American Promise


In 1999, filmmakers Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson turned cameras on two families – including their own – as they enrolled their sons at a prestigious prep school in hopes that it would set their son on a path to success. Thirteen years later, the result is a feature-length documentary, American Promise, which provides a rare look into the lives of two middle class black families as they wrestle with the same questions all parents face as they navigate the ups and downs of race, class, parenthood and education.

Through a strategy targeting educators, parents and students, the film’s campaign has raised awareness of issues surrounding black male achievement. The film has been widely screened in schools, conferences and communities, covered multiple times by national outlets, and spurred the creation of 46 “Promise Clubs” run by parents. The film has been screened on Capitol Hill and at the UN, and the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans supported the campaign’s Black Male Achievement Week.

Production Team

  • Producers, Co-Directors: Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson
  • Executive Producers: POV | AMERICAN DOCUMENTARY, Dan Cogan, Simon Kilmurry, Cynthia Lopez
  • Impact producers and researchers: Active Voice, A Fourth Act, Khaleaph Luis (freelancer), Logan Projects, Picture Motion, POV, ro*co films, Six Foot Chipmunk


Independent Television Service (ITVS), Jerome Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, National Black Programming Consortium, New York State Council on the Arts, Open Society Foundations, POV, San Francisco Film Society, Sundance Documentary Fund, The Fledgling Fund, Tribeca Gucci Documentary Fund, plus individual donors via Kickstarter.

Key funder: The Ford Foundation

The filmmakers write:

“Early on in our strategy phase (mid 2011), the Ford Foundation was gracious enough to agree to hold quarterly check-ins at its offices with our main funders; Open Society Foundations Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) and the Fledgling Fund. 

In addition to those check-in meetings, the Ford Foundation, CBMA and the Fledgling Fund supported two brain trusts, two film launch meetings in D.C. and NYC, and two focus group sessions (with parents and youth) with our various partners. We found all of these events to be crucial to the roll out, strategy development, and execution phases of our campaign. The brain trusts established important buy-in from our national partners, who later worked closely with us on the development of our various outreach tools and community screenings. The trusts were also instrumental in providing very important feedback on our messaging, especially our final brain trust in 2012, which was held at the POV offices with experts and practitioners in the field. The organizations and individuals present provided key feedback on which messaging would most resonate with our partners and key stakeholders. 

As a result of that brain trust we were able to re-orient some of our messaging that directly led to much deeper trust and buy-in with our partners. The regular check ins also provided valuable information on other funders working in the field and potentially interested in our work. This information helped solidify our funding with the Kellogg Foundation. In addition to potential funding sources, the regular check ins we requested provided valuable feedback on the usefulness of our tools – for example we got important feedback from the Fledgling Fund regarding frameworks and templates for our mobile app aimed at behavior change.  The Fledgling Fund recommended we look at the health and fitness apps for potential applicability to our app. This information gave us an important behavior change framework to rely on as we developed the Promise Tracker.     

The film launch meetings supported by OSF’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement and held 6o days prior to our theatrical release were instrumental in confirming “adopt-a-screenings” with our partners. These meetings ensured that we obtained commitments from key partners to attend our theatrical screenings and organize post-screening panels involving their leadership and grassroots communities.  This proved to be a huge success for our theatrical roll out in our key cities.  The meetings also showed us where our geographical weaknesses were in terms of depth of our reach and where we should spend more time establishing stronger grassroots relationships.”


  • Production: $1.5 million
  • Outreach and Distribution: $1.3 million



The primary campaign goal for American Promise is to make a significant impact on the closing of the black male achievement gap in education. The filmmakers recognize that this will require a generation (or two) of activism to obtain, and have laid out a careful phased approach for playing a catalytic role in the larger Black male achievement movement. Their strategy involves:

  • Building partnerships with key national stakeholder groups already doing work on the ground,
  • Using these relationships to promote a national awareness about the key issues issues facing African-American boys and their families in the educational arena,
  • Continuing to engage the partners to collaborate in the creation and use of tools that can help shift behaviors

The team is committed to pursuing an evidence-based approach to outreach that will:

  • Foster deeper cultural sensitivity among educators by incorporating campaign tools into training;
  • Inform parents of African-American boys about how they can be more effective advocates for their children, deepen learning at home, take small steps to create large behavior changes, and conquer “stereotype threat”;
  • Elevate the importance of engaging African- American males in the process of their own achievement;
  • Support the empowerment of young African-American men by providing opportunities for dialogue, creative expression, and mentorship, and
  • Increase the awareness of the movement’s positive impact to the larger society.

