One Voice Can Make a Difference

A conversation about the impact of the film Miss Virginia

By Virginia Walden Ford

When I was approached more than a decade ago about the potential for a feature film to be made about my life, I was more than skeptical.

Why me? There were so many other people in the world with stories that were world-changing, so many people who had struggled in worse ways than me, so many people whose success was truly something to admire.

Sure, I had accomplished some difficult tasks. But I had done so with a lot of help from other like-minded parents, concerned lawmakers, and even the President of the United States. In my opinion, my work to provide greater educational opportunities for the children of Washington, DC—and beyond—had met a providential fate that connected me with the right people at the right time, giving me the courage to persevere when the going got tough.

That wasn’t movie worthy. It was pretty average.

What I’ve come to realize, though, in the years since that initial conversation about the feature film that eventually became Miss Virginia, is there is power in the everyday. When people see someone else overcome a struggle, they are often moved to action themselves.

The creative and passionate team at the Moving Picture Institute saw the potential in my story to inspire others. They knew what I would come to know during the process of making this film: true stories are a catalyst for change.

Under the direction of the brilliant R.J. Daniel Hanna, Miss Virginia was created—piece by piece. Celebrities I only knew from films and TV shows read the script, believed in its message, and signed on to star in it. I began to see the vast potential of this film and what it could mean for other “average” people, like myself, who had an important story to tell.

Since its world debut in the fall of 2019, Miss Virginia has been viewed by people either at theaters, through at-home streaming, through a cable-TV provider such as BET, or through planned viewing events. The film is available on thousands of streaming platforms and reaches hundreds of millions of people. It has been featured on many lists of important films about women, mothers, and African American people. Every day I receive messages from people all over the US and the world telling me how much the movie inspired them and moved them to their own courses of action.

Some people have a direct relationship with the subject matter of the film and are inspired to seek more choices in education in their own communities. Others are parents or grandparents who want to share their own “aha” moments when it comes to advocating for their children or their communities or themselves. Sometimes I hear from someone who has a fear of public speaking and is inspired by the scene in the movie where Uzo Aduba so beautifully portrays the moment I overcame my fear of my voice being heard.

Whatever their need or message, these people were all inspired by the story of the film—by my story. Whether it is regarding a minor detail like my frustration with my son’s principal or a major accomplishment like passing the DC Opportunity Scholarship alongside my rag-tag team of parents, the many messages I receive from viewers remind me that it is the relatable details of our stories that move people.

In addition to the anecdotal components of the film, I sat down recently and wrote down some of the tangible ways this film has truly made a difference for families all over this country and beyond. I want to share those with all of you:

Policy

The COVID-19 pandemic that started in the spring of 2020 forced the education system in the US to ask itself: Are we truly meeting the needs of our students? As issues of technology disparities, hunger, and other inequalities came under the spotlight, people across the nation were forced to face a discouraging truth: not all schools nor all methods of delivery of education are truly equal in this country.

While the loss associated with the pandemic is insurmountable, it was a needed wake-up call when it comes to education in our country. I feel humbled and grateful that as people stayed home and had the chance to curl up on their couches and watch TV, they were able to view Miss Virginia on Netflix and other streaming platforms. During that time, some important decision makers saw the film.

Case in point:

In May of 2021, I was the guest of the nonprofit Empower Illinois, a group that supports needs-based scholarship programs so the children of their state can attend the best schools for their individual needs regardless of where their home is located. I met with wonderful leaders in the group, visited St. Patrick Catholic School in Springfield, and then had the opportunity to meet with Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives Emanuel “Chris” Welch.

Once a critic of school choice programs, Speaker Welch told me that seeing the film Miss Virginia helped turn the tide of his opinion on this issue. He was able to see what choice in education could mean for a single child and a single mother—and extrapolate that to his own constituents.

Illinois Speaker Emanuel “Chris” Welch and in May, 2021

He is now a vocal proponent of expanding educational opportunities in his state—and was a leader in extending, and expanding, the state’s current tax credit scholarship program. The film could not change education policy on its own—that required the hard work of the Empower Illinois group and their colleagues—but I am grateful that it was able to be the vehicle that changed one very influential mind.

