When the Culture War Comes for Your Job

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S1: I wanted to know if Brittany Hogan had watched those videos

S2: that I read, this one

S1: from the ones from school board meetings all over the country,

S3: just because I do not want critical race theory taught to my children in school

S1: does not mean I am a racist. Damn it,

S4: if you have materials that you’re providing, Worth says if you were born a white male, you were born in agressor, you are abusing our

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S1: children.

S3: It was too familiar for me to even be comfortable watching that.

S1: Brittany spent the last eight years working in a school district just outside St. Louis, Missouri. So she’s in her own versions of these meetings when she reads about the vicious fights over what parents are calling critical race theory. She looks past the people at the microphones. She looks for the teachers, administrators, the people on the receiving end of all this.

S3: Your heart breaks for them, you know, how do you take care of others when you’re struggling to take care of yourself? So I thought about that a lot. And so I limited some of my viewing of what’s been happening.

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S1: Here’s what Brittany knows better than most these protesters, they aren’t just showing up to public meetings, they’re picking up their phones, tapping out messages on Facebook. And over the last year, as Brittany led diversity efforts for the Rockwood school district, she got to know them.

S3: I spoke to someone who basically told me that my work was immoral. And I was like and it was ungodly.

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S1: Ungodly.

S3: Yes, tell me my work was ungodly. And also told me at the same time that they would pray for me.

S1: Parents called to question her credentials, sometimes they complained about her staff, like when one of them wore a T-shirt saying she was a proud black social worker. Eventually Brittany local school board meetings required metal detectors.

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S3: I’m sorry, I’m trying I’m going back in my head, and sometimes when I talk about these things, it’s like reliving the trauma.

S1: Did you have very many black colleagues you could go to for support?

S3: I know I don’t. I was the highest ranking black woman in Rockwood. I have staff in my department who were who are also people of color, but I didn’t want to put the burden of them trying to support who is their leader, me, in terms of what was happening. But I did want to be honest with them. So they were aware because we were also getting calls about them. Hmm. But there was a level of a leader of me trying to also protect them and shield them. And so I was taking as much of the hit every time it happened.

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S1: Have you gotten calls like this before or emails or messages like this before? Because my understanding is that you’d worked in Rockwood for years. Yes.

S3: I don’t think that when you work with people and you work with different personalities, everything is always going to be fine. I think that’s normal. This year it was in a a lot more of a hostile environment which made it feel unsafe. And then you add on top of it like being the only black woman in the leadership role. And so there’s there are parts of that are very isolating and it’s isolating whether things are good or bad. But when things feel bad, it reminds you more of how alone you feel. And that’s hard.

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S1: Today on the show, conservatives have spent a year riling up their base against diversity and inclusion education, and people like Brittany got caught in the crossfire. Her story reveals how relationships between parents and educators unraveled so quickly. A Mary Harris, you’re listening to what next? Stick around. Brittany Hogan originally join the Rockwood school district to work with their bussing program. She coordinated the system that brings fourteen hundred mostly black and brown kids from St. Louis out to the suburbs each 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. And for most kids, this is a 45 minute bus ride each way.

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S3: That’s a huge commitment. 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 from 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 see my role. And Rockwood is being like these. 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.

S1: Brittany says. Even though her school 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.

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S3: So I would say over the last five years or so, we’ve had some really engaging conversations about how we were ensuring that all children felt welcome in our building, that our curriculum will be inclusive. And I will honestly say a lot of the times, some of the time it was started by the kids, the kids openly and honestly saying that they wanted to see different perspectives and the things that we were teaching in school. And we are here to serve the children. And so when the children talk, we’re supposed to listen. And so that’s what we were doing. So the work that we have been doing did not just start in the last year. It’s been a continuous thing. And I’ve been really proud of the work and I’ve been proud of being part of that work and being part of those conversations and ensuring that the kids are saying reflections of themselves in a lot of that started with just conversations, conversations with administrators and with teachers looking at the books that we were selecting, looking at realizing what I thought was missing, because I know what it’s like to be a black kid in a very white environment. And I knew that there were points where I didn’t really see a whole lot of reflections of myself. And I wanted a different experience for the kids that I was serving.