Target location:
The film’s team targeted key US cities determined in part by the resources of partner groups, including New York, Washington D.C. and suburban VA and MD, Triangle region, NC, Jackson, MS, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Baltimore.

Target groups:
An initial campaign focus was teachers and parents of children between birth and grade sixth—the team has widened parameters in some cases based on the needs and resources of their partners. The filmmakers and their partners believe that real solutions to the achievement gap require the active involvement of three key stakeholder groups: parents/caregivers, educators and students. The filmmakers write that American Promise “interweaves perspectives from members of each of these groups throughout the film’s narrative, allowing the target audience to recognize elements of their own lives represented on screen.”

Partners: Key strategic partners in this ongoing campaign include United Way/NFL, Mocha Moms, National Urban League, College Board, A Better Chance, Teach for America, COSBOC, Great Schools, Concerned Black Men, 100 Black Men of America, BBBS of America, African American Leadership Forum, Friends School Network, America’s Promise Alliance, The Black Man Can, Teaching Tolerance, Facing History and Ourselves, National Parent Teacher Association, Jack and Jill of America, Policy Link/ Promise Neighborhoods ,White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans -Young Men’s Initiative, Mentoring, USA and American Graduate. Many other partners are involved on a more limited or regional basis to plan events, workshops and local leaders in communities.

How the Campaign Works

During the first two years, the team developed relationships with more than 50 national organizations that were working on the key issues the film highlighted. Over the subsequent two years the number of active grassroots and foundation participants has grown to more than 250 organizations including think tanks, teacher groups, municipal groups, and parent organizations dedicated to promoting awareness and sparking change.  

Extensive research was conducted both during the process of making the film, and provided the basis for producing campaign assets, including focus group research with educators, parents and caregivers, and students, and consultation of related academic research on Black male achievement. The early networking opportunity the campaign obtained through The Good Pitch New York City (2011), proved to be an important catalyst for outreach, triggering deeper relationships with new and current partners and more support from funders.

The filmmakers note: “the work associated with developing our partnerships is a crowning achievement yet it alone does not effectuate the change we desire.” As a result, between 2011 and 2014 and in partnership with stakeholders who met at four regional summits, they developed seven tools designed to help families, educators, and young people to discuss ways to better serve Black boys, and take actions that ensure that all young people are equipped with the same opportunities to succeed.

This toolkit includes a professional development guide for educators (developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance project), a youth workshop, a parent support guide, a companion book, Promises Kept published by Random House, and a mobile application for parents. Currently, the filmmakers are in phase three of their campaign and have completed, tested and released each of the tools, except for the mobile application, which is currently in beta testing phase.

Pivot points:

The filmmakers note that effective steps they took to move the campaign forward included:

  • Deciding to self-distribute theatrically, which “allowed for synergy between our outreach and distribution goals”— allowing them to meet with various stakeholders to obtain buy-in for the theatrical release;
  • Partnering with ro*co films to release the educational DVD, “and expand their story to schools across the country”;
  • Leaving the film festival circuit after winning a round of awards to focus on reaching the target audience through community screenings, conference screenings and panels and educational screenings;
  • Launching the Promises Kept book, which accelerated the momentum of the campaign and allowed partners to offer a tool to channel conversations after the screenings into concrete tangible actions individuals could take, using the book as a guide.

Research methods:

  • The team conducted two brain trust meetings, led by Active Voice, to help gather data around the field of Black Male Achievement.
  • They have developed post-screening surveys to measure impact, as well as surveys to measure the long-term effect and impact of the campaign over the coming 6 to 12 months.
  • The film’s web site is designed to include integrated polling questions on various web pages that allow the team to capture user attitudes and knowledge about the issues raised in the film and web site content.
  • Currently they are working with the interactive storyteller, Andrew Devigal, and Oregon State University to use mobile phones to assess audience goers’ emotional responses and produce real-time digital data visualization of those responses. This mobile tool, HARVIS, is being piloted with American Promise and was recently presented at the Tribeca Interactive Summit.

