‘Black Panther’ costume designer Ruth Carter talks dreaming big and her journey into film The design vet takes time out of her busy film career to encourage parents and children

ORLANDO, Florida — Moviegoers are fascinated by the fictional African nation of Wakanda, home to Marvel Comics’ superhero Black Panther. Just a little over a month ago, the comic book phenom burst onto the big screen, with Black Panther raking in more than $1 billion and is now inspiring a deeper dive into the film, including a look at the costuming of actors Chadwick Boseman, Angela Bassett and Lupita Nyong’o and others. Not that close attention is new to Ruth Carter, the woman behind the looks.

When the Oscar-nominated costume designer arrived on the campus of Hampton University in 1982, she did not realize she’d depart with a bachelor’s degree in theater arts. Starting out as an education major and switching gears as many students do, she now boasts a career of more than 40 films, including Amistad, Malcolm X, Do The Right Thing, School Daze and plethora of others.

“I started out in education,” she said. “I come from a legacy of teachers and I wanted to be a special ed teacher and then halfway through college I changed my major to theater arts. And my mom said, ‘Oh, you’re going to do the news.’ And I thought no, I’m going to do costumes. When I came out and I was doing backstage work in the theaters, my mom said, ‘You went four years to college to do laundry,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’m still on my path, mom.’ ”

Carter was as an intern at the Santa Fe Opera in Springfield, Massachusetts, until moving to Los Angeles in 1986 and meeting director Spike Lee.

“Once I got to Los Angeles I met Spike Lee and he was telling me ways that I could get a career and get experience in film by going to some of the big colleges in Los Angeles like USC and UCLA and signing up for film thesis projects,” Carter said. “So that’s kind of what I did … She’s Gotta Have It, when I saw that, I was like, ‘what, it’s one girl walking through Brooklyn, who can’t do that.’ It’s a medium I had to learn. It’s a huge medium …”

Carter’s advice to children is to keep dreaming and dream big. She spoke to 100 students at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy in Orlando last week.

“I think it’s important for Dreamers to know that you can be successful and it starts with your dream,” she said. “And it starts that dreaming just makes everything blossom into the rest of your life. I don’t want them to dream as if they are going to be something in the future. I want to dream about who they are right now and empower themselves with that dream.”

She also spent time with parents and guardians at a private event withalongside ABC’s The View co-host Sunny Hostin and Mikki Taylor of Essence magazine.

(From left to right) Mikki Taylor, Sunny Hostin and Ruth Carter discuss parenting and cultivating the goals of children at the 2018 Disney Dreamers Academy.

Kelley Evans

“My mom was curious about what the heck it was I had done with my life and my education, but she was patient with me,” Carter said. “So my advice to parents is to be patient. Your kids are going to find their path, they’re going to blaze their trail. Do not do the helicopter mom thing.”

Carter’s journey includes the designing of costumes for Jungle Fever, Mo’ Better Blues, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Four Brothers, Sparkle (2012), The Butler, Selma and Being Mary Jane.

“The hardest part of my journey is management,” Carter said. “I think that I’ve got the costume design thing. I can do that. I can dress almost anybody. But I have to bring artists into my group, into my team and to tap into their minds. So the management part of the creativity is really the hardest and I think once they understand what you want, they flourish. But it’s not until you get to that part does it work.”

Experts dish moneymaking advice to future entrepreneurs This CIAA conversation was to help attendees build legacy businesses

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — A power-packed panel of three African-American business titans served a heaping helping of wealth-building advice during the business luncheon portion of the NEXT Level: 2018 CIAA Minority Business & Leadership Symposium.

“For those people complaining about millennials, stop complaining about them and partner with them,” said Kimberly Blackwell, CEO of PMM Agency. “I surround myself with a team of millennials.”

PMM is the agency of record of some of the world’s most recognized brands and includes automotive, insurance and financial services.

The panel also included Tirrell Whittley, CEO of Liquid Soul, whose marketing portfolio includes the movies Black Panther, Guardians of the Galaxy, 42, Red Tails and others; and Joel Stone, vice president and wealth management adviser for Fifth Third Bank, which sponsored the event along with Black Enterprise.

The discussion was attended by about 200 people, most who indicated they were business owners and listened raptly as the best and the brightest spoke.

“If you leave this room and you have not found someone to collaborate with,” Whittley said, “you have failed. I come to events like this looking for partners.”

However, Whittley cautioned the audience to not look at building an empire but, instead, look to build a legacy.

Don’t try to wear every hat, create a fancy business card and have a long title; look to find partners who can help you grow to the next level.

Whittley also said that too many young filmmakers believe that “if I can just hook up with your company,” they will be successful.

That’s not the case, he said. “I say go out and make your own film.”

Stone said business owners should have a personal “board of advisers you can lean on and have a personal CFO.”

“Know what you want your business to do for your family, your community and your employees,” Stone said.

The business owners were also urged to demand the appropriate price points for their work and products.

“Come in the door, bring past performance and know your worth,” Blackwell said. “I don’t rest on laurels.

“I eat what I kill, and I’m on the hunt every day.”

The leadership symposium was part of CIAA 2018 and was an expansion of the 2017 entrepreneurs panel.

