Karen Rubado, a teacher and local union president in Pequot Lakes, knows exactly when a shift happened in her district.
The then-superintendent filmed a video for an event highlighting rural equity efforts and discussed how educators had gone through training from The SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) and his reasons for wanting to bring educational equity to their district.
“Then it got shared online,” Rubado said.
Since then, school board meetings have become loud and angry, she said.
Rubado and Education Minnesota-Pequot Lakes, as well as other educators and local unions across Minnesota are experiencing what is becoming a national movement, attacking honesty in education and racial equity efforts.
Using words like “critical race theory,” this coordinated effort is a key focus of places like Fox News.
Minnesota educators who are working to review the social studies standards on state law-driven 10-year cycle are also seeing this divisive language playing out in their work.
In Minnesota, this includes a public relations campaign by an affiliate of the Koch propaganda network called the Center of the American Experiment, which hosted a tour on the topic this summer.
For Rubado and other educators, tensions are running high within their districts.
“We’ve had an uptick in angry emails from parents, when maybe there wouldn’t have been a concern or a concern would have been addressed more collaboratively,” she said. “There have been accusations on a Facebook page of things that aren’t happening in our schools.”
For Pequot educators, they are working with a new superintendent to stay on the same team.
“We have teachers that attend the school board meetings, since that group also attends them all,” Rubado said. “We feel the vast majority of our community is not against equity. It’s a small group. They are just very loud. A lot of our community members just don’t know what to do.”
As a local union, Education Minnesota-Pequot Lakes has been hosting social justice happy hours, a space where members can attend and just talk about what’s happening in their schools, classrooms and community.
“It’s been great for people to have the time to process and gather in a very casual, collegial way,” said Rubado. “It went from once a month to every other week to people asking to have one every week.”
Rubado also says the local is gearing up to endorse candidates in their 2022 school board races.
South St. Paul social studies teacher Mark Westpfahl was also surprised by how loud a group could get, when he started hearing people question the proposed social studies standards.
“I’m still blown away that I’ll encounter someone in the past few months that will ask me if teaching World War I is being taken away,” he said.
Westpfahl knows that the campaign of misinformation being spread about what is being taught in schools is part of the same campaign of misinformation about what is and what is not in the first draft of the social studies standards, which are not finalized as the process continues on its long-planned timeline.
“We’re still having the conversation of why can’t we hear some of the other viewpoints, which has been happening throughout the history of this country,” he said. “It doesn’t erase anything. It adds another layer of history. Most people aren’t willing to have the discussion to learn. It’s driven by fear and not by evidence of anything.”
Westpfahl knows social studies teachers across Minnesota want to be an inclusive community, talking about missing narratives.
“We can combat the argument that it’s not an erasure of history, but it’s about including voices that haven’t always been heard,” he said.
Dr. Lee-Ann Stephens, a teacher in St. Louis Park, sees these conversations extending beyond the school day in her work as an advisor to the high school’s Students Organizing Against Racism group.
Stephens says the group is full of discussions on why there is minimal representation in advanced placement classes, equity vs. equality, student-led movements and counter narratives.
“Students have a desire to have classes taught with multiple perspectives,” she said. “Their first question is always, ‘Why aren’t we learning this in school?’”
Stephens hopes other educators across Minnesota have conversations with students and their colleagues about how to create anti-racist curriculum and schools, because she knows students are having conversations about it in their own circles.
“The beauty of living in the U.S. is you can love this country and critique it,” Stephens said. “Racism continues to permeate our society and our students know it exists, especially our students of color. There’s freedom in addressing our history, the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Rochester high school teacher Natalia Benjamin also saw how students were craving more conversations about multiple perspectives when she taught an Ethnic Studies class for the first time this year.
“It was a small class, but I had a very positive response from both the students and the parents,” she said. “Something that was instrumental in it being a positive experience was to touch on topics, have hard conversations and look at different perspectives. It’s not about teaching one certain way, but having students have those discussions to come up with their own conclusions.”
Teaching students to build their activism and find solutions to issues in their community is a component of Ethnic Studies, said Benjamin.
“At the root of it is understanding people and understanding our differences and lifting each other up, so everyone has the chance to be successful,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s about our students being able to learn from different perspectives and come up with their own answers.”
Kate Schmidt, president of the Dakota County United Educators, wants to make her schools places where all students can thrive by exposing members and students to different perspectives.
The public forum section at the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board meetings began filling up with people wanting to speak against equity efforts, so now the local union has begun organizing members to speak and share what is really happening in their classrooms.
“We are planning on having speakers at every meeting,” said Jenifer Stehr, a teacher and local union leader. “We’re trying to get new teachers and teachers from different backgrounds. We have a local union social justice committee and that group is making the plans.”
Schmidt said they feel supported by their school board and district in this situation, but knows the union can be doing more to support its own members.
“We are doing member education as to what is going on through our newsletters,” she said. “We’ve talked about different trainings we can do through our local on making sure our classrooms are anti-racist. Educators are already doing so much in their classrooms, teaching books, doing restorative practices. Let’s all build on that work.”
Schmidt also said the union will be doing screenings and endorsements in their school board races that will focus on candidates who are equity-focused.
DCUE is also using their negotiating efforts to make sure members are supported in their classrooms.
“For the first time in our history, we are proposing some academic freedom language,” said Schmidt. “We have to be professionals but we’re going to teach hard things. And if someone doesn’t like it, we need to have some protections around this.”
Teaching the truth: “Critical race theory”
A growing number of people understand and publicly acknowledge the ways our laws, practices and institutions in the United States harm Black, Indigenous and other people of color.
Unfortunately, the right has resorted to its usual dog whistle strategy of distraction and division. This coordinated effort uses the phrase “critical race theory” as a catch-all for their anxieties about losing power and dominance.
The goal is to use schools and college campuses to stoke fears about what educators teach our students so they can undermine trust in our public schools and its teachers and ultimately cut education funding.
What is critical race theory?
It’s an academic framework that is more than 40 years old and is centered on the idea that racism is systemic, not just a product of individual bias or prejudice, and embedded in our policies and legal structures.
Critical race theorists shift the focus away from individual people’s actions and toward how systems uphold racial disparities.
Who’s behind the attacks
Billionaire-funded promoters, think tanks, activists, and politicians have redefined critical race theory as a sweeping term to describe anything that has to do with equity, cultural competency or education about race. This tactic is not a good-faith debate about pedagogy. It is intended to exploit racial divisions.
In Minnesota, the Center of the American Experiment toured the state in June to push its false narrative about what’s being taught in our schools to eventually prevent kids from learning our shared stories of confronting injustice.
CAE tries to disguise itself as a non-partisan think tank but pushes the agenda of its corporate donors—promoting school privatization and vouchers and vehemently opposing programs that advocate for people of color. The organization also runs active campaigns to persuade Education Minnesota members to leave their union.