Parent Groups

For decades, parents in educational opportunity groups across the country have advocated for more choices for their children and their neighbors’ children. My parent-led group, DC Parents for School Choice, is just one of hundreds. These groups knock on doors, hold meetings, create informative literature and websites, call and email legislators, speak to policymakers, and organize to maximize the reach of their voices. Due to the hard work of groups like these, school choice continues to expand in our country through a variety of delivery methods that include tax credit scholarships, education savings accounts, and more.

Since beginning this film journey, I have had the privilege to meet with parent-helmed groups all over the country—from Rhode Island to Indianapolis to Phoenix and beyond. I have seen the hard work these groups consistently do to improve educational outcomes for their children. Their accomplishments have a ripple effect, inspiring those in other communities to act similarly.

I have been humbled to see how effectively Miss Virginia illustrates the importance of fighting for school choice. Parents see themselves in the characters on screen—and the film provides a jumping off point as it helps people find their own courage to speak up.

In February of 2021, I was asked to be on a virtual panel of wonderful parents who shared ideas with each other, and with those listening in, on how to advocate for better educational opportunities for our children. Most of the parents on the panel have children who are school age, and they are actively fighting for more educational options for them. I was thrilled to serve in the role of mentor, sharing what worked in my own fight and listening to what is currently working for them.

Between informational, forum-style sections of the virtual event, clips from Miss Virginia were shown to introduce and reinforce the concepts being discussed. The film provided an entry point for those who were looking for a way to start their own movements.

Seeing the film used as an educational tool for other parents brings me so much joy. It is exactly what I hoped would happen when I agreed to having it made.

Moms, Dads, Grandparents and More

Sometimes the changes inspired by the film are not sweeping legislation or newsworthy on their own but, collectively, they matter.

Here is a sampling of messages I’ve received from individual viewers of the film:

“I just recently watched the film Miss Virginia, and it has inspired me to begin to advocate for an area of education equality that I personally am passionate about—homeless and transient students.” –Danielle

“I definitely believe in your fight. We as adults need to be more involved, because at the end of the day the children that we raised will shape the world that we will live in. And I believe that what you fight for plays an extremely important part of the vision that needs to be achieved.” –Richard

“I love the movie Miss Virginia. It is an inspiring story and one that got me through some hard times. Thank you for not giving up on your son.” –Jillian

“Me and my 24-year-old daughter recently watched your movie. She is going to law school. I work in the education system. How can I make a difference like you? I am so inspired and in tears with the change you’ve implemented.” –Tiffany

“After watching Miss Virginia a few months ago, you inspired me to continue seeking the best education for my children. The challenges of being low income are now forcing me to choose between homeschooling or public education. As a mother of 3 beautiful children, I’m sure you can imagine the difficulties I’m encountering as a working woman.” –Charnel

“I just finished watching the movie Miss Virginia and I am beyond inspired! A former administrator worked in DC Public Schools and confessed that school choice really caused the public school system to step up. That inspired me and I would love to know how we can do the same here in my state.” –Jeanisha

Remember that your stories matter and that you have a responsibility to tell them. There is power in what you have been through and in what you continue to accomplish. Allow the world access to that power, your power, by telling your own stories to those in your sphere of influence. You never know what difference one voice can make!

Have something to share? Contact Virginia Walden Ford at vwf@virginiawaldenford.com.

Click here to book Virginia Walden Ford for a virtual or in-person appearance.

How COVID-19 is Empowering Parents

By Virginia Walden Ford

I have been an advocate for parent empowerment, particularly when it comes to the education of children, for nearly 30 years. In that time frame, I’ve met so many wonderful moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles and older siblings who want a brighter future for the children in their lives — and who recognize that education is the path to it. Often these are adults who feel powerless to fight for something better for their children and I take great joy in helping them tap into their voices and resources to enable change.

Watching the events of COVID-19 unfold, however, has given me a new perspective on parent empowerment as it relates to education. Instead of interacting with parents who are at their wit’s end due to their limited schooling options, the entire world is now full of parents who have never seen the limitations of their children’s schooling quite so clearly. 

