The Pushouts

"I was in prison before I was even born." So begins the story of Dr. Victor Rios who, by 15, was a high school “dropout" and gang member with multiple felony convictions and a death wish. But when a teacher’s quiet persistence, a mentor’s moral conviction and his best friend’s murder converge, Rios’s path takes an unexpected turn. Through Rios’s unusual and deeply personal lens and with footage of his life stretching back 25 years to when he was still in a gang, THE PUSHOUTS interrogates crucial questions of race, class & power as well as the promise and perils of education at a particularly urgent time.

THE PUSHOUTS explores the remarkable story of Victor Rios’ evolution from school pushout and gang member to UC professor, author and thought leader on the school-to-prison pipeline via three narrative threads: archival footage of Rios and key mentors from the cutting room floor of the 1994 PBS FRONTLINE film School Colors, original verité of Rios's summer in Watts after his former mentor calls on him to work with 40 pushout youth, and a series of cinematic vignettes from Rios's life built with depth audio interviews & evocative cinematography and sound design.

1n 1978 Rios's single mother, looking for a better life, risked a fraught desert border crossing with Victor (then 2) and his 7 year old brother. Landing on the unforgiving streets of East Oakland, California, the boys spent days locked in an apartment in a condemned building - the best their struggling mom could do while she worked 12 hour days. A sweet, sensitive kid with impaired vision and, after an honest (and naive) answer given to his 6th grade teacher, the unbearable nickname “bastardo,” Rios drops out of school and - soon thereafter - joins a gang. "Kids from his neighborhood had a choice," says Rios. "Be gang-affiliated or be prey."

When Smiley, a homeless "nowhere in the world type kid” Rios had taken under his wing, is murdered in front of him, 16 year old Rios has another crucial choice to make: adhering to “street justice” or seeking out the one person he thinks can help: his quietly prodding, consistently available teacher, Flora Russ.

Our verité footage begins in 2013, shortly after Rios gets an unexpected phone call from his high school mentor Martin Flores, then a UC student and radical activist from East LA who, between classes, organizes high school aged latinos. Though they haven't spoken in more than 15 years, Flores makes Rios an offer he can't refuse: leading an intensive program for youth on the edge at his program in south central LA, YO!Watts. Six weeks, no funding, "and I want you to bring a team that can inspire these youth."

After some soul searching, Rios agrees, recruiting a team of super-mentors -- his & his partner/wife Dr Rebecca Mireles-Rios's students and proteges over the past decade.

Referred to as “dropouts” in national statistics and common parlance, many of these youth are actually “pushouts” trying to stay enrolled, learn and graduate against the odds. The Pushouts are represented among the one-in-three Latino and Black students nationally who do not graduate, are pushed into continuation schools, low-paying jobs, and - too often - the criminal justice and mass incarceration systems.

Back home, Rios reckons with the limitations of what his short time with these youth can accomplish and reflects on his analysis about the degree of systemic and structural transformation necessary to change the lives of youth of color.

In the final scenes, Rios returns to Berkeley High to visit Flora Russ who, after 50 years, is still working at the school. “I want to do something I love,” she says when Rios asks why she’s not enjoying a well-earned retirement. “I love these kids.”

THE PUSHOUTS shines a light on the lives of millions of low-income youth of color in the US, and what it will take for them to realize their potential — an aspiration that America promises in its founding philosophy, and desperately needs.

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