Next steps:

The team is currently refining mobile/digital outreach tools and related research. This September 2nd, 2014, the film will be released digitally via Cinedigm. An agreement is currently in place with Netflix Foreign Territories, and the film will be available digitally in select foreign territories, including France, the UK and certain territories in Latin America starting June 2014. An Advancing the Promise Tour is also being planned for the Fall, which includes multiple day workshops and conversations in over 13 cities across the country.


Change in Awareness


  • Premiere: Sundance Film Festival World Premiere on January 21st, 2013
  • Estimated viewing numbers for the POV airing include 1,523,000 cumulative audience, with a rating in NY that was double the usual for that time slot. Via the PBS video player as of 3/6/14, there have been 57,133 full film plays.
  • The film has been released theatrically across 40 cities, with over 600 theatrical screenings to date.
  • An educational DVD package was released in November—as of March, 250 had been sold. 


  • 2013 Sundance Film Festival — Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Filmmaking
  • 2013 Full Frame Film Festival — Grand Jury Prize Winner
  • New York Film Festival — Official 2013 Main Slate Selection

Targeted outreach:

The filmmakers write: “We thought carefully about what types of awareness shifts would be needed to narrow the black male achievement gap in education. Ultimately, we recognized that a personal connection and elevated sense of awareness of the conditions would have to occur within each individual in order to compel them to act, and transform attitudes.” Goals for each group include:

  • Young people: to support a deeper understanding of implicit bias/unconscious racism and stereotype threat, and provide them with the tools to better recognize these factors in their daily life.
  • Parents and caregivers: to help them recognize that their experiences are not happening in isolation, and that there are resources and strategies available to better support the socio-emotional health and academic success of their sons.
  • Educators: More than 80% of educators in the country are white middle class females. The filmmakers aimed “to connect teachers to important tools that could make them more aware of the unique social and emotional needs of black boys.”

Screening attendees:

The film has received over 1200 screening requests, been screened at more than 20 national conferences on education and race relations. More than 600 university/school screenings have been booked and the POV community screenings program has confirmed greater than 298 free community screenings since February 2014. Estimated attendance:

  • Strategic Influencer: many
  • 298 Community Screenings POV: 14,900
  • 150 Rada Film Group screenings: 15,000
  • 20 Educational Conferences: 5,000
  • 450 Educational Screenings: 112,500


The filmmakers write that the American Promise campaign has “sparked a multitude of micro-conversations in communities across the United States that go well beyond our campaign, linking parents, caregivers, committed educators, and concerned advocates with the power of these deeply personal issues…for many audience members, the film is a transformative witnessing tool, revealing an experience that many people experience intimately and in the privacy of their home life.” Audience polls reveal that about 87% agreed that they learned something new from the film screening, while about 64% agreed that the film deepened their understanding of the issues presented.

Digital/Mobile Outreach

  • Primary site: —61,930 unique visitors since January 2013
  • Social media platforms:
    • Facebook—10,649 likes as of May 29, 2014
    • Twitter—7,998 followers as of May 6, 2014
    • Online distribution platforms: YouTube, Vimeo, PBS Player, POV web site

Notable online responses:
An Atlantic article featuring the film and an interview with the filmmakers, generated 18,000 Facebook posts as well as a critical examination of the issues boys and girls of color face in preparatory schools. The team created the #BMAWeek (Black Male Achievement Week) to rally support for PBS premiere. Supported by over 80 offline events, the #BMAWEEK Twitter chat had over 619 organizations and individuals in participation. On the day after the PBS broadcast, POV organized an Ovee chat. The chat broke all prior POV OVEE participation records.

Key Press Mentions:

TV—CBS, MSNBC, NBC (Carson Daly Show), CNN (Anderson Cooper- 360), PBS, BBC, over 40 local station vignettes, five separate NPR broadcasts (The Story, Market Place with Kai Risdal, Tell Me More with Michel Martin, Leonard Lopate and All Things Considered), the BBC. Print:  The Atlantic, The New York Times, multiple articles in Essence, Jet Magazine, Ebony and O Magazine.