The event was restructured, according to CIAA commissioner Jacqie McWilliams, to “become a more inclusive and progressive business and education resource platform.”

The event kicked off in the morning with a fireside chat with Earl “Butch” Graves Jr., CEO of Black Enterprise, who was queried by Fifth Third Bank senior vice president Byna Elliott.

Graves discussed following in his father’s footsteps and ascending to his post, only to realize “most people aren’t reading magazines and newspapers anymore.”

The business had to adapt to the habits of the new consumer, particularly millennials.

“I have millennial children,” Graves said. “If I call them, they will text me back. … We had to evolve to what the marketplace is doing.”

He says he now refers to the company as Black Enterprise, leaving off the former “magazine” moniker.

Besides its digital media products, Black Enterprise includes events centered on professional development, entrepreneurship and women’s empowerment.

Allyson Felix boosts the YMCA and talks about making her fifth Olympic team America’s best woman in track and field grew up at the Y in Crenshaw

Allyson Felix spoke recently to students at the YMCA where she played as a child in the Crenshaw neighborhood of Los Angeles. But she wasn’t there to discuss fitness or her path to Olympic gold.

“What we’re actually going to be doing is a really cool science experiment,” the champion sprinter told students gathered after school.

Felix’s appearance was part of the YMCA’s new campaign to raise awareness about community services fostering youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. The programs include diabetes prevention, providing teens with mentors and resources to improve their college readiness and promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

The Crenshaw Y students built small balloon-powered vehicles with Felix, attempting to propel their creations faster than the approximately 10 meters per second that Felix covered in her best 100-meter time of 10.89 seconds.

Some of the vehicles didn’t budge. Others burst forward, although perhaps not as quickly as Felix. But the experiment was in keeping with the YMCA’s mission to encourage problem-solving and critical thinking, to get students comfortable with failure and to urge young people to envision themselves in STEM careers.

“A lot of people see the Y as just a gym and a place to swim for their kids, or for after-school programs,” Felix, who graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in elementary education, told The Undefeated. “But they don’t really see how it does affect the community and even how the programs are tailored to what communities they are in.”

The YMCA is the nation’s largest provider of child care and serves 22 million people of all ages at 2,700 locations. Felix grew up at the Crenshaw Y, where she loved to play basketball. “Rebounding was the best part of my game. Before everyone caught up to me heightwise, I used to be one of the tallest,” said the 5-foot-6 athlete.

Felix has competed in four Olympics and won six gold medals, more than any other woman in track and field, and nine total Olympic medals, tied with Merlene Ottey of Jamaica for the most track and field medals. Felix helped set the 4×100 relay world record of 40.82 seconds at the 2012 Olympics in London.

Now 32 years old, she is determined to compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games. She hopes to qualify for the 400, where she was denied gold in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games when Shaunae Miller-Uibo of the Bahamas dived at the tape. To qualify at her favorite distance, the 200, would be an added bonus.

“My biggest goal is to be able to make the team,” Felix said. “It would be a really great way to kind of end my career at the Olympics, to be able to make a fifth Olympic team, you know? You couldn’t really ask for more than that.”

The Next Chapter: Retired NBA player Elliot Perry on leaving basketball, collecting art and living in Memphis His grandfather participated in the famous sanitation workers’ strike in 1968

Memphis, Tennessee, native and 6-foot point guard Elliot Perry was Memphis State University basketball coach Larry Finch’s first recruit. He started every game during his collegiate career (1987-91), leading the program to two NCAA tournament appearances and a second-round berth in 1987.

That was more than three decades ago.

Now, Perry is director of player support for the Memphis Grizzlies, a title he’s held with the team since 2014. His responsibilities include helping players prepare for life outside of basketball — an area in which he’s found much success. He also advises the team on community-based efforts in Memphis.

Perry played for seven teams over his 10-year NBA career. Known as “Socks” because of the high footwear he wore during his collegiate and NBA careers, he retired from the NBA in 2002, closing his career out with his hometown Memphis Grizzlies on a 10-day contract. He later worked a year with the National Basketball Players Association.

“I really loved that job,” Perry said. “I was always a player rep on each team that I was on, so it was just a natural transition when I retired to go work with the NBA players association. Then I got recruited back to Memphis.”

Perry is part of the minority ownership group for the Grizzlies, along with singer Justin Timberlake, Ashley Manning (wife of Peyton Manning), Penny Hardaway and others.

“I’ve been working here about 11 years now, going on 12 years, and loved every minute of it,” he said. “Also, doing the radio with the Grizzlies.”

Perry holds a degree in marketing. He was selected in the second round (37th overall) of the 1991 NBA draft by the Los Angeles Clippers. Inducted into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, he founded the annual SOCKS Banquet (Supporting Our Community and Kids) to provide financial support to organizations committed to helping Memphis-area youth and also serves as a board member of Teach for America.

An avid art collector, Perry focuses on modern and contemporary works by African-American artists and artists of African descent.

Perry spoke with The Undefeated about his grandfather, who was part of the 1968 sanitation workers strike in Memphis, art, philanthropy and basketball.

