Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. It was July 2016, and the list of Black men and women killed by police had grown by two names in just two days.
For teacher and producer Brandi Webb, those names were the last straw. She began work on a passion project, creating a film that would illustrate the violence and oppression experienced by people of color in the U.S. Her idea was to place the country on trial using its own system of justice and laws.
“I wanted to throw the government’s own book right back at them,” said Webb. She spent four years gathering evidence on police brutality, incarceration, the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., the involvement of the federal government in the assassinations of Black civil rights leaders, and more.
By examining history with a criminal law book at hand, Webb found evidence to charge the U.S. with kidnapping, child abuse, cruel and unusual punishment, harassment and stalking, and manslaughter, among other offenses. She compiled the charges and released her film, Betrayal of a Nation, in 2021.
Part documentary, part dramatic storytelling, the film’s unique format and premise caught the attention of teachers, who recognized that Webb’s work could be impactful in the classroom. For a year and a half, Webb collaborated with educators to create the 3E Program for Social Justice and Change, which begins its official roll out on November 15.
The 3E Program aims to teach unfiltered American history by combining ethics, empathy, and empowerment, the three Es. Meeting the New York state standards for U.S. history, the 3E Program consists of lesson plans, assessments, and accompanying clips from the film, which can be taught in middle school, high school, homeschooling, or even outside of education for professional training. Participants are asked to respond to questions before and after broaching each new subject to assess the lesson’s impact, which Webb said is key to ensuring the program is a success.
“I want measured results,” said Webb. “I want this program to be impactful, to change mindsets. I’m hoping for a positive change. I want to create a new legacy free from historical omission and distortion.”
All instruction will be virtual, live, and accessible across the country. Webb said she hopes the 3E Program will offer learners, young and old alike, a chance to gain critical reasoning skills while tackling their implicit biases. Students should come away with the tools to advocate for themselves and their community, contrasting the country’s dark past with a brighter future.
“Our history with America is an ugly one, but we can all change it,” said Webb. “It’s not just about learning this awful history, it’s about learning and understanding, so that we can move forward. You have to learn how to advocate for yourself and for your community.”
Webb cocreated the 3E Program with retired teacher Melody Michaux and Philip Panaritis, former director of social studies at the New York City Department of Education. Webb and Michaux, two Black women, transformed Webb’s film into lessons and lectures, while Panaritis helped guide them towards language that would invite all participants into the discussion.
“We went over a lot of semantics. We want the message to get through, so how do you say something in a way that could actually get through to an individual,” asked Webb. “We made sure we weren’t telling anyone what to think or how to feel, we just provide the evidence, and the [learner] will come up with their own conclusions.”
Webb wasn’t always interested in history. Growing up on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, she found most of her history classes boring, and she was much more interested in theater and the arts. But she began to appreciate history more when she attended Clark Atlanta University, a Historically Black College and University in Georgia, where she learned just how much of America was built and influenced by Black people.
Learning the history that had been left out of her history books, even the dark parts, gave her a sense of pride. She now hopes that feeling will spread to those who watch the film, or take the course designed around it, as they learn just how much Black Americans and people of color have endured and, importantly, survived.
“I've always fought for the underdog. I've always questioned things when they just didn't seem right,” said Webb. “With the film, my goal was to motivate people, to make people aware of all the injustices, the history, so they can understand and see the bigger picture of what our country really is and understand that. To figure out what part they can play in the fight for liberation and freedom and justice and take a step towards unity.”
Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].