Change in Behavior

The filmmakers note: “Both our website and mobile applications have been designed to work in conjunction to inform and ultimately change behavior using concepts developed by the Stanford Captology Laboratory and the “tiny steps” behavioral modification work of Professor B.J. Fogg.” The team is midway through an ambitious data gathering effort, designed to assess both medium- and long-term behavior changes by target audiences. Anecdotally, they report that “parent stakeholder groups in New York City and Corvallis Oregon, through the creation of Promise Clubs, are implementing changes in their direct interactions with their child’s schools and teachers — from increasing the number of direct interactions with teachers and discussing their child’s experience in the classroom, to parents working with school administrators to create inclusion, equity and diversity groups within their schools where none existed prior to the screening of American Promise.


  • The filmmakers write: “Anticipating an emotionally charged and highly motivated audience, we designed readymade tools for our target stakeholders.” Today, most viewers leave a screening with a clear action/ask that is supported by extensive research in behavior change.
  • Through highly engaged dialogue before, during, and after screenings, they “have been able to mobilize parents educators and advocates by building a sense of connectivity and timeliness. This film has helped empower parents to collect, train, and work together for universal changes that establish an environment where their children can be successful and healthy.”
  • Adopt-A-Screening efforts allowed audience members and partner organizations to become involved with distribution.
  • The team partnered with Tugg, a web-platform that allows individuals and organizations to bring the film to their local theaters.
  • They also held a crowd-sourced funding campaign through Kickstarter to secure funds for post-production.


Since the campaign’s launch, 46 Promise Clubs (self-run advocacy groups for parents and caregivers) have been created. After a screening organized by United Way, parents in chapters across the country have rented out theaters in their community to host additional screenings. The filmmakers report: “We also frequently see a rise in additional screening requests after every community screening, which increases the opportunity to build awareness and find new advocates.”

Political impact

  • The team has engaged with a number of policymakers and think tanks to raise awareness of issues related to Black male achievement, including Policy Link, the California State Legislature, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the New York City Young Men’s Initiative and the White House Initiative on African American Excellence.
  • The film was screened on Capitol Hill, sponsored by Representative Fudge, Ohio (11th District, D).
  • The film screened at the 25th United Nations Human Rights Council Convening in Geneva in March 2014.


The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans supported Black Male Achievement Week. Several statewide boards of education, school systems and educators have committed to using the team’s Professional Development Modules for educators, and in North Carolina, the State Department of Public Instruction has committed to scheduling 100 screenings of the film over the next year.

Corporate Impact


The filmmakers report: “We wanted our screenings to encourage employees at various corporations to analyze the role that implicit bias plays in their organization.”


The conversations have been “very fruitful.” The team has screened and conducted panel discussions/ talks at Goldman Sachs, PriceWaterhouseCooper, BNP Paribas, Google, and Deutsche Bank.

Building Capacity

American Promise has become a resource for partner organizations to rally and educate constituents, hold conversations, and raise the profile of the issues they champion:

  • Nationwide Black Male Achievement Week Campaign, or #BMAWeek was so successful that several partner organizations have committed to making it a recurring annual event each February.
  • Last summer, the team coordinated a series of screening with Teach For America (TFA), including a youth-facilitated workshop. From there, local TFA chapters adopted screenings in New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. TFA provided promotional support, and hosted a #DreamRiseDo Twitter chat with the filmmakers and a Google Hangout with singer John Legend. TFA has also committed to integrating their professional development guide into their summer teacher summit sessions.
  • The partnership between American Promise and United Way began by engaging students during the summer to address the summer learning gap through the use of the American Promise Summer Learning Discussion Guide, developed with the help of the Campaign for Grade Level Reading and the National Summer Learning Association. The team facilitated 7 strategic screenings in low-income areas and coordinated a live Google Hangout online with United Way, the NFL, and the American Promise filmmakers. As United Way Program Manager Kate Bauer has stated, “The opportunity for conversation provided by community viewings of “American Promise” has been a unique doorway to open, honest dialogue with varied stakeholders throughout our area.”