Let The Little Light Shine, directed and produced by Kevin Shaw, documents the battle between a predominantly Black school, National Teachers Academy (NTA), and the encroaching gentrification. The documentary focuses on the parents, students, and principal of NTA but also covers the school’s initial struggles. Let The Little Light Shine shows an authentic look at a grassroots movement to save a school; a look at the politics, fake change, and catering to white people that places undue pain on Black people. 

Rampant Discriminatory School Closings

Let The Little Light Shine documentary still of Black woman holding a sign that says Black Students Matter
Let The Little Light Shine documentary still

This documentary may leave audiences seething at specific points because resources are already nonexistent for schools with Black and Brown students. To cap it off, when those same schools—starved of the resources to improve—underperform, they are the first on the chopping block for school closings. In Chicago, Illinois, as Let The Little Light Shine states in its opening, 49 elementary schools closed in 2013, most of which were in primarily Black and Brown neighborhoods. The excuse the CPS (Chicago Public Schools) used was either the school underperformed or underutilized. That is not the case with NTA.

As more white people moved to South Loop over a couple of decades, there were two schools their kids could attend; South Loop Elementary or NTA. NTA is a high-performing school, churning out the brightest Black students. So, many white families opted to send their kids to overcrowded South Loop Elementary School. Although the majority of students are non-white, more white students are present there than at NTA. But when white people want something, their expedient solution is to take from Black and Brown people. The PDNA (Prairie District Neighborhood Alliance) put pressure on politicians to convert NTA into a high school. 

Let The Little Light Shine Showcases Collective Power and Collective Prejudice

Let The Little Light Shine still of a Black woman holding a bullhorn while fellow protesters stand behind her.
Let The Little Light Shine still

They interview Principal Isaac Castelaz, parents like Elisabeth Greer, who spearhead the movement, Chance the Rapper, and members of their opposition, PDNA. Elisabeth Greer talks about the anger many Black parents feel when society views them and their children’s existence as worth less. That galvanizes her into taking a stand. With the help and passion of other parents plus students, they protest, disrupt CPS meetings, and demand people listen. The documentary does not feel dramatized or exaggerated. Kevin Shaw lets people speak, and audiences can judge for themselves. But it is apparent that CPS has a callous disregard for Black youths. 

Let The Little Light Shine does not only focus on the mission to stop NTA’s closing. The documentary shows students’ love for their school and how a school can become something more: a community. There are people whose families grew up for generations there. They show that Principal Castelaz beginning at the school was not the best. But he develops and changes to help students he knows have a different lived experience from his own. They show time spent with the students protesting and enjoying their day-to-day at NTA. 

Tina Feldstein, a PDNA member who sees herself as “larger than” an activist akin to Daniel Burnham, lauds herself as a “mover of people.” Yet all her comments about people and community ignore the people and community affected. She is that typical white savior who speaks over Black people because she knows best. Alongside John Jacoby, a fellow South Loop PDNA member, he and Tina took their dialogue from the White Deflection Handbook. For them, it is always about their “intent,” ignoring that intent does not trump impact. John even calls the arguments against PDNA’s push to close the National Teachers Academy racist, demonstrating he has no concept of racism. Racism only flows one way—snow does not roll uphill.  

A Vital Look At Racism and Classism In Action

Let The Little Light Shine still
Let The Little Light Shine still

The conflict between NTA and PDNA in Let The Little Light Shine is the national racial and economic conflict occurring on a local level. For many who watch, the anger is almost stifling at times. As you watch the School Board President Frank Clark ask why the kids feel like they are closing the school, you have to wonder if they ask questions like these to inspire anger. After all, converting the NTA to a high school closes it for all elementary school students. It is frustrating when they say they vote based on the information from experts when they should be taking in whether experts have an agenda, and listening to the community the decision disenfranchises. 

There are a lot of documentaries, but there is more than enough room for Let The Little Light Shine, as there are still not enough documentaries that show how national prejudices impact smaller communities. Documentaries like this personalize the experiences, focusing on inequities and, hopefully, galvanize people (young and old) to fight. It also enlightens viewers about similarities within different cities, aesthetic differences aside. Let The Little Light Shine delivers a larger message about justice, activism, community, racism, and classism in this small fight that impacts these children’s lives. 

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