Do you miss the hardwood?

Yes, you always miss it. Now I realize I can’t get out there and play, but you always miss it, and you miss it for a few reasons, I think. Obviously, being in the locker room and being a part of something bigger than yourself, but more importantly it’s the relationships that you build and being able to compete at a high level. Probably, every young kid in the country that’s playing basketball aspires to be in the NBA, and for me I was fortunate enough that by God’s grace and mercy, and the little bit of talent I had and the work ethic I had, I brought to my job every day, I was able to play 10 years.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

What’s been the hardest part of transitioning from the court into the professional space?

I think the hardest part, probably for any player, is they’ve been playing basketball and being on a schedule and having an agenda and knowing exactly what to do for the majority of their life, really, and so the hard part of transitioning is a lot of players just don’t have the skill set. Whether it’s doing whatever they need to do in an office setting or if you’re going to do radio, if you’re going to do TV. I think the NBA players association has done a really good job of trying to help guys transition now. That wasn’t what was happening when I was playing.

I think one of the things that players miss out on is the ability to network while they have opportunities and doors open for them. While I was playing, I was always happy to go meet with people, to speak with kids, to speak with other people.

How did you and your wife get into art collecting?

Back in the summer of ’96, Charles Barkley took a group of us over to Japan and we played three exhibition games. And the who’s who, from Gary Payton to Clyde Drexler to Alonzo Mourning, we had a really, really good crew of guys. Anyway, I was on a plane with Darrell Walker, who was a former NBA player who was coaching at the time in Washington. He started talking to me about art … about how he has started to collect art over the past eight to 10 years, and who got him started was Bernard King. And the more we talked, the more I listened, and just started reading a little bit.

When the season started that year, Darrell would always call and say, ‘Hey, I see you’re in New York, go by this gallery or this museum.’ He would always send me books. The more I read, the more interested I got in artists, artists’ lives, their trajectory, the work that they were making, the conversations they were having around their work and why they were making work. I decided, maybe the year after that, to purchase my first piece. Then it just snowballed. I really got addicted to it. For me, the mission, and for my wife and I, this collection that we’ve been able to amass is a lot of just preservation of history and culture too.

Do you remember your first purchase?

A print by an artist named Paul Goodnight. The title of it was Tennessee T Taster.

Tennessee T Taster by artist Paul Goodnight.


Do you still have it?

Oh, yeah, absolutely still have it. No doubt about it.

Do you sell a lot of the art you collect?

No, we’re not in it for just pure money reasons. Out of the years that I’ve been collecting, that’s over 20 years or so, I’ve probably sold five pieces out of our collection. This has been a kind of labor of love and passion, and we started collecting a lot of old-school artists when we initially started doing it, but in 2004 we did a 180 and really just started collecting young, living, contemporary artists. That’s really been a much better journey in terms of being able to communicate with artists, being able to talk to artists about our mission and why we collect work, and then we’ve been able to visit their studios and hear their work and hear why they make their work.

What made you decide to return to Memphis?

It’s probably like anything else, you always can come home, but I just think that Memphis is an authentic place, this community for me personally. I was born to a 15-year-old mom; my father died a month after I was born. My family has always rallied around me. My mentor, Michael Toney, rallied around me and taught me so much, exposed me to so much at an early age and also challenged me. My high school coach poured a lot into me, and then when I signed with Memphis State at the time, Coach Finch poured a tremendous amount of his time into me and really started to help me shape why I was a leader and how I could be more of a leader in my community.

I feel obligated to give back to my community with the most precious gift that God has given me, and that’s my time.

Tell me about your grandfather’s relationship with the sanitation workers strike in 1968?

Most people know Ernest Withers’ photograph, when all of the men are holding the ‘I Am A Man’ sign and there’s a gentleman that’s walking right in the front of the camera, and he doesn’t have a sign yet, but he looks directly into the camera and the guy that’s looking into the camera is my grandfather. He worked for the city of Memphis at the sewage and drainage department. He wasn’t a sanitation worker, but he worked for the city; they wore the same uniforms.

I remember after Dr. King got killed when I was probably about 6 years old. In honor of Dr. King’s death, my grandfather used to march every year and I used to march with him as a kid. He had a fifth-grade or sixth-grade education. A lot of these injustices that we were fighting for were for his kids, and for his grandkids to be able to sit in a quality seat, around education, to be able to get equal pay, to be able to use whatever water fountain, or to be able to live in whatever community they wanted to live in.

How do you balance family, work and art collecting?

I asked my grandmother this question after I graduated college and started playing in the NBA a little bit and I wasn’t married, but just starting to have bills and do all of those things. And then when I had my daughter, obviously my grandmother was a lot older, just raising one kid is tough in itself. My grandmother and grandfather had nine kids: eight girls and one boy. And I can clearly remember asking her, ‘How did you do it? It’s impossible.’ One thing she told me was that, ‘We didn’t think about it, we just did.’

