Vicki Abeles began her career as a Wall Street lawyer, but turned filmmaker in 2007 when she began to take note of a disturbing trend in her San Francisco Bay Area community.
Everywhere, it seemed, families, teachers and children were wrestling with a silent epidemic of school stress and academic burnout. Her own kids—then in elementary and middle school—began complaining of homework-induced headaches and test anxiety. Parent education meetings were rife with tales of rampant cheating, over-scheduling and abuse of “study drugs” like Adderall and Ritalin. And then came the horrifying news of a local 13-year-old, who took her own life after receiving a poor grade on a math test.
Abeles was moved to pick up a camera and begin what would become a two-year investigation into the nationwide problem of America’s pressure-cooker culture and education system—and the dangerous toll it takes on children and their families.
Premiering in 2009, the finished film, “Race to Nowhere” has since been screened in more than 7,000 schools, universities, cinemas, hospitals, corporations, education and health conferences and community centers across the US, to a cumulative audience of more than one million. More striking, it has become the centerpiece of a nationwide, grassroots movement for education reform—in part because of Abeles’ unique pursuit of community-driven distribution for the film.
“When you step outside the conventional distribution approach and encourage audiences to engage with film not as consumers but as activists and stakeholders, you begin to see the incredible power of documentary to effect change in our communities,” Abeles says. The distribution approach is part of a deliberate strategy to enhance real-time, community engagement with the film to inspire awareness and action.
The strategy has indeed worked. Thousands of schools have used the film to jump-start conversation about homework policies, testing practices, schools schedules, healthy balance for students, college admission, AP courses, tutoring, and academic integrity. Many of these have already implemented significant changes in the wake of their screenings—from Walter Payton High School in Chicago, which eliminated all homework over holiday breaks, to The Emery-Weiner School in Houston, which has shifted to a later school start time.
Abeles says these kinds of adjustments are crucial if we are to raise children who are confident, contributing, healthy citizens. But her nonprofit aims to go much further. “For truly revolutionizing change to happen in our schools and families,” she says, “we need to all come together, community by community, to say that our children’s well-being comes first—and well before the ‘perfect’ college acceptance, before the championship soccer game, before the straight-A report card. We need to rally together as a whole community of parents, coaches, educators, administrators, lawmakers and students to upend our cultural definitions of ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ to include health, resilience, curiosity, relationships… all the intangibles of a meaningful and rewarding childhood and adulthood.”
Apart from her ongoing work on “Race to Nowhere”, Abeles continues to produce, direct and consult on films examining issues affecting children, women and families. She is in production on an education documentary featuring leaders and schools at the vanguard of educational reform. Release of the film is expected in late 2014.