Even with emergency “learn from home” plans, most parents were handed more responsibility for the education of their children than had ever taken place in the past. Educators have continued to provide tremendous support, even remotely, but the experience has still been eye-opening for parents. But in discomfort, there is growth. 

For some, it is the first time they’ve been tasked with literally pulling up a chair next to their kids and watching them, guiding them and helping them through their coursework. With forced remote learning, parents have been tasked with taking on that sometimes-intimidating instruction. They see firsthand what is working and what is not. They see that one-size-fits-all approaches do not work. They understand, more clearly than ever, the pressures facing both students and educators. 

As a daughter of two public school teachers, and the identical twin sister of a retired special education teacher, I have the utmost respect for teachers and believe they play an incredible role in the lives of our young people. The sudden and prolonged school closures have certainly opened the eyes of parents to all of the responsibilities teachers face and the hard work that goes into lesson planning, instructional time and even “down” time to let kids be kids. I hope that this has shown parents the true positive effect teachers have in the lives of our youth — and that this encourages parents to want to support and work alongside their children’s teachers. For those who have decided to homeschool — for the short- or long-term — I know that the responsibility of serving as both parent and educator is not one they take lightly.  

And despite the added stress that goes along with parents having to pull up that chair alongside their kids and be frontline participants in their education, I believe this has been a blessing. Since they have been forced to be so hands-on, parents are empowered — with knowledge, with new skills and with their voices.

My hope is that as children transition back to more direct instruction from teachers, their parents, relatives, grandparents and other caregivers will stick around and stay invested in the learning process.

The Movie Miss Virginia Powerfully Dramatizes the Urgent Need for School Choice (Reason)

What’s it like to have your life story told on the big screen?

The new movie Miss Virginia is based on the unlikely story of Virginia Walden Ford, who, as a single mother in Washington, D.C., in the early 2000s, fought to create a federally-funded private school voucher program that would allow poor kids—including her son—to escape failing public schools. Against long odds and institutional hostility, she succeeded and is played with fiery passion by Orange Is the New Black‘s Uzo Aduba. Matthew Modine, known for roles in Full Metal Jacket, Weeds, and Stranger Things, co-stars as a sympathetic congressman who helps win congressional authorization for the program. READ MORE

Matthew Modine Talks “Miss Virginia” (Newsweek)

Matthew Modine’s career has spanned more than 30 years, but it was a piece of advice he received from his father as a young man that has influenced his life, his activism and his new role in the upcoming film Miss Virginia.

“I didn’t know where to begin, it was so much mess, it was like an inch deep of horror,” Modine toldNewsweek Conversations, describing an overflown toilet he was tasked to clean at one of his father’s movie theaters. “My dad came to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I know, it’s a mess. You can get angry about it, you can find the person responsible, but it’s not going to clean it up.’ It was an important lesson because when there’s a problem in the world, you can try to find the people that are responsible, you can get angry, but you have to clean it up.”

It was that advice that influenced Modine’s performance in the new film Miss Virginia, directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna and starring Uzo Aduba as Virginia Walden Ford, a true story about a single mother raising her son in the low-income neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Ford successfully lobbied Congress to support the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, giving her son and thousands of other children in D.C. the opportunity to attend private schools. Modine plays Congressman Cliff Williams, a character created for the film, who Miss Virginia works with to garner support for the program. READ MORE

Uzo Aduba On Her First Lead Role, Life After ‘Orange’ And Acting As A Form Of Advocacy (Forbes)

Orange is the New Black, the acclaimed Netflix series that ended this summer after seven seasons, didn’t have one star. It had many. Still, among such a stellar cast, Uzo Aduba, who played Suzanne Warren, stood out. Perhaps it’s because she was in every season of the show, while many other characters came and went. Perhaps it’s because she was so unpredictable – her character’s nickname was “Crazy Eyes,” after all. Perhaps it’s because her backstory was particularly tragic, even among so many tragic backstories. In the final season, when she finally starts to realize that she’s mentally ill, Suzanne asks her mother if she “deserves” to be in prison. Her mother says no.

She was also perhaps the only truly sympathetic character on the show. Suzanne never meant to harm anyone, even under the most trying circumstances, and she always lifted her fellow inmates up. In turn, the other prisoners looked out for her. She was never anyone’s target.

