Community backlash resulted in the cancellation of a presentation by a University of Minnesota professor to Brainerd teachers about racism in rural communities, leading to disappointment on the part of some school staff.
Timothy Lensmire, a professor in the department of curriculum and instruction, was slated to address teachers during their in-service day Wednesday, May 26, to provide state-mandated cultural competency training and support the district’s equity work.
Community members, however, criticized the district’s speaker choice, worrying about his stance on white privilege and white supremacy.
“I explore the possibilities and problems of various critical pedagogies for how they can promote and embody radical democracy; and I explore how white people learn to be white in our white supremacist society,” Lensmire wrote on his faculty page on the University of Minnesota website.
School board members and administrators said they were inundated with emails and phone calls about Lensmire’s appearance. Critics wrote to the Dispatch as well, worrying about Lensmire’s “radical and progressive” background and that he would force critical race theory upon Brainerd teachers.
School Board Chair Bob Nystrom said during a phone interview Monday he has not received this much correspondence about an issue since the failure of the 2007 bond referendum.
“Half of them said, ‘We don’t want him. Please cancel him,’” Nystrom said of the messages he received. “Others were just confused on how he was picked. They just wanted a better explanation before they made a judgment.”
School leaders made the decision Thursday to cancel Lensmire’s appearance.
“I am writing today to let you know that District Leadership has decided to re-align the professional development activities scheduled for May 26, 2021. Dr. Timothy Lensmire will not be addressing staff,” Superintendent Laine Larson wrote in a statement.
“Please be advised that as per the Board of Education Letter of Commitment to Equity for All Students at Brainerd Public Schools - ISD 181, dated June 8, 2020, the District will continue its equity work within the framework of cultural competency. As we continue to move forward, we will work to ensure that each child receives a guaranteed and viable curriculum; one in which they can see themselves, and all cultures are embraced and illuminated.
“In this work, we will partner with the Board of Education, staff, administration, the Equity Advisory Task Force, the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee, and the community to articulate each step of this important work.”
The letter of commitment to equity Larson referenced was written last summer after a Forestview Middle School art teacher resigned following backlash she received from social media comments, which many deemed racist, about the riots in Minneapolis. The district also created an equity and advisory task force at that time.
After canceling Lensmire’s appearance, Nystrom said he received letters of thanks from those who were opposed to the presentation and perhaps two or three emails from community members who were disappointed. One parent sent a letter to the Dispatch expressing her outrage over the cancellation.
Misty Jobe, a Forestview teacher and president of Education Minnesota Brainerd, was also upset about not getting to hear Lensmire’s presentation, noting it would have served as cultural competency staff development training, which is mandated to maintain a teaching license in Minnesota.
"Half of them said, ‘We don’t want him. Please cancel him.' Others were just confused on how he was picked. They just wanted a better explanation before they made a judgment.”
— Bob Nystrom, school board member
“It is disappointing that educators in our district were denied an opportunity to use this training to expand, examine, and improve our perspectives and teaching practices,” Jobe wrote in an email to the Dispatch Tuesday. “As our population becomes more diverse, considering the experiences of students whose lives do not reflect our own, through a lens not previously examined, is critical to creating classroom environments in which every student feels seen, valued, and heard.”
Jobe also said canceling Lensmire’s presentation delayed the district’s opportunity for growth, but she looks forward to opportunities in the future designed to improve learning experiences for all students.
While the decisions to hire Lensmire and subsequently cancel his appearance were up to school administrators and not board members, Nystrom said after receiving so much correspondence, he and two other board members met with Larson, Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha and other administrators to discuss the issue before the cancellation.
“We had sort of a road bump that didn’t go very well, and we’re not stopping our equity work,” Nystrom said. “It’s just that we’re going to regroup and have more of a discussion and try to be transparent with the community in what we’re trying to do.”
Larson said during a phone interview Tuesday that Lensmire came as a recommended speaker, but she believes there were misconceptions about his presentation based on some of the publications he has written. She said district leaders need to do a better job of getting as much information as possible out to the public on issues like this one. While the equity advisory task force reports to the school board every month, she said the district needs to make sure the community is aware of the work that committee is doing and the direction the district is going.
Board member Ruth Nelson said during Monday’s board meeting the district — school board included — remains committed to equity and continues to work toward being as transparent as possible with the public.
