Missed Opportunity at New Trier’s Seminar On Race

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The documentary, New Trier: Tip of the Spear is filmmaker and New Trier parent, Paul Traynor’s film about the controversy surrounding New Trier’s Feb. 28 Seminar Day of Race. The subject is how conservative national activists attempted to insert their own agenda into New Trier’s grassroots community.

New Trier compromised and hosted separate locations for opposing views on seminar day. Their answer to the debate wasn’t a solution. It  was a lost opportunity for students to learn how, and why, opposing groups must connect.

This year’s seminar theme was- “Understanding Today’s Struggle for Racial Civil Rights.” Two National Book award winning authors, Colson Whitehead and Andrew Aydin, were the keynote speakers. Students picked from over 100 workshops dealing with such topics as; civil rights activism, housing rights, civil rights in sports, Native American rights, and gospel music. New Trier teachers spoke on specific moments or people in history, and outside speakers discussed their disciplines, and what changes they hope their work would accomplish.

At first, arguments remained local. Some parents argued the seminar reflected an unbalanced liberal view of racism. They wanted more discussions about economic inequality and less about racial inequality.

Traynor showed how this discussion moved from economic inequality and became a heated protest about inserting a ‘different world view’ into the seminar’s agenda.  The Christian-heavy and conservative undertone of this new agenda pitted parents against each other.  Parents siding with the seminar’s original mission argued the day was an opportunity to foster understanding between races. I noticed the issue of economic disparity was dropped from the discussion, and replaced with charges of racism on both sides.

Traynor explained the voice calling for the ‘different world view’ was not the original main opposition.  The push did not come from the parents of New Trier students, but was spearheaded through a few vocal parents backed by the Illinois Family Institute.   This conservative group’s mission is “Promoting marriage, family, life, and liberty in the Land of Lincoln.” After reading the page my opinion is, they will promote you if you are Christian and straight.  Another conservative group, ALEC also became involved in the controversy.   They work with a corporate governing board to pass legislation benefitting corporations at the expense of the public sector and social programs.  Traynor’s film asked-What do these powerful and national conservative organizations gain by weighing in on a local school matter? Especially when the actual number of parents in opposition to Seminar Day was very small?

Traynor believed these organizations took the grassroots approach as the next step towards dismantling our public-school system. The documentary showed it’s not possible to attack a respected and wealthy school, like New Trier, on economics or low test scores. But it is possible to subvert the school system by attacking their politics. This divides the members of the community and gives them an opportunity to insert their own agenda into the community’s politics. Taynor’s opinion is this will eventually lead to charter schools and vouchers; systems and policies which promote the mission and enrich the coffers of these organizations.

He backed up his charges with solid research. I urge you to watch the film, because he explained the process in more detail than I am able to on this post. I applaud Traynor and the New Trier parents for not backing down. They called out the bullies, and refused to let them hijack the mission of Seminar Day.

But I still have my reservations. The goals of the seminar were to help “students better understand how the struggle for racial civil rights stretches across our nation’s history, that people of diverse racial backgrounds were involved in each chapter in this history, and how previous civil rights movements connect with the issues that we are discussing today.” The staff of New Trier tried to reach these goals with a wide range of workshops.

One of the “issues we are discussing today” is race and economic inequality. New Trier compromised and allowed students to opt-out of seminar day and attend a discussion off campus. The day-long, off-campus workshop was led by conservative businessman and pastor Corey B. Brooks. I agree with the addition of another diverse voice into the workshop, but New Trier failed the students by holding it off-campus.

They lost an opportunity to create a connection between “previous civil rights movements with the issues we are discussing today.” They lost an opportunity to listen, to learn, and to discover together.  They lost the opportunity to debate progressive and conservative views in an academic setting. They lost the opportunity to learn how to act as one governing body. Allowing Mr. Brooks to hold his own seminar off-campus physically separated students with opposing views from each other.

My message to New Trier- You were a poor example of the process of conflict resolution.

The Illinois Family Institute and ALEC used the argument of economics to gain a foothold. They promoted the narrow, corporate, and separate Christian views they uphold. These groups are effective because they give the impression they are listening to people who feel shut out. New Trier had an opportunity to point this out, and had an opportunity to show the students the art of listening.

I don’t remember who said this, so I’ll paraphrase, “Conflicts aren’t necessarily searching for solutions. But conflicts arise from the struggle to be heard.”

We need to understand just who is listening. And why?

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