Two years ago when she was a sophomore, Katie Ribant decided to take a new summer class at Webster Groves High School in St. Louis. It was called 'Civil Rights Journey,' and was taught by Julie Burchett, a teacher whose class Ribant had taken before and who she says first sparked her interest in the civil rights movement.
No one at Webster Groves had taken the class before — the school offered it as part of a new "experiential learning" program — so Ribant convinced her friends Jamie Garland and Hannah Davidson to take it with her. They were given a camera and a project: plan and shoot a 10-minute film on the civil rights movement during a trip to the South. The goal was to help the students "learn by doing."
In the middle of that trip, their goal developed. What was originally going to be a 10-minute video clip turned into Colorblind, a 30-minute documentary, and what was just meant to earn them an ‘A’ in Burchett’s class earned them a showing at the Jubilee Film Festival in Selma, Alabama and won them the Princeton Prize in Race Relations.
Months before the attention and accolades, the group decided that they wanted their film to answer a simple question: Would racism exist if the world were colorblind?
The group made the rounds through a number of historical spots and museums, interviewing as many people as they could. Those conversations reshaped both their film and their perspective on civil rights.
“After getting the chance to experience it all, we changed our minds and decided that we do need to notice each other’s color and embrace what they have to offer,” Garland says. “We wanted the film to reflect how we changed our mind so the audience could realize it, too.”
The documentary is part history lesson and part personal reflection. The teens used historical photos from famous events such as the Montgomery bus boycott and wove in interviews with civil rights activists as well as their own personal reflections from the trip.
“Whether it was some famous activist or just an everyday person who lived through the movement, their stories moved us,” Ribant says. “The things they saw — it’s not the kind of stuff you read about in textbooks.”
A chance meeting with a co-director for the Jubilee Film Festival led the students to submit their film to the festival, and they were eventually invited to present Colorblind in Selma in the spring of 2011.
“After we found out, we realized we were the only student film that was being featured in the whole festival,” Davidson says. “That was really exciting, but also really scary. Our movie was up there with a bunch of other movies that were made by professionals.”
In the fall, as the girls began their senior year, they decided to apply for the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. They won.
“We were so excited,” Davidson says. “We knew that what we had done was pretty cool, but when you have a place like Princeton tell you that you’ve helped people and recognize you for it, that’s pretty awesome.”
For Burchett, seeing her students learn and grow and share their findings with others was one of the highlights of her teaching career.
“This was learning that was taking place in the real world that can’t happen in the classroom,” Burchett said. “I was really so proud of them.”
For the students, making the film wasn’t enough: they wanted to spread the message of acceptance and diversity. The girls shared the film with numerous student groups, churches and community groups in the St. Louis area and are continuing to field requests to present the film and talk about their experiences.
Although the three will split up to begin their college careers this fall — Ribant at College of Charleston, Garland at Truman State University and Davidson at the University of Kansas — none of them think they’ll ever lose their passion for civil rights after making Colorblind.
“It was an amazing feeling to do something like this. It reminds you that there are plenty of everyday people who believe in and work toward tolerance and equality, just like we do,” Ribant says.
“I consider these young women part of the civil rights movement today,” said their teacher, Julie Burchett, who mentored them along the way. “They are helping spread the word of tolerance and diversity.”
This story originally appeared in our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store.