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S1: Sounds like in some ways you feel like you were given a chance, like the kids and the teachers were like, let’s do this. And you’re like, great, let’s do it.

S3: Yeah, but you have to win people over, right, like that’s about relationships. And so it’s taken a long time to build those relationships and allowing people to be vulnerable with you and to trust you, that you’re not leading them in the wrong direction, that you will support them when they are fearful of having some of these conversations. And then it’s also about giving them the tools to be able to do those things.

S1: So eventually your role evolved. You went from working with a bussing program to working with the district entirely. And by last summer, you had the title director of Educational Equity and Diversity. What did that mean for your day in and day out? Were you in classrooms? Where you talking to teachers? How did it work?

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S3: So I’ve been doing the same role for the last six years, but I got a title Change the Summer and I got some increased responsibility. But for the last couple of years, this has been the work that I’ve been doing, very similar to the work that I was doing as a director. So, yes, I met with students, I met with teachers and administrators. I met with parents. I set and curriculum meetings. I helped with social emotional learning because I also supervised the social workers and the social, emotional, behavioral specialists.

S1: All that stuff must have become so much more high stakes during covid.

S3: Absolutely. During when we were at home for the pandemic, we fed kids every day, five days a week. We had buses running in St. Louis City every day and we also have food drop offs to distribute meals. And my team and I handled that along with our bus company. And so that was a huge undertaking. Not only do we make sure kids have food every day, we also to make sure they had the supplies, they had grown books. If they needed a hot spot, they had that. They had their supplies of the books that they needed if they needed a notebook, if they needed pencils, papers, whatever. And then it’s also the components of life still goes on. In the midst of a pandemic, there were students who had house fires, families that were displaced, all these things. And so there’s an amazing team of social workers who did a great job ensuring that all our kids get what they need it.

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S1: So when did you first become aware of this group, the concerned parents of Rockwood, when did they start emerging?

S3: They started emerging this summer during the pandemic, so 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, you know, in August of last year, in July of last year, there was a lot of uncertainty about what was going to happen, where are we going to start in and where are we going to start virtually. And there were a lot of parents in that group, from my understanding, because it’s a private group. I’ve never been a member of the group or any of those things that went in school to start in person and session. And so that was a huge issue. And then when it was announced that we weren’t that that was also an issue. And so those parents were very vocal either if they were for or against us going virtual. And that’s where it started.

S1: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that the story of what happened over the last year begins with the pandemic and then it changes and shape shifts and becomes about other things. Like I understand when your first run ins with this concerned parents group happened this past fall when teachers were doing read aloud of books featuring black and brown kids. What happened there?

S3: We have an amazing curriculum team. And so one of the L.A. So when 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. And so so you can

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S1: just like log in and have a book read to you. Basically, if you’re a kid, your home, your parents are busy.

S3: Yes. Yes. Which is amazing. So so the teachers could also play them in class, which they did. 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.

S1: He was in the challenger.

S3: He was in the challenger. Right. 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.

S1: Why were parents upset about this book?

S3: You know, if you would have to ask them, I don’t know, because what I believe is that Ron McNair is an American hero. And 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. And 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 concern parent group. And 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 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.

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S1: In what kind of way did it go viral where people like I can’t believe they’re reading this or were they like, why are these parents concerned?

S3: 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. Like, 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 got a lot of parents who came forward and said, I want to buy a class library of this story, Iran’s ignition, so that every kid has a copy in my kid’s elementary school. Amazing. We had several parents who said that 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.

S1: So this became like a good news story.

S3: 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 outweigh the bad news in their voices. And so they got quiet for this one. But I think they continue to ramp up things that that was just the start of the complaints.

S1: When we come back, how this parent group ramped things up. Listening to the way things unraveled in Rockwood, you start to understand how in some school districts, tension between parents and administrators has been building for months before grabbing national attention this spring. Brittany says she first noticed it back in January. The curriculum department asked if they could partner with her on a district wide book club. Everyone in the community was invited to read the same book and talk about it on Zoome. The book they chose was stamped by Jason Reynolds. It’s actually a reworking of an Ibram Kennedy book written in a way kids can understand it bluntly, walks them through the history of racist ideas, calls them ridiculous.

