Clusterluck, a short documentary produced by Dr. Candace N. Hall, graduate program director and assistant professor of higher education and student affairs program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), is off to a sober start. White text on a black background tells us that African Americans make up only 5.4% of full-time students in postsecondary education. As an unsettling synth beat plays, a quote from a recent study rings out: “Many institutions have recruited underrepresented scholars to join their faculty without focusing on retaining and supporting new recruits.”
But then the mood changes. We cut into the backyard. A bonfire is lit. The camera pans and as the uplifting vocals kick in, we see Hall dancing and jumping for joy. It’s the perfect response to the somber tone just seconds earlier, and an eloquent statement of the film’s purpose: to offer an alternative to the negativity that can permeate discussions of the black experience on campus, and to reflect the beauty that can grow when you learn about faculty of color. support and encourage each other.
Clusterluck is a portrait of the community that has developed among the faculty of color centered in the Department of Educational Leadership at SIUE, several of whom were hired in 2020 as part of a cluster hire—a deliberate attempt to name several faculty with similar backgrounds or research interests who can collaborate and ideally create a sense of belonging.
When compiling this cluster, Dr. Robin Hughes, dean of the SIUE School of Education, Health and Human Behavior, delivered tremendously.
“I didn’t expect anything like the caring environment they created,” she says in the film. “It’s spectacular.
Her most significant engagement to create this environment was Hall.
“She’s so unselfish,” Hughes said. “She cares so much about her academic siblings.
Shortly after being hired, however, it was Hall who needed help. She was unsure about her decision to join SIUE, but found reassurance from Dr. JT Snipes, a fellow African-American professor. They started talking and hanging out in Hall’s backyard, and the gatherings eventually became biweekly Friday night bonfires with about 10 others: five from the educational leadership department, several from other departments, and faculty partners.
Members of this community helped each other with the unique difficulties that can come with being in a Black academy. Halla was once berated by a custodian who did not realize she was a faculty member and told her she was not allowed to be in the campus building in the evening. They also helped each other navigate the pandemic when they had children and through life’s ups and downs, including the death of loved ones.
“Knowing that I’m going to see them every two weeks by that fire really saved my life,” Hall said.
People started encouraging her to write about what was happening. But Hall had a different idea.
“It’s one thing for people to read about it on the page,” she said. “But I felt like if people saw it, could feel how the community felt about us, they would care in a different way.”
Hall had no training in film, but Hughes encouraged her because he sensed the potential of film to make a difference in a way that an academic publication could not.
“We’re not here to write 5,000 articles that 2,000 people read,” he says in the film. “We are here to make a change.
Hall eventually found her film partners on Instagram and teamed up with My Friends and I, a production company based in St. Louis, led by Cami Thomas, who became Clusterluck‘s director. After Hall’s institutional funding dried up, she put in about $5,000 of her own money.
The response to the final product shocked Hall. The audience called it great. Others cried. Although she envisioned showing it at academic conferences, people encouraged her to submit it to film festivals. At the IndieFest Film Awards, she and Thomas won a recognition award.
Hall hopes so Clusterluck it can serve as a counterpoint to the often depressing stories that are told about African American academic life.
“There are many black teachers who have different experiences, but we don’t often hear that story,” she said. “Part of my hope is that people, especially white people, will see that black joy is possible. We should work to invest in that.”
Hall thinks the film could have an impact on black students as well.
“Seeing black faculty succeed can change the way they think about their own retention, their own persistence in their academic programs,” she said.
Hall is currently touring the country with Clusterluck and sending it to other festivals. He is working on a project that shows the impact of conversations around the film and also addresses issues of scalability and sustainability. Hall is also trying to raise funds for his next creative grant, which will use video and photography to tell the stories of black faculty.
At the moment though Clusterluck extends Hall’s impact far beyond the community she helped build at SIUE. He wants more universities to seriously consider how to help their new African-American teachers adjust to the institution and find support, and believes the film can play a role.
“I’m not interested in my work living only in magazines,” Hall said. “I want my work to really push the needle in changing how black faculty experience the academy. For me, this is the highest reward.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com