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Conservatives have spent a year riling up their base against diversity and inclusion education. People like Brittany Hogan got caught in the crossfire. Hogan was the director of educational equity and diversity for the Rockwood School District in St. Louis County, Missouri, the only Black woman in a district leadership role, until a group of “concerned parents” went after her and other educators for their efforts to teach a more diverse curriculum. Parents questioned Hogan’s credentials and complained about her staff. School board meetings devolved into shouting matches, and metal detectors had to be installed. Hogan, hounded by online harassment and threats, finally resigned this spring. On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Hogan about what happened. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mary Harris: Brittany Hogan originally joined the Rockwood School District to work with the district’s busing program. She coordinated the system that brings 1,400 mostly Black and brown kids from St. Louis out to the suburbs every day. It’s the largest and longest-running program like this in the country, one that started back in the ’80s as a desegregation measure. For most kids, it’s a 45-minute bus ride each way.
Brittany Hogan: That’s a huge commitment from parents, from students. And you have to admire them and honor the fact that you allowed someone or you’ve trusted someone enough to educate your baby, to be responsible for them from the moment they get on that bus, the moment they get to school and then come back home. And that has always been how I’ve seen my role in Rockwood: These are my children. I’m responsible for them. I’m here to love and support them and to do what needs to be done to ensure that they can thrive in this space.
And you say, even though the district has this legacy of segregation and is still almost entirely white, administrators have actually done a relatively good job in the past few years adding inclusive materials to the curriculum.
Over the last five years or so, we’ve had some really engaging conversations about how we were going to ensure that all children felt welcome in our building, that our curriculum would be inclusive. And I will honestly say some of the time it was started by the kids, the kids openly, honestly saying that they wanted to see different perspectives in the things that we were teaching in school. And we are here to serve the children. When the children talk, we’re supposed to listen, and so that’s what we were doing. …
I met with students. I met with teachers. I met with administrators. I met with parents. I sat in curriculum meetings. I helped with social-emotional learning, because I also supervised the social workers and the social-emotional behavioral specialist.
When did you first become aware of this group, the Concerned Parents of the Rockwood School District?
They started emerging during the pandemic last summer. It was a group that started on Facebook. They were interested in how schools were going to be opened or closed with the start of the next school year, because there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen—were we going to start in person, were we going to start virtually. And there were a lot of parents in that group, from my understanding, that wanted school to start in person. That was a huge issue, and then when it was announced that we weren’t, that was also an issue. So those parents were very vocal, either if they were for or against us going virtual. And that’s where it started.
So the story of what happened over the last year begins with the pandemic and then it changes and becomes about other things. Your first run-ins with this concerned parents group this past fall, when teachers were doing read-alouds of books featuring Black and brown kids—what happened there?
One of the language arts coordinators, she did an amazing job curating a list of books that they would do read-aloud for that would be accessible at any time on our online platform.
So you could log in and have a book read to you, if you’re a kid, you’re home, your parents are busy.
Yes. The teachers could also play them in class, but those things were also there to be accessed. So there was a book called Ron’s Big Mission about the astronaut that was killed, Ron McNair. He was in the Challenger. It’s a story about how when he was little and living in South Carolina, he went to check out a book at the library and he was told that he couldn’t because Black people weren’t allowed to check out books.
Why were parents upset about this book?
You know what, you would have to ask them. I don’t know. Because what I believe is that Ron McNair is an American hero. Besides giving his life on the Challenger, he also did amazing things for this country, including telling the story about how he refused to leave the library until he was allowed to check out this book. And for me, these are stories and people that I want our kids to know about. These are real people. This isn’t a fairy tale, but this is a real story about someone whose life that mattered. And the book is a fantastic book. I guess it was read in a couple of the elementary schools on the read-aloud, and a couple of schools got complaints about the book and a parent posted it on the concerned parent group. I got a screenshot from another parent to say, like, Do you know anything about this? And I said, No, I don’t. I said, well, that’s unfortunate. I’ll look into it tomorrow. So I go to bed. And when I wake up the next morning, someone in the concerned parent group clearly shared it, maybe shared the screenshot with someone on Twitter, and it went viral.