I don’t think about it, I just do. That’s what I say about balancing it all, is I just do.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

It’s from mentor Michael Toney. When I was young, growing up in North Memphis, you see so many things. You’re growing up in poverty, so many distractions, and when he started mentoring me and he was exposing to some things, he was helping me try to gain my confidence in myself. And I can remember one time when I was struggling, he took me to a mirror, he said, ‘You see a little boy looking back at you?’ He said, ‘Everything in life that happens to you, that little boy is going to tell you. He’s going to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to quit, he’s going to be the first person to tell you when to compete again, he’s going to be the first person to tell you I can’t do it, he’s going to be the first person to tell you if you can do it. Other people are just going to reinforce that.’

HBO to broadcast Anna Deavere Smith’s show on the school-to-prison pipeline Playwright reworked ‘Notes From the Field’ after the killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Philando Castile

Actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith is a master of verbatim theater, a marriage between documentary storytelling and the stage that involves the actor re-enacting the words of her subjects. Her latest work, which is debuting on HBO on Saturday at 8 p.m., is Notes From the Field, a one-woman show that delves into the school-to-prison pipeline.

If you’re not a theater nerd, you’re probably more familiar with Deavere Smith from her guest star turns as Rainbow’s mother on black-ish or as the lip-pursing-but-ultimately-loving hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus from Nurse Jackie.

For years, Deavere Smith, 67, who is also a professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, has used her one-woman shows to examine race relations and other complicated social problems. Her career has provided a blueprint on how to produce art with a conscience without making it dogmatic.

Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn and Other Identities (1992) looked at the Crown Heights riot of 1991 from the perspectives of both black and Jewish residents. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 (1994) was about the Rodney King riots. Let Me Down Easy (2008) was about health care and the fragility of human life.

All were constructed from the same process: Deavere Smith traveled across the country to interview hundreds of people — for Notes From the Field, she interviewed 250 — and distilled them down to the 20 or so most effective and moving accounts. Then, Deavere Smith recreates these people on stage: their voices, their clothes, their mannerisms, their emotions, their words. She is a reporter in an actor’s body, and her expeditions in search of the truth earned her the George Polk Career Award in journalism from Long Island University last year.

“I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race.”

“One of the deans of political journalism, David Broder, said to me The New York Times should change that little thing ‘All the news that’s fit to print’ to ‘All the news that’s fit to print — by deadline,’ ” Deavere Smith said during an interview at HBO’s offices in New York. “I have a much longer, fatter deadline. Yes, I’m told, ‘This is previews and this is opening night’ and I have to be ready. But … I’m lingering and lumbering around in a way that [reporters] can’t. I’m like a cow. I gather all this stuff, and then I just sit around and chew it.”

For Notes From the Field, Deavere Smith spoke with experts, teachers and lawmakers. But she also interviewed people whose voices often get lost in the debate over the brokenness of our criminal justice and public school systems: the students and inmates who pass through them.

One account from Denise Dodson, a prisoner at the Maryland Correctional Institution, is particularly wrenching. Dodson speaks about how getting an education while incarcerated has been pivotal in changing the way she sees herself. Still, she told Deavere Smith that she thinks it’s fair that she’s imprisoned on charges of conspiracy and attempted murder. Dodson’s boyfriend killed the man who was trying to rape her, mid-act. The overwhelming majority of women who are imprisoned are survivors of domestic or intimate partner abuse.

Deavere Smith originally staged a shorter version of Notes From the Field in 2014 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and brought it to New York in 2016. The New York Times called it “wonderfully energizing” and labeled Deavere Smith “the American theater’s most dynamic and sophisticated oral historian.”

She had written and researched it before Michael Brown, before Tamir Rice, before Philando Castile, before Walter Scott. Since then, she’s updated it. The HBO adaptation includes Deavere’s depictions of Bree Newsome, the activist and artist who was arrested in June 2015 after she scaled the flagpole of the South Carolina Statehouse to remove the Confederate flag that hung there, and Niya Kenny, the former student at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina, who filmed her classmate being dragged from her desk and handcuffed by a school resource officer.

“I wasn’t planning to actually make a full-fledged play out of my project, but I did because I had content that I felt that I needed to rush to get onstage and a brief window where Americans were thinking about race,” Deavere Smith said, citing the cellphone videos of police killing unarmed black people. “These windows are always brief, and in fact, I think it is not a picture that is as strong right now as it was, say, in 2015, because other things are happening and some of those things are distractions.”

“I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people.”

Deavere Smith was participating in a panel discussion with CNN commentator Van Jones and former Obama White House chief of staff Valerie Jarrett recently at New York’s 92nd Street Y recently when she reiterated that an actor’s greatest tool is empathy. That empathy, combined with curiosity, results in the most emotionally arresting performance of Notes From the Field, when Deavere Smith recreates the words of Allen Bullock, the protester who filmed the arrest of Freddie Gray.

Her performance, filmed in front of a live audience at Second Stage Theater in New York, is kinetic and engaging. Her face is superimposed on a huge screen behind her as she walks the stage, video camera in hand, sporting a Copwatch hoodie. She recreates Bullock’s anguish at witnessing Gray being thrown into a Baltimore police wagon, his anger as he saw officers restraining Gray with leg shackles and dragging him away, simply for the mistake of making eye contact with them. Deavere Smith challenges the audience to see Gray as both subject and object.

