With unprecedented access over the course of a year, the Love Them First: Lessons from Lucy Laney Elementary documentary follows the determination of a courageous north Minneapolis school principal, Mauri Friestleben, as she sets out to undo history.
Lucy Laney Elementary has been on the state’s failing list for more than two decades. An estimated 90 percent of its students are Black and living below the poverty line in a state with the largest achievement gap between Black and white students in the nation. But under Friestleben’s leadership, student test scores began to rise for the first time, an achievement that sparked curiosity in a KARE storytelling team.
How ‘Love Them First’ Began
This celebrated documentary focusing on the educational disruptor evolved from a humble local news series with a bold idea. As a local reporter, Lindsey Seavert along with photojournalist Ben Garvin, discovered Lucy Laney Elementary while on assignment. They were moved by what they witnessed inside the school and embarked on a journey to provide greater context and depth into this often-misunderstood educational disparity within a neighborhood suffering from a narrative of poverty and violence.
After gaining permission from newsroom leaders, the Minneapolis school district, and Lucy Laney educators—all of them also taking a risk and saying ‘yes’—this storytelling duo embedded for one year with Lucy Laney students and staff, spending three days a week inside the school, filming with both staff and students.
Yet, even with the access and powerful individual stories, the documentary project was a test of trust with the community. As white journalists covering a community of color, the team listened with intention and held diverse community focus groups to ensure it authentically represented north Minneapolis.
All of these efforts slowly built trust with students and staff, gathering their personal stories of heartbreak as well as hopeful stories of triumph. Seavert and Garvin listened quietly and documented visuals to reflect a deep intimacy in the raw interviews, remarkable moments and stunning still photography of children.
All involved knew the powerful material deserved broader storytelling, especially after the school's standardized test score rankings delivered an unforeseen surprise at the end of the year. The 90-minute documentary that followed does not seek to solve the problem of the achievement gap, but rather it looks to empower others to raise critical questions and revolutionize education for children everywhere.
Honors and Impact
Love Them First has played before dozens of sold-out theatrical audiences, in front of lawmakers at the Minnesota State Capitol, broadcast across 35 TEGNA-owned television stations across the country and showcased at film festivals across the United States.
Since that debut, Love Them First has received more than a dozen film festival awards nationwide and was the highest-grossing film in the 38-year history of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival. Moreover, this documentary created a new footprint for documentary films with a first-of-its-kind new content model for local journalism organizations.
In January 2020, Love Them First received the honor of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award who described why the film was deserving of the award: "This gem of a documentary explored universal issues of race and poverty through the intimate portrait of a struggling elementary school and its inspiring principal,” the duPont-Columbia award jurors wrote.
This hope-filled story has even broken the model of the streaming industry when approached by Amazon Prime Video, thanks to its very passionate fanbase.
Changing Education for All Children
The documentary continues to change the conversation among educators and citizens coast-to-coast, looking for best practices to teach children experiencing high stress and trauma. This first-time filmmaking team has fielded hundreds of requests from school districts across the country, demanding screenings. The film has been applied into collegiate educational curriculum, featured at national education conferences and utilized at countless education staff development workshops. To accommodate ongoing discussions nationwide, a free discussion guide is available at www.lovethemfirst.com to foster impactful, hopeful and even disruptive conversations in other communities facing educational gaps.
The documentary may be complete, but the real work has hardly begun. The racial education gap is now a defining 21st century challenge as whites make up less than half of America’s K-12 students. Every community has a failing school. Love Them First showcases what is possible when we say ‘yes’, when we courageously, collectively choose love and hope and embrace all children as our own regardless of the zip code, test score, or lasting label.
As principal Friestleben once told us, “If you are in this work, you are in it to change the world.”