Written by: Heather Rivera
Montclair, New Jersey – Shawganza “Shani” Stephens spoke at the Pave the Way event hosted by the Korean Student Association and the organization, Femvolution at Montclair State University. There to welcome guests were several boxes of pizza, refreshments, and Korean pancakes that were bought by the Korean Student Association. Shani, the screen-writer and director of her short drama, took time out before she screened her short to open the floor to the audience on any questions they might have. Shani also conversed with everyone about her life and experience working in inner-city schools.
Shani’s festival winning film is based on the real children, and classroom she taught in from 1999 to 2004. She wrote the script to make a change for the children, after her experience of being a substitute in Newark, New Jersey. Shani was hired as a permanent substitute due to the high number of teachers that were absent on a daily basis, or retiring and not returning to school. Students [and a staff member] were telling Shani things such as teachers purchasing drugs from students, teachers that sexually abused their students for years, and many other inappropriate actions, “there were teachers with substance problems, teachers and administrators that were abusing the children inappropriately. Even the kids revealing, oh I was selling drugs to that teacher” she says. “You send your kids there to learn, not to be abused” Shani adds. Unfortunately, a lot of what happened was swept under the rug for a very long time, and the kids ended up being the victims in this situation.
The issue of domestic violence was another aspect of the film, although it was an underrated issue compared to the bigger story. “I do speak up about domestic violence, I’m a survivor of domestic violence” she says. Shani describes her experience of being in an abusive relationship, and how she empowered to herself to get out the relationship, to be a better example for the students she’s trying to empower. The scene when Shani’s ex-boyfriend is forcefully grabbing her to the point where she leaves the car, and the relationship, is shown to advocate for violence against women as well. Shani’s ex-boyfriend is only shown once, and the two characters only share that one scene, but Shani says there is more to the story. Due to budget reasons, the film only shows thirty minutes of what Shani wants out there.
Shani also explains that her film isn’t all bad either, and that there were success stories, which she will be able to show in the completed film that’s an hour and fifteen minutes. Although A Sub in the Brick City is shown as gritty and dark, Shani said that there were kids who went to college and kids that left gangs to change their lives. She recounts that even in her toughest classrooms, the students wanted to be re-directed, “Even the angriest kid, they wanted to be corrected because that showed you cared. I had one of the toughest kids apologize to me” Shani explains when talking about a tough girl who sprayed prep rally spray on hair. Shani points out how that girl went from the school bully, and ended up graduating, and giving Shani her class picture and thanking her. “Thank you, I went from bad girl to a lady” that student told Shani. Shani’s approach is never be scared to talk to the kids, whether they’re a gang member, a teen mom, or withdrawn.
There were students who listened to Shani and made it out, but there were others who didn’t and didn’t make it out. A year after Shani stopped teaching, she was told about ten black students that she once taught, who were victims of shootings. “I looked at the paper and I’m like oh my god, I taught him. I taught him. I taught him” she says. In many instances, kids who live in the inner-city don’t have access to resources or money, which is something one of the characters in the film, Iesha faced. In one scene, Ms. Stephens confronts Iesha about her potentially ending up in jail if she continues her life in the streets, something that Iesha wasn’t necessarily opposed to. She rationalizes that by going to a Juvenile Detention Center, she will have access to food and and activities there. When Ms. Stephens goes to Iesha’s aunt to tell her about Iesha not going to school, her aunt confesses Iesha’s reality. She flat out tells Shani that Iesha doesn’t have anyone, her mother is in prison so she has to depend on herself, and do what she has to survive. School is essentially a waste of time for Iesha. Stories like Iesha’s is all too common within the inner-city communities, something that Shani is trying to speak out against by making this short drama.
“That’s why I did it. Because in the inner city there is no voice. People in poverty. We really live in a world of a have and have nots. The have nots seem to suffer. There’s no voice, there’s no one standing up and fighting for their rights. Something goes wrong, do they have attorneys?”
This is another case in which Iesha was failed. Iesha’s close friend was shot and killed by a drug seller coming for her, and Iesha had no one from the law to tell her rights or protect her. “I say this over and over in every conversation anyone will have with me, it takes a village to raise a child.” Shani grew up with neighbors that were like family, it was a close-knit community “but now I think we live in a very selfish world” Shani says. “It’s not my problem, or sometimes not my kid and that’s when we drop ball because no one is looking out for each other” she adds.