Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Documentary Review : "Whatever it Takes"

We've seen it portrayed in feature films numerous times: hard-edged teacher/principal saves under-priviledged students through tough love. On screen it's endearing, emotional, and reality it's an ongoing battle that many dedicated teachers and school administrators face.

Principal Ed Tom of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM) is one of those real-life educators who has dedicated his time, sacrificed his family occasionally, and has committed whole-heartedly to the improvement and empowerment of his students.

The journey of Ed Tom from his first day as principal at the BCSM to the last day of the first year of school were documented by director Christopher Wong in the documentary "Whatever it Takes." It was featured at Toronto's Carlton Cinemas from September 24 through 26, 2010 and has won numerous accolades at film festivals, including the Asian American International Film Festival.

In what the Globe and Mail called a "case study on urban schools," Whatever it Takes aimed to highlight the suffering school system in the South Bronx, and how one man's vision made an impact in a community that otherwise lacked educational opportunities. In his feature length debut as director and producer, Christopher Wong shadowed principal Ed Tom as well as his students to gain a clear picture of their daily routines, challenges, and the strength they channeled to overcome these challenges.

At times he raised his voice and displayed an obvious frustration when students made foolish decisions, or careless judgements. Yet he left his home before sunrise each day to ensure he was at the front of the school to greet each student by name, with a handshake. Ed Tom had his work cut out for him, but stood firm in his goal to transform his school of 170 students into college bound scholars.

Along with viewing the journey from Ed Tom's perspective, one young student, a girl named Sharifea, struggled throughout the year as the documentary progressed. The oldest of three siblings, Sharifea was often responsible for caregiving, chores, and seeing that her mother (former drug-addict, suffering from hepatitis) was also well taken care of. You could see the hope and promise on Sharifea's mother face each time she spoke of her daugher: she was carrying the weight of her family, and generations before her, on her young shoulders.

And like Sharifea, there are students everywhere who are failing in their courses, yet dealing with multitude of priorities, expectations, and often conflicting responsibilities.

What fictional depictions like Dangerous Minds and Freedom Writers as well as this documentary always demonstrate is the importance of consistency in care and support from the school/community, to the home, to the student. Whatever it Takes often made mention of this importance, and how each member of the triangle (parents-school-student) were active--and necessary--participants in order to see measureable success.

Sharifea barely passed the school year, but still was accepted into a 3-year summer enrichment program at Dartmouth College. She found drive, despite her stressful circumstances.

Ed Tom continued to give 100% passion and support to his students, right until the last days when they displayed improved test scores in a city-wide assessment.

It's a traditional story of a dedicated mentor, and an important documentary to watch to see how much impact can be made by one individual with enough passion and vision to encourage dozens of young minds.

For more info on how you can view this documentary, please visit

Monday, September 6, 2010

Book Review: "Stick to Your Vision" by Wes "Maestro" Williams

He's a Juno award winner, a Gemini award nominee, he's received countless other accolades, is an established actor, the Godfather of Canadian Hip Hop, and now also an author.

Reading Wes "Maestro" Williams' new book Stick to Your Vision (co-written with his wife, Tamara) was powerful for me on many levels, but the main reason was summarized early in the second chapter when Williams said: "As we grow up...we need to feel that we are part of a community that reflects and reinforces our identity and experiences."

In the late 80s, Maestro Fresh Wes was the Canadian hip hop/urban experience, and to this day in any venue across the city, if the DJ plays Let Your Backbone Slide it continues to hit us with the warmth of nostalgia and also the recognition of growth.

Williams represents the story of building the black Canadian identity, so it is only fitting that he has shared his testament and experiences in print.

Growing up as a black Canadian, you are always acutely aware of the lack of representation from your community. As we all know, the media would be full of reflections from everywhere but here, and it's so inspiring to see that over the years...things have changed. We went from having a handful of successful Canadian rappers, to becoming the new place-to-be for fresh urban talent. Black/urban Canada has gone from suffering from an un-said identity crisis, to standing firm in our self-awareness and self-respect.

"My community and my city had never experienced one of their own being so commercially successful, so they didn't know how to be supportive." (pg. 208-209)

This book needed to be written, and I'm so glad that it was, because as a legend of the urban Canadian experience, Wes Williams truly represents the journey that started about 20-30 years ago when many of our immigrant families were first arriving in Canada to establish themselves...and it continues to the present time when "our" generation is creating a new generation of Canadian-born and Canadian-influenced citizens.

It is so reassuring to know that there is now a strong "black Canadian" identity that is thriving, and expanding beyond previous limitations and unfounded stereotypes.

Stick to Your Vision is an easy read, because it's a familiar one. Williams tells his story about his life, career, struggles, triumphs, and outlines the book as a blueprint to creating goals, and maintaining focus. It's a great reminder for those who are working hard and achieving personal success...and a great inspiration for those who are just trying to figure out who they are, and where they're going. The Canadian references and acknowledgements make the book even more personal.

I believe this book will have the strongest effect on the young generation, teens and young adults who know where they want to be, but perhaps need some guidance in how to organize their thoughts, how to build their character, and how to ensure that they do not fall off track.

"If people you normally roll with are not elevating you--pushing you to reach higher and celebrating your achievements--they are stunting your growth." (pg. 153)

There are questions, examples, charts, exercises, and guidelines that will surely be beneficial to helping readers [re]-organize their personal "vision" and subsequently blowing away the "blockades and barricades" that they might face.

As a fellow writer, I truly feel Williams' need to tell his story, and to share it with others. Seeing your own experience--or a similar experience--in print/media is extremely motivating and inspirational to those who may not have any other examples to turn to. As Williams said, "Knowing your story is essential to understanding yourself and your aspirations..."

Thank you Wes "Maestro" Williams for writing this book, and contributing to the growing collection of black/urban Canadian success stories. Thank you for shouting out Ron Nelson, Michie Mee, Farley Flex, and the other legends of your industry and our Canadian experience. I love that over time the respect has been overwhelming, and again, I thank you for acknowledging and documenting an authentic Canadian story that inevitably turned into a great human tale.

Williams' story is our story, and to see it in print by a mainstream publisher (McClelland & Stewart) is indeed another great phenomena. Every industry and community has their pioneers, groundbreakers, and visionairies who unknowingly pave the way for the generations that follow. For that reason it's great to see the career and impact of Wes "Maestro" Williams come full circle with this important contribution to our culture.

"Let Your Backbone Slide" (1989) - Maestro Fresh Wes