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Alexandra Odum pictured smiling on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus.

Alexandra Odom won a Graduate School award for her role in a documentary film focusing on the achievement gap between white and Black students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. (photo by Donn Young)

Adding nuance to incomplete narratives

Can pinpointing the right narrative for a documentary lead to addressing the achievement gap in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School System?

The first time Alexandra Odom thought critically about her own history education, she was reading a book about the Montgomery bus boycotts — specifically, reading the names of all the women involved.

“People always reference Martin Luther King Jr., but they don’t think about the women at the forefront of that movement,” said Odom. “So many things that are taught about our history are incomplete. Thinking about that got me interested in finding connections between the past and present.”

Odom, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of history, has dedicated her academic career to recognizing the lesser-known stories of Black communities in the United States, and how those experiences influence present-day circumstances.

Most recently, she received a Graduate School Impact Award for her contributions to I’m Smart, Too, a local documentary project focused on the achievement gap between white and Black students in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district, and the disenfranchisement Black children have experienced since integration began 50 years ago.

Odom is one of eight people on the documentary team, which also includes UNC students Aubrey Patti, Jeremiah Rhodes and Darian Woehr.

“We are not the first people to talk about desegregation or these ongoing problems,” she noted. “With this project, we’re hoping to add to the reservoir of sources that already exists and present something that can contribute to conversations as these communities move forward.”

While Odom joined the project as a historical consultant, she did a little bit of everything, from studying archival material and reviewing transcripts of interviews to working on the website and talking with community members.

But perhaps her biggest contribution was helping to formulate the narrative for the film.

“As a historian, one of the things I have more experience with is taking a look at primary and secondary sources and creating a coherent historical narrative,” Odom said. “We wanted it to be clear in the film that the current situation is uniquely tied to the history that exists in this district.”

After receiving a department of history Clein Fellowship in 2019, Odom dedicated her summer to working on the documentary’s narrative, alongside lead producer Kim Talikoff.

Using Talikoff’s dining room as a makeshift studio, the two women cut out various quotes from transcribed interviews, taped story boards to the walls, and then rearranged them to visualize the narrative of the documentary.

But formulating a storyline that looked and felt right to the producers of the film was not the point — it was ensuring the narrative accurately reflected the experiences of their interview subjects. As they went through the editing process, Odom and others on the team checked in with community members, asking for their feedback on different versions.

“We want to ensure the people whose stories are being told feel as though we’re handling them with care,” she said. “And that we’re accurately presenting what they’re telling us.”

Since the completion of the film, the team has partnered with local organizations to host film viewings and panel discussions.

After she received an Impact Award for her role in the documentary — the awards are annually given for graduate research that impacts the state — colleagues, friends and acquaintances at UNC have reached out to congratulate Odom. She says the praise feels misdirected.

“I really want the focus to be on the community and the conversations they are having because of this project. It’s important to shed light on the people who have been doing and will continue doing the work.”

By Mary Lide Parker ’10