Despite a dramatic deep dive that complements the work of Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness) and Ava DuVernay (13th), Deavere Smith isn’t ready to call herself a prison abolitionist, like those who want to raze the prison-industrial complex entirely. But she thinks efforts to ban The New Jim Crow from prisons, or shut down prison libraries altogether, are misguided.

“It’s terrible. Terrible,” Deavere Smith said. “They can try to ban it all they want, but you and I both know that the walls of prisons are very porous.”

Although she’s arguably more knowledgeable about schools and prisons than a majority of Americans at this point, Deavere Smith avoids being prescriptive. When it comes to prisons, she’s not Angela Davis, and she’s similarly agnostic about charter schools despite the fact that her reporting led her to conclude that American public schools are “a disaster.” They often fail poor students, students of color, disabled students and students for whom English is a second language, and they’re more segregated today than they were in the late 1960s.

“Most of the people I know who have charter schools want to be able to boast and brag about success and how many kids they send to college,” Deavere Smith said. “And even those things make me nervous when that’s the way they talk about the experience. ‘Well, we’re sending every single person or every single person in our class graduated with such and such SAT score. They’re all going to college.’

“And you go, ‘OK, great.’ But something about it bothers me, and I think what bothers me is that there’s only one measuring stick for success. I know a lot of smart people. I don’t need to know any more smart people. I’d like to meet more kind people. I’d like to meet more generous people. I’d like to meet more forgiving people. … I’d like to see them get commended. You know, smart’s just overrated, as far as I’m concerned.”

‘Orange is the New Black’ star Dascha Polanco talks Michael Jordan and her journey as a single mom ‘We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward’

The 35-year-old Orange is the New Black (OITNB) star Dascha Polanco grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and was an athlete in high school. But she hit the basketball court last week in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game playing alongside teammates Jamie Foxx, Common, Quavo of Migos and WNBA player Stefanie Dolson.

“I love that there are two women, Katie [Nolan] and Rachel [Nichols], coaching the [NBA All-Star] Celebrity Game,” said the actress who was on Team Clippers, the winning team. “I was very competitive when I used to play softball in school, so I was excited when the opportunity to play [in the Celebrity Game] came up.”

Polanco is best known for her role as Dayanara “Daya” Diaz in the hit Emmy- and Screen Actors Guild Award-winning Netflix show OITNB. Her first taste of Hollywood was in the independent film, Gimme Shelter, starring opposite Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson. Her big- and small-screen credits include Joy, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, The Perfect Match and The Cobbler to name a few.

Born in the Dominican Republic, she emigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl with her parents and became a citizen in late 2013. Borrowing the words of Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, “Ima make it by any means, I got a pocketful of dreams,” Polanco didn’t sit on her dreams just because she was a young single mom living with the help of government assistance. She didn’t let the stereotypes of a label define what she could or couldn’t do. She went back to school to become a nurse at New York City’s Hunter College, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. Then she began working as a hospital administrator at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx.

While studying nursing, Polanco signed up for acting classes at BIH Studios, where she eventually got signed to a talent agency and later landed OITNB in 2012, which changed her world forever.

The fierce and bold mother of two spoke with The Undefeated about why Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time despite her New York team allegiances, how she defies labels and uses fear to tap into an even stronger hustle, what it means to be an Afro-Latina in America and how overcoming insecurities is an everyday job.

Growing up in Brooklyn, are you a die-hard Knicks fan or have you become a Nets fan since they’ve become the Brooklyn Nets (previously the New Jersey Nets)?

I root for all New York teams. I grew up a Knicks fan and have so many memories watching the games with my family. As long as the Nets are the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll cheer for them too.

Who is the GOAT athlete?

Michael Jordan, hands down. And yes, I know I’m a Knicks fan, but MJ all the way. When I worked in the healthcare field, I had Jordan quotes all over my office. He is the epitome of dedication, perseverance and beating the odds. In my son’s room, I even have the poster of MJ with his arms stretched out.

What is your favorite Michael Jordan quote?

“Talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” You can relate that quote to any situation in life. When I used to work in the operating room, it took a team of surgeons and nurses to get the job done, [and now as an actress, it takes so many people with different roles to make everything come together].

Where did your motivation come from as a young single mom going back to school to become a nurse, and then later taking acting classes while still working in the health care field?

We all have our own hardships that act as a piece of motivation for us to push forward. I remember living in a shelter and using food stamps and getting treated like a piece of crap every time I went into the city for welfare. That treatment made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, but it also encouraged me to want to have my own and be independent. I could have chosen to do nothing [and accept the stereotypes associated with the labels that were given to me], but I chose to go back to school. No label can define me. I’m Dascha and I am a force.

What’s something you didn’t think you’d have to adjust to as a celebrity?

I never was able to buy things because I wanted to; it was always because I had to. Now I have the choice and can treat myself, but I even struggle with that because I’ve become conditioned to be fearful of losing [what I work for]. But I’ve gotten to the place where I’ve learned to embrace what I deserve.

When you were working at the hospital, why didn’t you tell anyone that you were also filming Orange Is The New Black?

