A Conversation with Education Activist Virginia Walden Ford Whom Uzo Aduba Plays in “Miss Virginia” [Now Playing on Netflix!]
Education as a civil right is rarely at the center of any film. That’s one of the many reasons why Miss Virginia stands out. Currently available on VOD through platforms like Amazon Prime Video, Miss Virginia stars Orange is the New Black two-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba as real-life shero, Virginia Walden Ford, a hard-working single mother turned education activist. How she gets there is amazing and far from anything Walden Ford imagined for herself.
“I was a mother of three, raising kids, working two jobs, just trying to make it happen for me and my children,” she recalls via phone from her native Little Rock where she now lives.
The challenges her youngest son faced, however, transformed her life. Although Aduba portrays Walden Ford as a mother of just one — with This Is Us’s Niles Fitch as her son James (not her son’s real name) — his struggles in the film are very real. Bullies at his neighborhood school make learning even more challenging. As he begins to fall prey to the D.C. streets, Walden Ford is pushed into action. When she enrolls him in a private school, he responds positively to the smaller class sizes and hands-on teaching style. Unfortunately, she can’t make ends meet to keep him there. Sadly her struggle was and is not unique.
Discovering how many dollars DC public schools are allocated per student, Walden Ford begins speaking up about how those dollars are not being spent on the children in neighborhoods like hers and is joined by other parents also looking for better for their children. Together they fight. Miss Virginia dramatizes their battle.
“I never thought about being any kind of activist; I’m not even sure if I knew what that meant at the time,” she shares. “But I had a child who was struggling, and somebody had to speak out for him, and I knew I had to be that someone.”
“The potential I saw in him was just very different than his schools and teachers and sometimes some of my friends and I just knew, if I didn’t fight for him, nobody else would,” she continues. “I knew he was really smart, and I knew that, given the right circumstances and in the right educational environment, he’d do well, but convincing people of that was not easy.”
Although it’s not shown in the film, Walden Ford was among the second group of Black students to attend Little Rock Central High School, which went through a well-documented struggle to admit Black students after the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board decision. So she was no stranger to high stakes educational warfare. She also saw how everyday people could make an impact. Growing up, her college-educated parents stressed the importance of education. As she and other parents fought for their children, they encountered roadblocks. Many times, because they were poor and working class, they were dismissed as parents.
“They just assumed that we couldn’t advocate for our kids and we proved them very wrong because we fought hard. We fought harder than I think any of us had ever fought in our lives because we knew our kids deserved a quality education and we were going do everything we could to make sure that happened,” she explains.
And eventually it did happen. In 2004, President George W. Bush signed the D.C. School Choice Incentive Act of 2003 which created the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This allowed kids like James in the film to attend private schools. Conservatives claim it as a victory for school choice while others argue that it undermines public school education while strengthening charter and private schools. For Walden Ford, the victory is that parents won more options for their kids regardless of what their circumstances may be.
“We didn’t care about politics; we didn’t care about anything,” she insists. “We cared about our kids being in schools where they could learn.”
“Our kids needed solutions,” she continues. “We could no longer send another child out into the world without the tools to navigate society.”
What she found is “other parents felt that way. Other parents felt ‘alright, if we can say something, let’s say something’ and that’s how we built an incredible army. It was so many people that sometimes it was almost surreal. The more our voices were heard, the more people wanted to join and be heard as well. It was amazing. To me, it was so important in this country.”
Those parents are one of the main reasons Walden Ford is so eager to support Miss Virginia (also featuring Aunjanue Ellis, Amirah Vann, Adina Porter, Matthew Modine and Vanessa L. Williams). “So many messages that are important from our communities don’t get out, you know, and we must be the ones to make sure that we get them out if we have some way to do that, and I’ve been really blessed with this film,” Walden Ford says.
“Never in a hundred years would I have thought this would happen, but now that it’s happened,” concludes, “I feel a responsibility to make sure that everybody — -I don’t care who they are, whether they’re from Idaho to New York to Chicago to every little center in Little Rock, Arkansas — -I think every parent needs to be inspired and energized and understand that they have a right to fight for their kids.”