"These voices of teenagers and teachers needed to be heard, to speak directly to an audience that could learn from and be drawn into their experiences."

By Jeff Truesdell
February 13, 2018 01:14 PM
L-R, Jeff Truesdell, Daje SheltonCredit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell
Credit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell

Eight years ago it struck me that I was in the midst of a movie.

At the time, I was reporting a PEOPLE “Hero” feature about a school created to save struggling students from the school-to-prison pipeline. Suspended or expelled for misdeeds under academic zero-tolerance policies, these kids in my St. Louis hometown — often traumatized by violent streets — risked winding up dead or in jail without ever collecting a high school diploma. Their fates illustrate the very real over-incarceration of America’s youth in numbers that disproportionately target Black teens.

For a year I was in-and-out of Innovative Concept Academy and the lives of those it helped. But after the article appeared in PEOPLE in November 2011, I knew I wasn’t done. The stories were too intimate, too emotional, to live on the page alone. These voices of teenagers and teachers needed to be heard, to speak directly to an audience that could learn from and be drawn into their experiences.

On Tuesday — one year and a day after a documentary that follows one such student premiered at the Berlin film festival — For Ahkeem airs on the PBS World Channel series America Reframed (8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT; check local listings). It will then be available for free streaming through March 15 on PBS.org.

The journey from the streets to the screen and beyond has been inspiring not just for audiences, but for me personally.

For Ahkeem (I’m the executive producer, working with talented filmmakers and generous, open-hearted subjects starting with 17-year-old Daje Shelton, who shares her coming-of-age narrative) has won best-of-the-festival honors from Stockholm to Santa Fe.

Its ability to affect lives is ongoing.

Daje SheltonCredit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell
Daje Shelton
| Credit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell

For Ahkeem evolved from the relationship I developed with the school’s founder, Judge Jimmie M. Edwards, who started Innovative Concept Academy as a model partnership between the circuit court and the St. Louis Public Schools after watching the cycle of criminality continue to fill his court. As a St. Louisan myself, I hoped my coverage could help elevate this local solution to a national conversation.

My filmmaking partners agreed. Cinematographer Nick Weissman first came to St. Louis from New York City soon after the PEOPLE article was published to film an in-house video showing how the magazine’s stories impact the lives we cover. He conveyed the documentary possibilities to his friends, the co-directors Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest. Together we began two years of filming in Fall 2013.

Judge Edwards’ kids are not bad but frequently come from bad places. Impoverished and devastated neighborhoods. Jobs that have moved away. Homes with addictions or absent parents. Violent losses that inform their outlook and ambition.

“People been labeling me a bad kid all my life,” Daje says in voiceover early in the film, relating an episode in which she was suspended at age 5 from kindergarten. “You don’t have to do anything; they just expect it.”

After a school fight lands Daje in front of Judge Edwards, the film documents her placement in the court-supervised program and she slowly determines to make a better future for herself. But she struggles as guns claim the lives of friends, she falls in love for the first time, and she becomes pregnant with a boy, Ahkeem, just as a white police officer shoots a black teen in nearby Ferguson and the community erupts.

“The senseless carnage angers her, but it also makes her aware that this might be the environment her son will be facing in a few years if she doesn’t do something to improve their situation,” states a review in The Boston Globe. The Los Angeles Times described For Ahkeem as “a bracing story of grit in a world of social injustice.”

More importantly, film festivals and school screenings have allowed the film to be seen by thousands of students from elementary school through college. Some say they recognize themselves; others see their peers anew, or for the first time, confronting eye-opening challenges and consequences that kids aren’t prone to consider.

In many cases, it’s provided them opportunities to share with teachers the burdens of lives lived outside of class — burdens that students keep to themselves, for fear of being labeled and dismissed, but which directly affect their ability to learn and succeed.

Daje SheltonCredit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell
Daje Shelton at Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto in May 2017.
| Credit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell

Teachers see in the film a call to be “change agents” in the lives of students who struggle, even as the film affirms how many of them working together it takes to impact just one life. Social justice advocates have embraced the film to spark conversation about reforming school discipline policies. Judges, lawyers and juvenile justice workers have said it lays out a path forward, albeit not a simple or easy one, including the need to end prosecutions that charge teens as adults.

In a prison screening organized by the Tribeca Film Festival, male inmates told Daje they saw themselves in the disembodied voice of her boyfriend, Antonio, calling from jail after an arrest, and they realized how that call hurt the lives of those around them. But they also saw the determined role of mentors in the film who refused to give up on Daje, even when it looked like she might want to give up on herself. And they cried.

Among other reactions, an email found me from a woman who’d spotted the film’s trailer on Twitter one night. She did not say so initially, but she turned out to be Deesha Dyer, the former White House social secretary for First Lady Michelle and President Barack Obama. “I saw myself in Daje,” she said.

“Looking at headlines, it is easy to see how the stigma attached to young black girls still exists,” Dyer later wrote. “I don’t know why I was naive to think it didn’t. For Ahkeem moved me to start focusing more on the narrative labeled around young black girls who are perhaps too loud, too sassy or too grown, as some may say. I started to have open conversations with young girls, even taking some to see For Ahkeem, about how they are beautiful, assertive, bold and courageous. How they can use their voices for good, as I had.”

Another’s observation — that the film might instead have focused on someone “more deserving” than Daje, who appears to benefit from extra help that is nonetheless the norm at the school — worked its way into follow-up audience Q&A’s, asking who is/is not deserving and why that might be. Isn’t that part of the label Daje aspires to overcome, in a journey that witnesses the strength, resilience and determination is takes for many like her to survive?

From left, For Ahkeem director Jeremy S. Levine, Daje Shelton, Jeff Truesdell, and co-director Landon Van Soest
| Credit: Courtesy Jeff Truesdell

Last month, a year after the film’s debut, Daje began community college. To attend film festivals, she flew on a plane for the first time, acquired a passport for the first time and left the country for the first time.

She hopes her story — still unfinished and uncertain — will motivate others, and current and former teen moms who’ve watched For Ahkeem have rallied to her side with their own triumphant tales of persistence.

(Judge Edwards, who has since left the bench, was named in November by St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson to be the city’s director of public safety. The initial 2011 PEOPLE article about his academy led to Edwards being named one of the magazine’s Heroes of the Year.)

I just wish for the conversation to continue. I’m only a storyteller, one of many at PEOPLE, but For Ahkeem reminds me that at our best, the work we do in any form has the power to engage, enlighten and inspire. And to change lives, mine included.

Following its PBS World Channel debut Tuesday on America Reframed (8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT; check local listings), For Ahkeem can be streamed for free through March 15 on PBS platforms including PBS.org and on PBS apps for iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.