Where I come from, we don’t say the things that we’re working on. [Sometimes] people don’t want to see you grow. When I’m working, I don’t speak about it. I just let it show for itself. All of my life, I’ve gotten negative feedback when I’ve said I wanted to be a singer, actress or a dancer. I’d hear, “Ahh, girl, that’s so hard … I don’t think you’re going to make it doing that.” So I don’t give them the opportunity to put that negative energy into the universe. I don’t have to tell everyone my goals, because at the end of the day, everyone wants to succeed but no one wants to see anyone else succeed. I stay quiet and keep my goals in my control and my protection.

How have you overcome insecurities?

It’s a process that you ideally try to overcome, but you’re always working on it. There are days that I feel ugly and fat, and I have to tell myself to cut it the hell out. I started acknowledging what I’m feeling and exploring why I’m feeling that way. I look back at my experiences growing up and it’s rooted from not feeling like I’m enough. [And in the present day] maybe it’s that I’m around a group of sophisticated people and I feel I don’t talk as proper as them or I’m at a table with models and I’m the only one eating bread. Those insecurities come about when I’m so focused on everything else and I’m not taking the time to be aware of myself. So now I stop, meditate, stop again and go.

Where does your courage come from?

It might be genetic because my mom [who died at 46 years old] was one courageous woman emigrating [from the Dominican Republic], and just her tenacity in every situation. My mom and dad are my heroes and have taught me to take advantage of the now in life.

I recently booked a film that I never thought that I would get. [I can’t say what it is yet.] It’s a small role, but it’s with someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I was so nervous that even my armpits were sweating. But I took a moment before I went on set and reminded myself, I am here because I deserve to be. You were brought to America by your parents to do whatever your heart wants to pursue, so take this moment to have the power and courage to take advantage of this moment. Fear is just one layer before your breakthrough. Give me a little bit of fear so I can beat it up and come out even stronger.

What does it mean to be an Afro-Latina in America?

There’s these labels and terms that we’ve created so people could understand their roots, what they identify with and where they come from. Even though I’m considered Latina, I’m really a Caribbean woman because I have African roots too. I love being a combination of pure melanin and having exaggerations in my body and movement.

But sometimes these labels are just a way of grouping individuals and putting people against each other — where it becomes about exclusivity instead of bringing people together. Growing up, the black community embraced me but not as much as I embraced them. It was always, “You’re not black, you’re Spanish,” but culturally I connected with them. It’s always been that constant battle but a lot of people feel that way. Even without racial differences, not everyone feels like they’re American too.

Tell me about your work with the D.R.E.A.M (Dominican Republic Education and Mentoring) Project?

I always wanted to do something for the youth in my home country, so I fell in love the D.R.E.A.M Project. The organization is kind of like a YMCA where the kids get education and job training. A lot of the kids are orphans and are growing up through hard times.

Together we’ve launched a theater arts program for these children. The talent that comes through these kids out of hardship is just amazing. The kids play instruments and are so good at so young. I knew we had to create a space to feed their talent so it could be used as a way to express themselves [and heal]. D.R.E.A.M Project has created a school [that they’ve named after me] and now these kids get to write their own script and tell their own story through performance.

Taye Diggs is working with us now too. I encourage people to take a trip to the Dominican Republic and share moments with these kids. It’s truly a remarkable experience.

A career in sports analytics busts another barrier for African-American women I’m in the game to change it, not to be part of the status quo

I was standing right outside of the team personnel entrance when time seemed to slow down. Was I in the wrong place? What if I dressed wrong? Maybe red lipstick was too bold. I’m 17. How in the world am I even standing here even if it is the wrong place?

After an excruciating wait of what could have been two or 200 minutes, the arena door opened and out walked my mentor Calder Hynes. “Hi, Tiffany? Welcome, let’s get you started for the night!” Before his current stint overseeing public relations for some of the world’s most valuable athletes at Wasserman, Hynes was one of the main points of contact for the then-New Orleans Hornets communications team, and graciously took on the role of educating yet another eager high school student in the art of game-night operations.

I’d wanted to take career day off — goof off after four long years of honors courses, two-a-day volleyball practices, and PE Accelerate (physical education for the competitive overachievers if you were wondering). Instead, I marched over to the event, up to the public relations team and asked if I could shadow for a regular-season night or two in order to get skin in this game that would, though I did not yet know it, be my future.

After a rundown of team responsibilities and introductory small talk, Hynes then handed me an all-access pass to the New Orleans Arena, now Smoothie King Center. “I have you assigned to shadow the guys who will be inputting stats while I attend to our celebrity guest for the night, Will Ferrell. I hope that’s OK?” Hynes directed.

“The guys who input the stats?” What about shadowing Will Ferrell? Why can’t that happen? But rather than the response I was thinking, I simply said; “That’s perfect.” I headed off to assist the Hornets game night stats crew disappointed, but determined to make the best of my time with the stats guys.

Following Hynes into an entryway of an 8-foot-by-10-foot space barely big enough for an area rug, I walked into what I noticed was a closet transformed into a makeshift office by dint of the two desktop computers displaying NBA and team websites, a collection of roster posters of the Honeybees dance team pinned to the wall and two men unlocking their gaze from the monitors to greet me.

