Tension filled the air and fervent opposition took the form of brightly colored signs at a special meeting Monday, July 19, of the Brainerd School Board.
After a lengthy discussion in what’s been a hotly debated issue, the Brainerd School Board voted to approve a letter of equity that outlines, in broad strokes, the district’s commitment to creating an environment of acceptance and inclusivity for its students, regardless of background ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, beliefs, ableness, neurocognitive abilities or other distinguishing features.
Board members Jana Shogren, Kevin Boyles, Charles Black Lance and Ruth Nelson voted in favor of the initiative. Citing discomfort with some provisions of the letter, board member Tom Haglin voted against the letter of equity. Chair Bob Nystrom expressed strong support for the letter, but couldn’t attend the meeting in person, so he abstained.
The board room at Washington Education Services Building was packed with district residents — most of whom were brandishing colorful signs that expressed opposition to the letter of equity as part of a larger debate over critical race theory. While the district doesn’t have critical race theory in its curriculum, never has and doesn’t plan to incorporate the controversial concept, opponents denounced the initiative.
Signs characterized the initiative as generally un-American in its intentions and grounded in critical race theory. One had the name Marx, as in political theorist Karl Marx, with a cancel symbol scrawled over the name. Some stated “No CRT, No Racism,” while others stated “Education, not Indoctrination.”
Ultimately, the majority of board members didn’t agree with this perspective or regarded it as non-material to the discussion. Attendees booed and murmured among themselves when the resolution was passed. The letter of equity approved Monday features many of the same commitments as a letter of equity the board approved in June 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and following an incident in which a Forestview Middle School teacher resigned after racist social media comments.
“We've learned the last few board meetings and through our email and our telephones that this is not an easy topic, this isn't something everyone feels exactly the same. But we have to push past, we have to learn to grow,” Shogren said. “I know I've had a couple of uncomfortable conversations, but I've appreciated them. So I think that we just have to do that.”
Earlier in the meeting, members of the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee presented on the issue of racism and how it affects students of color. Citing personal examples grounded in their own experiences and those of their children, as well as pointing to instances of cultural genocide perpetrated by the United States government throughout its history, members urged the board to take necessary steps to create welcoming environment for students of color.
Committee member Govinda Budrow noted these students experience forms of overt racism, that they often feel alienated in their own communities, and so they struggle to perform well in school alongside their peers as a result.
This ties into a history of repression and violence — both cultural and literal — that’s been perpetrated on Native Americans for centuries, as poignantly illustrated by the recent discovery of unmarked graves at Catholic residential schools where Native American students were abused, neglected and died throughout Canada.
“When we’re talking about American Indian students and their uncomfortability, that’s our history,” Budrow said. “And it’s not being taught.”
“We've learned the last few board meetings and through our email and our telephones that this is not an easy topic, this isn't something everyone feels exactly the same. But we have to push past, we have to learn to grow.”
— Jana Shogren, member of the Brainerd School Board
As outlined in the letter, the district is moving forward with plans to create a more welcoming, inclusive environment for its students with the following goals:
Complete a thorough review of district policies, procedures and handbook expectations to ensure equity for all as per policy review schedule;
Ensure board of education membership on advisory task forces surrounding equity;
Convene a multi-disciplinary advisory task force, including board representatives who are skilled in cultural competency and equity, to bring forth recommendations for consideration by the board of education;
Ensure culturally relevant curriculum offerings align with Minnesota standards and best practice instruction;
Provide additional professional development for all district representatives, including the board of education, to increase awareness and deeper understanding and common learning;
Cultivate a school culture in which brave work and tough conversations are the expectation to ensure that each child feels safe, accepted, heard and included;
Support a district student services and equity director;
Commit to publicly communicating equity work on the district website through a transparent and common communications framework;
Provide resources that will support the state standards and enrich the curriculum to reflect all racial, ethnic, cultural, age, gender and ability diversities; and
Adhere to the district’s professional responsibility to report misconduct, harassment or bullying.
“I appreciate it,” Shogren said of the letter. “I think it’s an important letter, but the bullet points are the most important part and the work that we can do going forward.”
Black Lance and Boyles said the district has to be completely transparent with the public regarding how it goes about achieving these goals, with regular reports, updates and published outreach at each step of the process. This fell in line with Haglin’s perspective on the issue, though he ultimately voted against the letter.
“I'd like to see a progress report in writing, where we are, in terms of line by line, what we are committing to? The cause is, of course, very important. We want to have that kind of comfort for every child. It doesn’t matter who they are, the color of their skin, or their beliefs. There are things I’ve been uncertain about that are written in this letter,” Haglin said. “There’s a lot of financial statements. I’m just not comfortable committing to it.”
Boyles also noted he was happy the language of the letter was more broad and general than specifically issues of race or those pertaining to Native American students. He took aim at accusations that the board intended to further some kind of critical race theory conspiracy, characterizing backlash from the community on this front as misguided. In particular, he took issue with debates over the real meanings and intentions of terms like equality and equity when it's used in this context.
“My new favorite one is equity versus equality,” Boyles said. “If we employ that philosophy, across the board — let’s just forget the school district for a moment. All men's shoes should be made the size nine and a half because that's the average men shoe size. … We can stop free and reduced meal programs. We can stop the Brainerd Learning Center, where some of our most at-risk students go to get a second chance at graduating from high school. Those are all forms of equity. Now, if racial equity is your issue, that's fine, we can have a dialogue about that. But, equality and equity are not the same thing.”
Echoing Black Lance, Shogren, Nelson and Nystrom, Boyles said it may be a difficult process and require the district to take a hard look at itself, but the end goal was more than worth it.
“It’s just words,” Boyles said of the letter. “We’re just laying down railroad tracks. We’ve still got to put a train on this thing and run it.”