The board added two members to the district’s equity and advisory task force Monday — Kevin Boyles and Jana Shogren — to represent the school board alongside Charles Black Lance.
Before expressing how important he believes equity work in the district is, Black Lance shared what one of his daughters has experienced at school as an American Indian student.
When in kindergarten, he said his daughter Olivia — now 13 — came home from school one day asking about a song in the movie “Peter Pan,” which students watched during a rainy day. The song, “What Made the Red Man Red” is sung in the Disney movie by Native American characters. This occurrence prompted many questions for Olivia.
“It does make a point that that equity work, that racial harmony, that understanding, that unity is important — not just in high school, not just in college, but as early as kindergarten. Because children like my own are walking through this today. The time is now to handle this type of reality.”
— Charles Black Lance, school board member
Another instance, he said, happened when Olivia was in first grade and she heard kids on the playground say “Indians are dumb,” while referring to American Indians.
Black Lance said he wasn’t sharing these stories to give the school district a black eye but to explain his family’s experiences.
“It does make a point that that equity work, that racial harmony, that understanding, that unity is important — not just in high school, not just in college, but as early as kindergarten,” he said. "Because children like my own are walking through this today. The time is now to handle this type of reality.”
Both Black Lance and Jobe said this kind of work can be uncomfortable and perhaps even scary but is still important.
“Discomfort often leads to growth, even when we disagree with the ideas being presented,” Jobe wrote in her email. “Our Black, Indigeneous, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities do not have the option of hitting the cancel button when facing uncomfortable interactions in our community and schools. Equity training should allow educators to recognize where we are right now, while challenging us to ask how we got here and how we move forward together.”
Lensmire’s would-be presentation
In an email statement Tuesday, Lensmire said the basic idea of the presentation planned for Brainerd teachers was how the way race works in the U.S. affects not just people of color but white people, too. He said he was going to explore that idea by using stories told to him by a white teacher and a white farmer from rural Wisconsin.
“I was looking forward to working with teachers and administrators in Brainerd and thought that we could do meaningful work together,” Lensmire wrote. “That said, I believe in democratic processes and respect the decision of the school board.”
In a video on the University of Minnesota website about achievement gaps in schools, Lensmire states: “I want to help teachers learn how to teach better, but this problem is not one that’s going to be solved by teaching methods. It’s going to be solved by something else, by teachers, including white teachers, coming to understand themselves well enough that they can reach out and interact with all different sorts of children and treat them with the sorts of respect and dignity that those children deserve.”
Black Lance said he understood and welcomed the questions from district parents and taxpayers and noted it is the school district’s goal to be as transparent as possible in these matters. Nobody made a mistake in this situation, he said, but it could serve as a learning opportunity.
"Discomfort often leads to growth, even when we disagree with the ideas being presented. Our Black, Indigeneous, students of color, LGBTQ+ students, and students with disabilities do not have the option of hitting the cancel button when facing uncomfortable interactions in our community and schools."
— Misty Jobe, Forestview teacher and president of Education Minnesota Brainerd
“Those that were in support of Dr. Lensmire I think learned that maybe they need to continue to advocate and articulate as well because sometimes people will provide pushback, and in those situations, I think we really need to sit down and have an opportunity for both sides to hear one another,” he said.
With the creation of the equity advisory task force, Black Lance said he hopes administrators will use that group as a resource if they have questions on diversity and cultural competency training, as he believes the members of that board have enough experience to provide insight.
In place of Lensmire’s presentation Wednesday, Larson said staff will look at achievement data from the past year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. This way, when teachers come back in August for the annual continuous improvement process training, they have all the information they need to start the school year out on a strong note, she said.
There was undoubtedly some academic progress lost during the pandemic, Larson said, but she promised the district would do its best to close any achievement gaps as quickly and as best as possible.
Not wanting to end the school year on a low note, Larson thanked all school staff members, families and the community at large for coming together through the unprecedented challenges of the past year, as she believes Brainerd Public Schools weathered the pandemic as well as any other district in the state.
“I want us to really be moving together in the right direction, and that tells me that sometimes you need to take a step back and make sure that you’re providing all the background information and the transparency that you need to so that you can move forward, and that’s what we’re going to do on behalf of our community and particularly our children,” Larson said.