Teach the truth.
That was the resounding message at the Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, June 28, during the beginning of which almost 50 attendees filled the room, with more spilling out into the hallway. Several held up signs reading “TEACH THE TRUTH,” and some even brought their own lawn chairs in anticipation of the large crowd.
Those in the crowd came to share their thoughts on the much-debated critical race theory, what it means and whether it should be taught in the school district.
Nineteen community members spoke, six about the dangers and divisiveness of critical race theory, and 12 about the necessity of teaching accurate historical representations and making sure all students have a safe place to learn and see themselves reflected in the curriculum. The last speaker preached the importance of listening to both sides of the argument.
Discussion around critical race theory began among lakes area community members in May, when the district announced University of Minnesota professor Timothy Lensmire would speak to school staff for state-mandated cultural competency training. After community backlash over some of Lensmire’s ideologies — like critical pedagogy — district administrators canceled the training session, which resulted in more backlash from those who wanted him to come speak.
Critical race theory originated in the 1970s and is defined in the Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society as an academic movement of civil rights scholars and activists in the United States who look to critically examine the law, justice system, and social mores as they influence issues of race and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice.
Against critical race theory
Some of those speaking against the idea of critical race theory Monday were repeat visitors after the last board meeting June 14, when they also spoke on the issue. Those included Mark Olson, who reiterated his total opposition to critical race theory, and Doug Kern, who took issue with “equality” at some point in time being transposed with “equity.” The two are not the same thing, he said.
“I firmly believe what Martin Luther King said, that we judge a man by the content of his character, not the color of his skin. Equity, to me, is nothing more than instituting racism. And I don’t care what color you are, if you’re instituting one has more favor than another, that’s racism,” said Kern, who was accompanied by his wife and former school board member Sue Kern.
Others on that side of the argument included Rick Felt, who said he firmly believes critical race theory goes against the Constitution and should not be taught because it has no scientific basis; Jason Slaughter, who said there are multiple ethnicities but only one human race; David Goedker, who said critical race theory is divisive and shames white kids for the color of their skin; and Sally Sloth, who said the Bible teaches that we are all God’s children, and what everyone needs is Jesus.
‘Teach the truth’
But perhaps the louder voices Monday night came from those who spoke — not necessarily for critical race theory — but for the school to teach accurate cultural representations of history and make sure all students feel safe and understood.
“Less judgment, more empathy,” was the message from Becky Twamley, who said she was upset with the cancellation of Lensmire’s appearance and dismayed at some of the threats made against board members at the last meeting.
One speaker at the June 14 meeting quoted a section of Proverbs from the Bible, telling board members he would dump hot coals on their heads if critical race theory were taught in the schools.
“We urge you to rise above the rhetoric. Do not take the bait,” Twamley said. “This is not about critical race theory or the definition of equity. Let’s prepare our students for an ever-changing, global society. And let’s stay focused on the mission.”
Twamley added schools are not always a safe space for students, with transphobia, homophobia and racism alive in the hallways. The community must work together to meet the needs of all students and create an environment where students can have tough conversations and better their mental health.
“This is not about critical race theory or the definition of equity. Let’s prepare our students for an ever-changing, global society. And let’s stay focused on the mission.”
— Becky Twamley
Danielle Arnold, a mental health counselor in Brainerd, also noted the impact school has on students’ mental health. Everyone is driven to achieve safety and a sense of belonging, and those who don’t feel safe or included at school are more likely to have mental health struggles, like anxiety and depression. She urged school leaders to build constructive stories and celebrate differences.
Lake Shore resident Marty Halvorson urged the board to continue choosing what is right rather than what is expedient and said there seems to be a concerted effort by some to limit or eliminate the teaching of factual history pertaining to people of color.
Susan Beaulieu, a member of the American Indian community, echoed that sentiment.
“In 1967, my family — the Beaulieu family — was removed from this area to the White Earth Indian Reservation. I don’t think there’s probably very many people in this room that recognize that,” Beaulieu said. “... Our histories are not being taught in the schools. My children are not reflected in the curriculum. … We’re talking about making sure that all kids see themselves reflected in the school.”
Other speakers rejected the idea that critical race theory is meant to make white people feel bad for being white and challenged what previous speakers believe critical race theory is even about.
Govinda Budrow, another member of the American Indian community who also has a masters degree in education, said critical race theory is not even on educators’ radars to be taught in schools. And that’s not what the discussion is about.
“Our Native peoples that are standing in this room, sitting in this room and these hallways have a very different educational experience, historically, than others. And that’s just the truth,” Budrow said.
Others told the board to continue doing what they’re doing and not to let those with a strictly political agenda get them down.
“I know that there are many more people in this community that support you than are against you,” Sally Jacobsen told the board.
Though school district policy prevents board members from engaging with commenters during the public forum, the board did take up the issue later in the meeting when discussing the letter of commitment to equity the members signed last June.
The letter came in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and subsequent social media comments by a Forestview Middle School teacher.
That letter included several initiatives, many of which Superintendent Laine Larson happily reported the district has been working on over the last year, including the creation of an equity advisory task force made up of members skilled in cultural competency and racial equity.
“Our Native peoples that are standing in this room, sitting in this room and these hallways have a very different educational experience, historically, than others. And that’s just the truth."
— Govinda Budrow
Board member Kevin Boyles, who was elected in November and not part of the board when the letter was written, partially criticized the initiative for solely focusing on race and gave an impassioned speech in response to some of the public forum comments.
Everything the school board and administration do, he said, is first and foremost for the students. Equity and equality are not the same thing, but you can’t have one without the other, he said. Equality is first, then comes equity.
Critical race theory is a framework taught in law schools, he said, and will not be taught at Brainerd Public Schools as long as he is on the school board.
The district did not approach the issue with Lensmire’s presentation well, Boyles added. While staff training is an administrative decision and not a board decision, Boyles said he would support rescheduling Lensmire for the future. Lensmire was not going to talk to students at all and was not going to talk to staff about critical race theory.
In response to those who said racial reconciliation seems to only be achievable through everyone having Jesus in their heart, Boyles questioned what that means for non-Christians, including Jews and Muslims.
Board member Tom Haglin said he didn’t see the need for the board to recommit to the letter members already signed — as it’s no different from any other district policy — but noted he would like a progress report on the various initiatives laid out in the letter.
Board member Ruth Nelson said she would like to see administrators re-work the letter and include professional development training for school board members in addition to staff. The board — with new members included — could then recommit to that letter.
“We have work to do, and I am here for the work."
— Jana Shogren, school board member
Board member Jana Shogren, who was also elected after the letter was published, said she would rather see board action than just a written commitment to a letter every year.
She said her biggest regret about the situation with Lensmire’s presentation was that, while canceling the event felt right to some people, it left other community members feeling hurt and alienated.
“We have work to do, and I am here for the work,” Shogren said.
Charles Black Lance, a member of the American Indian community, said one of the biggest issues for him is that his children receive audible support and assurance from the school district. If that means renewing a letter every year, then that’s fine.
He went on to criticize the decision to cancel Lensmire’s speaking event, saying it went directly against the district’s written commitment to diversity and inclusion. Explaining to his children why that cultural competency training was canceled, Black Lance said, was difficult.
He added he is proud of the board for undertaking these difficult conversations.
Board Chair Bob Nystrom echoed that pride, saying the school board has matured in recent years, evidenced by the great discussion at Monday’s meeting.