Even the Medford High School teenagers had never heard the statistics they would be reciting in the public service announcement about young black men just like them.
One out of three goes to college. Three out of four are drug free. Five out of nine have jobs. Seven out of eight are not teenage fathers. Eleven out of 12 finish high school.
“It was a bit of an eye-opener,” said 17-year-old Martin Seck, who everyone, including his mother, calls Slim.
“It really brought light to what really goes on in the African community,” interrupted his friend Abdi Jama, also 17.
“The African-American community,” corrected Seck.
The poignant 30-second video, released last week by the Mystic Valley Area Branch of the NAACP, opens with three young black men sitting on a stoop as one says, “I am a statistic.” The group grows with each statistic given until it concludes with each of them saying, “I have a purpose, and that’s a fact I’m proud of.”
The ad, titled “Statistic,” was the brainchild of Jack McGoldrick a Medford-based marketing executive, who said the idea came to him years ago while working in New York. He came across the federal statistics from such agencies as the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services, while doing research for an antidrug campaign, and they stuck with him.
He moved to Medford about two years ago, met Neil Osborne, president of the local NAACP branch, and mentioned the idea in passing.
Then a series of events began to unfold, embroiling the nation in a debate about race, policing, and inequality.
In July, Eric Garner was killed by a New York City police officer administering a banned chokehold. A month later, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparking a series of protests – some violent – that escalated in November when a grand jury failed to indict the officer, Darren Wilson.
Weeks after the grand jury decision in Missouri, a grand jury in New York failed to indict the officer in the Garner case.
Nationwide protests followed, with people from New York to Oakland taking to the streets, and the “Black Lives Matter” campaign took root.
“So much of the conversation nationally has been about young African-Americans being shot by white police officers, and underlying that is that there is a certain fear of young black men,” Osborne said. “For us, it was: Let’s reframe the conversation around young African-American, black men. This creates a different starting point.”
Osborne and McGoldrick say the hope is that the video goes viral, helping to spark a social media movement around #Iamastatistic. They are sharing it on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
The video was designed to be used by other branches of the NAACP in New England, Osborne said. The five-second tag at the end promoting the Mystic Valley branch can be swapped out and replaced with another branch’s information.
“It’s a way to reach some new individual who may not be paying attention,” Osborne said.
Months after filming the ad, the figures have stuck with the boys.
“I remember them all,” said Seck, who rounded up the group of young men who participated, all of whom go to school with him but one, a student in Malden. They each received $10 for their work.
Even though these young men mirror the numbers given in the public service announcement, they were more familiar with other statistics that do not necessarily represent their reality.
To Max Tilus, a 17-year-old senior, it feels like his peers are only discussed in unfavorable ways.
“It seems like there’s always been a negative light on the black race: ‘They’re the one’s doing the drugs. They’re the one’s doing the crime,’ ” he said.
Jama agreed, saying he was familiar with the numbers about the disproportionate number of black and Latino men in prison compared with whites but not about the black men and women who pursue higher education.
“But my sister and my brother, they are African-American and they went to college, so that hit me,” he said.
The teens said they are sharing the video with their social networks, and a rough cut of the video was used to spark a discussion in history class about race in America.
They talked about racial profiling. They talked about unconscious racial bias. They talked about the split-second decisions that police officers must make.
“Some people were really for the cop and not for the kid,” Slim said, with one student asking, “How do you think the cop feels?”
But despite the gravity of the subject matter and the pride felt in participating in something substantive, the participants are still teenage boys. And so, they had more than a bit of fun while filming.
“It was a little different — I’m not going to lie — trying to keep a straight face,” Tilus said.
“It was a struggle,” 16-year-old Sebastien Allien added.
“It just turned into a comedy show,” said Seck.
But do not confuse a little fun for a lack of seriousness about their mission. This video, the conversations it sparked, and other students’ “Black Lives Matter” protests were eye-opening, they said.
“Here, it’s so diverse,” Allien said about his school. “For me, it was shocking to see some people’s reaction.”
Akilah Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.