The stats crew for game nights was in charge of getting box score updates into the hands of prominent front-office personnel during timeouts and halftime, and manual statistical inputs to the team website after the game.

It wasn’t until I started tagging along with said crew as they were handing out stats sheets during timeouts to Monty Williams, the head coach of the Hornets at the time, and entering the suite of former Hornets president Hugh Weber, for the halftime stats update to help with any last-minute team decisions that I realized the significance of the situation.

Never mind Will Ferrell. I’d discovered that stats were what I wanted to do with my life. I’d found a career … maybe even a calling. I now knew that these stat sheets that revealed everything from player on-court contributions to net efficiency were my golden ticket. With these, I could go anywhere … even to the front office of an NBA team. Analytics, coaching and development personnel.

Who should be the sixth man off the bench? How are players developing over time? Should a trade even be entertained?

Still the doubts persisted. Was I really in the right place? The room housing the stats guys were clearly last-minute resources the team scrambled to find. They looked tired … manually inputting stats until 1 a.m. with an emptied bag of Lay’s potato chips near the computers for a postmidnight snack. I was tired leaving the arena before the end of the game news conference. After all, it was still a school night.

Seven years later, I’m still in stats. Moving on from handing out numbers to crafting intelligent insights from those numbers is now my life as a sports analytics associate for ESPN. It is still the career I want but the “Am I in the right place” doubts have never gone away. Sometimes I feel as if they’ve amplified. I have mentors, supportive colleagues and a challenging and intellectually stimulating job that I know I’m good at and to which I can bring my best self. But I have no role model. I am an accidental standard-bearer for black women in sports statistics. The first woman of color on ESPN’s sports analytics team — the only one crunching numbers among all of statistics and information at ESPN. And the shortage of women who look like me hasn’t changed a whit since that day with the Hornets.

Choosing a career in sports had, in part, grown from my experience playing volleyball, basketball and swimming and my hypercompetitive relationship with my older brother Osby (Oz for short). The day I beat Oz in NCAA Football on PlayStation is a day I will never let him live down. But sports became an obsession after that night with the Hornets and still is. I knew then I didn’t want to be what the sports industry expected of me. I wasn’t going to take a job I didn’t feel fit me because it fit the societal expectations of female-dominated roles in sports.

Analytics would be my path. Damn the comments and consequences.

I was and am constantly asked about what I’ll do if I hit that glass ceiling, the infamous old boys’ club that generations of women have struggled to join. And like generations before me, I ignore the question and focus on the work — work that reveals clearly what I bring to my field and hope it does the trick.

I remember receiving a text earlier in my career. A colleague with significantly fewer qualifications than myself was asking for help on statistical methodology that would be used to evaluate him for an analytics position with one of the few NBA teams that were hiring. It was a job I’d also applied for through a well-acclaimed referral (and had heard nothing back). That silence would then turn into apologies followed up with “you’ll end up somewhere soon.”

If I’d known about the glass ceiling on that night in New Orleans, if I’d known how hard it is for women to break new ground in a field that hasn’t ever included them, I’m not sure I’d be in stats right now. But today, it is my work that combats gender and racial stereotypes when I tell people what I do for a living and it is my work that prepares me for the seemingly choreographed head snaps when I walk into a room full of men.

Analytics is my path and I’m not stepping away from it. With a little bit of luck and a more courage than I’d expected I’d need, I found my way to change the perception of what a woman can do in the sports world.

This respect that women, minorities, and frankly any human being should have in pursuing their purpose comes from running toward the gray. It comes from accepting the norm as merely a long inherited social custom to be considered and then rejected or accepted depending on what works for any individual. I chose rejection. By embracing what cultural differences set me apart from my team, I am able to create and quantify different insights that expand the usefulness of analytics.

Analytics is used mostly to help front offices or journalists to find those undervalued players, those Davidson College-Stephen Currys of the world. But what happens when we use analytics for stories about issues that go far beyond pure sports? The stories that intersect cultural experiences and sports. The very stories that create the tension behind the “stick to sports” label.

Basketball aside, maybe that’s using our metrics to calculate the total quarterback rating (Total QBR) or impact on a team’s football power index (FPI) of Colin Kaepernick vs. well, insert any injured NFL starting quarterback of your choosing. For the record, that would be the Kaepernick ranked 23rd in Total QBR for the 2016 season ahead of seven current starting quarterbacks, including the now-injured Carson Wentz of the Philadelphia Eagles.

Either way, analytics should be looked at as a conversation-starter, not ender. And in being just that, it uncovers the rudimentary answers to questions all of us have either had or haven’t thought were relevant, all while trying to strip bias from the equation. This is what I want all individuals to understand about what it is that I do and about what analytics can and will do, prejudices aside.

And yes, there are biases in analytics that I am fully aware of. The bias to strategically exclude racial, gender and educational minorities, or the biased belief that athletes are not bright enough to comprehend these analytical insights. Being that I, ironically, am a target for all four of these prejudices makes me the exception that proves the arguments for and against analytics. I find solace in the coming generations ready and already acting to squash preconceptions of African-Americans, women, athletes, and nonstatisticians. Though it may appear to be but slight progress with me being the lone African-American woman in sports analytics within ESPN, professional leagues – specifically the NBA – and our sports analytics industry as a whole are realizing the significance of not following the norm and following people who look like me.