Were people like, “I can’t believe they’re reading this” or “Why are these parents concerned?”?
I just saw people saying “I don’t know why parents would be concerned. This is an amazing book about an amazing hero.” And I said, oh, well, this is a win. This is amazing, to know that the community is standing behind us when we are ensuring that kids see reflections of themselves and of different people in the world, and this is great.
We had a lot of parents who came forward and said, I want to buy a class library of this story, of Ron’s Big Mission, so that every kid has a copy in my kid’s elementary school. Amazing. We had several parents whose kids were no longer even in elementary school but said, I’m going to buy them for the elementary school that my child once attended so they have a copy of this book.
So this became like a good news story.
It did become like a good news story. I think what was lying beneath was that there were still people who were upset about it and the good news outweighed the bad news and their voices. And so they got quiet for this one. But I think it continue to ramp up things, that that was just the start of the complaints.
You say you first noticed the tension between parents and administrators back in January. The curriculum department asked if they could partner with you on a districtwide book club. Everyone in the community was invited to read the same book and talk about it on Zoom. The book they chose was Stamped by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, which bluntly walks kids through the history of racist ideas.
I said, “Absolutely. This is an amazing book. I’ll help support whatever way I can.” And so I started promoting people reading it. I asked people to send me pictures of them with the book, and every day I would tweet out a new picture like, hey, here’s this parent, join us in talking about this, learning about it, discussing it. And I guess that made people really uncomfortable.
What did they say?
I got accused of being racist against white people. I got accused of being divisive, of basically not being a good person, not doing good things for children, because we’re talking about race and talking about race is racist essentially. Now, mind you, I did not pick this book. The curriculum department picked it. But I was merely supporting the work and I was getting the blame for the book. And it was getting very uncomfortable, the constant trolling on social media of accusing me of being divisive. I could post anything and they would say, like, this is a racist book. Why are you promoting this? Why do you have a job in Rockwood? If you don’t change, then we’ll get rid of your job.
And then they started emailing similar things to the superintendent and my supervisor, basically going through any of my old tweets. Anything they could find that they feel like made me sound quote-unquote racist, they were sending that to them and saying, like, how could this be possible that she’s doing this? So it continued.
And then, because there are parents and other educators that I know who were in the concerned parent group, who were seeing what was being posted, they started continuously sending me screenshots of how I was being talked about, the negative things that were being said about me. And it was very disruptive. Mentally, it was very disruptive for me. It made me feel very anxious, and it got to the point where … it was making me feel like my physical safety could be in jeopardy. And so, intuitively, I felt like this was getting to a really bad and negative place. Physically it was beginning to make me sick, like headaches and my stomach hurting. And then mentally, I was just drained.
Because fear takes a lot of energy.
It takes a whole lot of energy. Also, knowing that people feel like they hate you doesn’t feel very good. People not knowing you, but talking about you like you’re the worst person on Earth, it’s draining.
There are all these moments where the district seems to be trying to act in the right way, like the superintendent comes out in the spring and he says, OK, we’re going to get rid of the thin blue line on baseball uniforms. But it just triggers these bad actors who, as far as I can tell, are just waiting for something to seize on.
Yeah. So the superintendent made that statement on a Tuesday, and then on Thursday was when security had to be put outside the homes of myself and Dr. Terry Harris, the two highest-ranking Black people in Rockwood, because of the things that were being said on social media.
How’d you explain what was happening? Do you live with family?
My family’s in Chicago. And this is the hard part. I didn’t tell my parents right away because I didn’t want to upset them. When I did tell them, I told my mom before I told my dad. And my dad cried. And that’s really the moment that I decided that this job was no longer worth making my father cry. That probably broke my heart the worst, was making my father cry in fear of what could possibly happen to me. And I couldn’t do that to them. I got into this work, and I try to live my life in a way that makes my parents and my family really proud. Not to scare them. And so I decided that that was enough.