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S3: And then I said absolutely like this is an amazing book. I 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 so in every day I would tweet out of the picture like, hey, here’s this parent, join us and talking about this, learning about it and discussing it. And I guess that made people really uncomfortable. What did they say? And so I got accused of being racist against white people. I got accused of being divisive of. Not. Basically not being a good person, not 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, like 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 supervisors basically like 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 if she’s doing this and those type of things? So it continued. And then because there are parents and other educators that I know who were in the Concerned Parents group, who were kind of just seeing what was being posted, they started continuously sending these screenshots of how I was being talked about, the negative things that were being said about me. And it was very disruptive, like mentally, it was very disruptive for me. It made me feel very anxious. And it got to the point where I did feel like not like anyone was saying there were going to come and hurt me at that point, but it was making me feel like my physical safety could be in jeopardy based on how heightened the words and what we’re being said was occurring and what I was saying. And so, like, intuitively, I felt like this was getting to a really bad and negative place. So physically it was beginning to make me sick, like headaches and like my stomach hurting. And then mentally I was just drained

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S1: because fear takes a lot of energy.

S3: It does. It takes a whole lot of energy. Also, knowing that people feel like they hate you also doesn’t feel very good. Like literally people not knowing you, but talking about you like you’re the worst person on earth. It’s draining.

S1: I’m kind of curious, like. In the spring, when things seem to get worse with these parents who were upset about what was happening at the school. Did you kind of wonder, like, where are those other parents that were there in the fall to say, you know, hey, we support the work that’s being done? You know why? Like, did you ever wonder, like, why aren’t those parents showing up at the school board meetings?

S3: So what I will say is that when some of them caught wind, how serious things were getting, they were beginning to show up. So it happened in some aspects. You know, I don’t need anyone fighting my bullies. I don’t need anyone going on social media and trolling other people. But what I really needed were people who wanted to say, how are you? Are you OK? I see you. I’m here with you. I empathize with you. What can I do to support you? Those are the things that I was really in need of because that’s how I feel for other people. And as a social worker and also as a person, as just an empathetic soul. And I really needed people to show up for me in that manner. And I had people who did, without a doubt. But I can’t say that everyone showed up like that.

S1: Yeah. To me, one of the things that stands out about your story is there are all these moments where the district seems to be trying to act in the right way and people in the district try to be acting 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, which seems like something someone who cares about the black and brown community might do.

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S3: Absolutely.

S1: But it just triggers these bad actors who, as far as I can tell. Are just waiting for something to seize on.

S3: Yeah, because I mean, 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 here, the two highest ranking black people in Rockwood because of the things that were being said on social media to the point where our chief security officer felt that things were said and indirectly said that made him concerned about the safety of Terri and I. One story that Terry talks about is he says that he got an email that morning and it said, protect your people. And it was screenshots of things that were being said. And the person said and who sent the email says, please be concerned about the safety of Brittany and Terry.

S1: Hmm. So named you.

S3: Yes.

S1: I’m so sorry. I don’t I don’t even know what to say to that. I’m just I just want to say that out loud. I’m sorry.

S3: I pray for. I appreciate that. Thank you.

S1: How do you explain what was happening? Like, do you do you live with family? Like, how did you.

S3: My family’s in Chicago. And this is this is the hard part. So. I didn’t tell my parents right away because I didn’t want them. And. When I did, I told my mom before I told my dad and my dad cry. And that’s really the moment that I decided that this job was no longer worth. Making my father cry. Hmm. That probably broke my heart the worst, this is making my father cry in fear. What could possibly happen to me and I could do that to them. I got into this work and I try to live in a way. That makes my parents and my family really proud to scare them. And so. I decided that that was enough.

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S1: When did you tell your colleagues that you didn’t feel like you could continue to do the job anymore?

