeway* rather than pursuing an art degree. The hurdles to a world beyond Anacostia were too high, and the program's educators—tenacious, supportive, and loving as they were—couldn't seem to lift her.
But Warren didn't give up. Now, more than 20 years later, she's embarked on a BFA program in New York City, a leap she credits to the support she received as a Dreamer. Her story, along with those of many of her fellow Dreamers, blows up traditional narratives of "success" in educational reform.
A new documentary, Southeast 67, chronicles the divergent stories of those 67 students and the systemic barriers they faced in grabbing their chance at The Dream. The film shows that dreams deferred aren't necessarily abandoned.
Betsy Cox, the film's writer, director, and producer, stumbled across the Dreamers' tale when asked by the Bainum family to help with an evaluation of the students upon the 20th anniversary of their high-school graduations. "Just six of the Dreamers had completed college in a traditional, four-year timeframe," says Cox. "Looking at it from that sense, the program didn't seem like an overwhelming success."
But as soon as she started interviewing the Dreamers, now all in their late thirties, Cox realized that it had been. Many Dreamers, such as Warren, Martece Yates, and Murray Sumes, found their way to college or trade school later on in life, even though they'd had to give up their scholarships. Others, like Antwan Green and Keyda Walker, raised strong, healthy families—with their kids off to college themselves.
And virtually all of them credited the program, and its extraordinary educators, for planting seeds of self-belief and hope hardy enough to help them eventually break away from the darker influences in the environments in which they grew up. "It was so clear that the program had had a dramatic impact on the Dreamers' lives," says Cox. "And that really raises questions about what type of impact these kinds of intervention programs can have on helping kids break that cycle, both educationally and on a caring level."
After Southeast 67 premieres this Friday, February 27, at the D.C. Independent Film Festival, Cox hopes to get the film in the hands of local educators. In a public school system largely tied to specific, short-term outcomes like test scores and graduation, the Dreamers' stories add something nuanced to the conversation around educational reform.
"When there are so many parts of a student's life impacting her outcome, you can’t always use short-range goals as your measures of success," she says. "It’s not always possible, or even probable. It’s going to be something that happens over time."
*This story has been updated to accurately reflect Warren's goals after high school.