Shane Battier for the Miami Heat. Aaron Blackshear for the Detroit Pistons. Curry and Andre Iguodala for the Bloomberg Players Technology Summit (the Summit). Rajiv Maheswaran for Second Spectrum. John Scott, Jahkeen Hoke, and John Drazan for 4th Family.

All are “minorities” moving into or helping other minorities move into analytics and data-tech, all while realizing their momentous influence on our industry. But most importantly, they are all building the future of our industry so the next stream of analytics looks like all of us. Specifically, 4th Family and its win in the research competition at our annual conference, what most call the meeting of the nerds – the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, for developing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education using basketball analytics for minorities in underprivileged schooling communities.

Curry and Iguodala are two African-American NBA players in the forefront of investing and all in the battle for startup equity among top venture capitalists interested in the tech right in the Warriors’ backyard, Silicon Valley. Using their own summit to invite other professional athletes to share in their sports tech capitalizing endeavors, my mind can’t help but wander to a player investing in the next startup that revolutionizes the way sports data is managed and how analytical insights are formed.

An investment with professional athletes as primary stakeholders in potential sports tech companies founded on tracking depth perception in arenas and stadiums for holographic experiences that will be used in their team practices. An investment that returns a double bottom line – strengthening on-court or on-field performance and a peek into franchise operations. Now that’s a real key to the city.

My key?

I have accepted my life detour into sports media with open arms, and have complete faith in the handful of women NBA front offices have progressively placed their confidence in. I am an extroverted sister navigating my way in this mostly introverted, analytics industry of men and a few women sprinkled about. I am accepting and learning from role models that do not look like me in order to catalyze change. And that is the exact reason that there is beauty in having no standard. I’m figuring out my own black girl magic.

‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ doesn’t tell the whole story of HBCUs, but it’s a start Documentary on PBS is the equivalent of an introductory survey course

A new PBS documentary about the nation’s historically black colleges and universities might just provide the best argument for a multihour, Ken Burns-type epic exploration of the subject.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities will air as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series on Feb. 19. Directed by Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution), Tell Them We Are Rising goes broad but not particularly deep as it attempts to recount the history of black higher education from slavery to the present day in an hour and 25 minutes.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics. The documentary arrives at a time when the future of many HBCUs is uncertain as schools face the compounding weight of decades of financial strain, growing competition for students and pressure to keep tuition costs down.

Tell Them is at its best when delving into the birth of the institutions, many of which were established with the help of government land grants after the Civil War. Nelson outlines the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington and briefly touches on the fact that in their infancies, many HBCUs were run by white presidents. While Nelson outlines the story of Fayette McKenzie, the Fisk University president who tried to ban any sort of social interaction between the sexes in 1924, he neglects to follow the legacy of McKenzie’s thinking, which shows up in the visitation policies on many a modern HBCU campus.

There are so many valuable, urgent story lines worth mining, and Tell Them simply doesn’t have the time to do them justice. The tradition of activism on HBCU campuses, which resulted in the creation of African-American studies programs and the de-Anglicization of many HCBU liberal arts programs also resulted in a deadly crackdown at Southern University. There’s the role fraternities and sororities such as Delta Sigma Theta, Alpha Kappa Alpha and Omega Psi Phi played in creating influential networks of black professionals. The legacy of protest hasn’t evaporated from modern HBCU campuses, but Tell Them falters in connecting past narratives to the present, whether it’s Howard University students protesting the George W. Bush administration or students nationwide criticizing their administrators for meeting with President Donald Trump. So much is curiously absent from the film, such as an exploration of the role Morehouse College played in shaping Martin Luther King Jr. and his contemporaries in the civil rights movement. Mary McCleod Bethune, the founder of what’s now Bethune-Cookman University and one of the chief architects of black higher education, is an afterthought.

It’s a useful primer for those who might not be familiar with HBCUs or their purpose, but Tell Them leaves much on the table when it comes to specifics.

Tell Them functions as an outline for what ought to be a deep-dive serialized documentary. Such a format would offer more opportunity to address questions such as what to make of the controversial legacy of the nation’s first black president when it comes to federal treatment of HBCUs. What challenges do they face from a current presidential administration that so far only seemed interested in convening the presidents of those institutions at the White House to use them as props? What are the modern issues students are facing at HBCUs, whether it’s the fight for queer visibility or addressing a national dilemma of campus sexual assault that presents unique challenges for HBCUs and their students?

Still, it’s understandable why we haven’t seen a splurge on such a subject. It’s expensive and time-consuming, and there are only a couple of networks (TV One and BET come to mind) that might be interested in the sort of exhaustive research I’m suggesting, and even then it’s a stretch. Maybe Netflix, with its seemingly endless pool of programming funds, would be willing. Maaaaaaybe.

Tell Them We Are Rising introduces the idea that HBCUs are under threat, and it certainly seems to support the idea of their continued existence. But aside from a broad history lesson, it stops short of offering much else.

Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.