S3: I officially told the district at the beginning of April, I finished out my contract. My contract ended June 30th. And so I do complete my contract. So I you have to be released from your contract from the board. And so once the board released me from the contract that I announced to my I announced to the district that I was resigning the next day, but I will be finishing up the school year.

S1: That must have been I mean. By this point in the school year. School board meetings involved metal detectors. Yeah. Parents. Some parents, because it’s not all parents. Continued to complain. They at some point. Seized on another book, the book, Dear Martin,

S3: Yes,

S1: and. You know, said this was something that, you know, was upsetting to them and then seized on a letter that basically. Pointed at what was happening. This administrator, she basically said parents are looking for something to complain about. It sounds like you certainly, but the entire administration felt under assault at this point.

S3: Yes, yes. And some of it was in regards to me, so. Yeah.

S1: Did you attend any of those school board meetings? No.

S3: Yeah. At that point, I did not feel safe to do that. We’re talking about a predominantly white community. I am the only black woman in the district leadership. I don’t know how more of a sore thumb could I possibly stick out at those meetings and so I wouldn’t do anything to put my safety in jeopardy. And so no, but I did watch them. I watch them online, along with sometimes like a thousand people literally that were tuning in for our board meetings. At that point.

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S1: That must be like the most popular board meeting.

S3: The district center had never seen anything like never seen anything like that.

S1: Yeah, I keep thinking back to that. First moment we talked about that, the transmission book and the. Arguments about that and how at first it seemed like a win, it seemed like a good news story, parents really showed up and. I’m wondering if you look back on that and you think at all, is there something the district could have done at that moment to realize, like hold that we came close to an edge there and like to avoid going over the edge? We need to do something now.

S3: It’s taking me a while to get to the point where I realized that maybe it wasn’t a win. So I don’t have any answers for what could have been done differently, because, you know, hindsight is 20/20. I think that as anyone within my position, I’m replaying a lot of moments in my head. And so for a long time, I thought that was a way. And I do still somewhat think it was a win, but I think that there were. Other steps that could have been taken, and I just don’t have the answers for that at the moment, I’m still processing.

S1: Yeah, I hear you. How much do you blame covid for what happened over the last year, like, do you think

S3: it sounds like an individual, like to blame Tommy for what happened?

S1: Well, it’s funny because I just look at it. I think it everyone’s Rhorer and I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that means that, like, now we’ve jammed into this, like, overheated position and it’s hard to come back from or whether it means that when people start mixing more. Things will. Be less angry, I don’t know, I’m just curious how you think about it.

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S3: I think covid. Highlighted the inequities and the issues of the system, of the system of education, of the framing of health care and how we treat first responders and first line workers. I think that it just brought a lot of things that were under the surface to the surface. So I can’t I can’t blame Kobe for the issues. But what I can’t say is that it magnetize them.

S1: What do you want to do next? It sounds like the diversity work is so important to you, but I imagine that you may have mixed feelings about going back into an educational setting.

S3: Yeah, so I’m taking a little bit of a break from that right now, and I’m doing work in the nonprofit sector, which is where I came from before I got into education and the space that I love, support and community showing up for people, helping people learn and connect and being resourceful so that that makes me really happy. I do do equity coaching. I want to continue to be a bright spot in education. I want to continue to show up and support educators as they work to support children and communities. So what that looks like at this point, I’m not really sure I’m still figuring that out. This is still pretty fresh.

S1: Brittany, I’m I’m really grateful that you decided to have this conversation with me. Thank you.

S3: Oh, Mary thank you so much. Are you going to use all those crying pass? Yeah.

S1: My God, I got to say, we

S3: might OK, but

S1: we give so much space to the yelling people, you know. We do.

S3: We do.

S1: We I’d like to give space to someone else. Brittany Hogan is the former director of educational equity and inclusion at the Rockwood School District in Missouri. And that is our show, What Next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Danielle, Hewitt, Mary Wilson and Elaine Schwartz. We are led by Allison Benedict and Alicia MacMurray, a Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary desk tomorrow. Lizzie O’Leary will be here for what next TBD. That is our Friday show, which means I will catch you back here on Monday.