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Young filmmakers explore America’s cultural identity

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The problem

But that spirit of togetherness didn’t necessarily empower the boys to stand up for their cultures.

“It was crazy how people would start making fun of their own culture or religion around some of the kids just to fit in,” remembers Ibidapo. “It was ridiculous.”

“Also, I didn’t understand a lot of things that people were saying that were subtly bad — I thought ‘BandB’ was like the Blues Brothers,” he adds. “I’m not blaming the kids.

“It’s just literally the culture of Stoneham. They were hearing these jokes from their parents.”

Garcia remembers becoming aware of the racist comments his peers would sling when he started working for his high school’s anti-defamation league in his junior and senior years. By the time the two went to college, both said they felt relieved at getting a break from that environment.

“I felt like I was dying slowly inside,” remembers Ibidapo.

Garcia headed north to Colby College in Maine, graduating in 2005 with a double major in Spanish history and Latin American literature and a minor in theater and dance. Ibidapo went to historically black Morehouse College in Atlanta, also graduating in 2005 with a degree in English.

At Morehouse, Ibidapo learned black history that he’d never encountered in high school, an education that spurred pride in his culture. When he came back to Stoneham, he says, he felt different — and angry.

“There’s such a rich history that was censored to me and the rest of my classmates,” he says. “We’re in a society where people just don’t know about African American history, especially on how African Americans contributed to our society.”

The process

To make money after college, Ibidapo and Garcia started promoting and videotaping parties. Soon, they were filming music videos, designing Web sites and creating promotional material.

“People saw our videos and wanted to come to our parties,” remembers Ibidapo.

A 2006 TV contest calling for 5-minute documentaries on social concerns changed the course of their business. Garcia videotaped Ibidapo talking for two hours about his high school experiences with discrimination. They missed the deadline for the contest, but when they watched the edited cut of the talk, they said, they knew they had something.

They started interviewing Stoneham residents and experts in cultural and social issues related to race, like Leonard Steinhorn, associate professor at the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C., and journalist Jeff Chang, author of the acclaimed book “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation.”

The documentary took shape in 2007 after an interview with Steinhorn provided their project’s unifying theme: It would be an effort to define America.

“One of the defining elements of America is written on our dollar bill: ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — ‘Out of many, one,’” says Steinhorn in the documentary. “America is an ideal that for centuries is trying to say that we welcome people of all backgrounds, all colors, all ethnicities, all ideas and ideologies, and we bring them together as one, as Americans, as people who believe in the fundamental principles of equality and freedom, and inclusion and tolerance.”

Garcia says he thinks relations in the U.S. still have a long way to go, due in large part to an overarching lack of empathy for people who are different — a lack frequently generated by ignorance.

Erica Frankenberg, a researcher for the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, says she believes Garcia is right.

“White students now are only about 57 percent of the population,” and that number is dropping, says Frankenberg. “If students are not getting any information in either history textbooks or the literature they are reading about the [other] 43 percent, they will have a very slim view of the kind of things that are important in our society.”

The practice

One important element is a more nuanced understanding of how discrimination itself has evolved over the years, according to Ibidapo.

“Racism in America is so prevalent today,” he says. “It’s just hidden … in subtleties. [Sometimes] it’s not what you say, but what you don’t say.”

James Herron, Ph.D., a linguistic and cultural anthropologist who teaches a course on race in the Americas at Harvard University, explains that the “old racism” of the 1960s — generally defined as a notion of inferiority related to natural characteristics of a group — is being replaced by a new kind. This more disguised brand first highlights a person’s virtues or weaknesses, then links those attributes to certain racial groups.

“For example, they would say, ‘Good people are hardworking … and honest,’” illustrates Herron. “And then they would say, ‘By the way, black people are not like that.’”

Ibidapo says there were not enough minority students at his high school to cause a stir when faced with such veiled insensitivity — and those that were there “didn’t speak up about it because they just wanted to be like everybody else,” he adds.

The filmmakers say Stoneham High has more racial and cultural diversity now than it did in their day. But tensions haven’t disappeared.

In 2006, Garcia and Ibidapo met with some Stoneham students. Two black students in the room “really opened up,” according to the filmmakers.

“It was very similar, still, how they felt singled out and how they saw many of these things going on in their hallways,” says Garcia. “Now they are more aware than we were, which is great, but still they are not speaking back.”

The prescription

The student discussions broadened the filmmakers’ goals. They created a classroom guide to help stimulate dialogue in schools and community centers about cultural identity, a project that became part of Ibidapo’s master’s thesis in multicultural education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, which he expects to finish this fall.

Other ideas followed. Ibidapo and Garcia created an educational service for companies interested in discussing diversity with employees, and they train executives how to deal with culturally uncomfortable situations. The filmmakers are also developing a pilot for a reality TV series about cultural identity, and are considering starting a nonprofit organization to foster discussions about diversity and inclusion.

Standing in front of the former New England Memorial Hospital, later renamed Boston Regional Medical Center and long since closed, Garcia and Ibidapo reminisce. The skeleton of the hospital building now overlooks acres of grass where only a decade ago, the filmmakers’ homes once stood.

Even though Ibidapo and Garcia have mixed feelings about their past in Stoneham, they feel much better about the present and are confident about the town’s future.

“Our cultural roots are a direct result of Stoneham,” says Garcia, who makes it clear that he enjoys living here. “The main purpose [of ‘Cultura Ijile’ is] to uplift, inspire and change — to show that we’re all the same.”