Aduba proved to be a unique talent in every scene she performed, an actor whose dimensions were revealed slowly over the course of those seven years. She showed depth, heart, whimsy and compassion. She’s also an extraordinary singer. And yet, while Orange is the New Blackcertainly elevated Aduba’s profile, she has until now had only supporting roles. READ MORE

Miss Virginia: Uzo Adoba Brings Champion for Children to the Big Screen (The Black Wall Street Times)

A woman scrubs the bathroom floor on her hands and knees, hair pulled back in a scarf. Another woman dressed in a business suit applies lipstick at the mirror. Both are mothers. Both are black. One is a congresswoman. The other cleans the toilets and floors in the congresswoman’s office. And soon after their meeting in the bathroom, they become fierce opponents over the right for all students, including poor ones in Washington DC, to attend a quality school.

This is a scene early in the film Miss Virginia, a true-story drama about mom-turned- education-activist Virginia Walden (Ford), who launches the grass-roots organization D.C. Parents for School Choice in 1998. The group’s goal was the establishment of a scholarship program so that low-income children could escape their local public schools and gain access to private schools. READ MORE

VIRGINIA WALDEN FORD: For the students (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Parents are the first and primary advocates for their kids, and choosing a school is one of the most important decisions parents make for their children.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of folks out there who believe they know best when it comes to making that decision. Worse, they believe some choices should only be available to those who can afford to pay or move to a certain part of town.

If you don’t have time to read this whole piece, let me get the good stuff out of the way upfront: All children deserve to find the schooling option that works best for them. Doesn’t matter where they live. Doesn’t matter how much money their family makes. Everyone should have a choice.

Now, there’s a misconception out there that school-choice advocates are against public schools–or that they only support charter schools or private schools or some other type of schooling. READ MORE

A Big Close Up for Educational Opportunities (Philanthropy Magazine)

Virginia Walden Ford never expected her life to become a movie. All she wanted was to send her boy to a better school. “When I started this journey, it was to fight for my son,” she says. “Along the way it became a fight for all children.”

Ford struggled to help her William after she discovered he was skipping class at his Washington, D.C., high school. He got suspended twice, at a time when drug dealers were loitering on corners in his neighborhood, looking for recruits. If William was going to succeed, or even survive, his mother would have to find a school that inspired him to learn.

So in 1998, Ford banded together with other parents to seek more educational opportunity. They hoped for scholarships their children could use to escape their dysfunctional public schools. “We were a group of low-income and working-class parents,” she explains, possessing one tool: “Our voices.” READ MORE

See This Movie, And Feel Why We Need School Choice (Forbes)

My expectations for movies with a message—especially a message of which I approve—are low. Message flicks of any bent too often succumb to tedious repetition of simplistic morals, and libertarian types are not heavily represented among the best filmmakers. This is why I was surprised by the new movie Miss Virginia, which I just saw at a preview screening. It tells the story of Virginia Walden Ford—whom, full disclosure, I know—and her crusade to create the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program, better known, simply, as the DC voucher program. The movie does not preach, it lets Walden Ford’s real-life story sear in its moral: parents need choice, and children cannot wait.

Miss Virginia takes place in early 2000s Washington, especially the long-depressed southeast section, and depicts the struggles of Walden Ford and other families. In neighborhoods beset by poverty, crime, and drug addiction, the public schools are rendered inhospitable to learning, and sometimes outright dangerous. When things turn especially threatening for her son, Walden Ford toils desperately to get him into a private school and keep him there. But though it costs much less than the public schools spend per pupil, she fails. And the battle for choice begins. READ MORE

School choice goes to Tinseltown (The Washington Times)

In the early 2000s, Virginia Walden Ford, a single mother in D.C.’s low-income neighborhoods, realized the importance of private school choice. Her youngest son, William, was falling in with the wrong crowd and struggling in the local public school.

“William began skipping school and getting into all kinds of trouble in school with teachers and administration. He truly believed that if he acted ‘bad,’ he would be safe,” she recalls.

All this changed, however, when a neighbor provided a private school scholarship for William. READ MORE