How The Critical Race Theory Debate Came To Hollis And Brookline
For Hollis Brookline student Alex Putney, the debate over diversity and inclusion efforts at her high school took a turn in July 2020.
Local residents had submitted a proposal to SAU 41 to “make anti-racism and equity a strategic priority” in local schools. Putney, one of the few biracial students at the mostly-white high school, thought the resolution was a great idea.
But not everyone did. At a school board meeting, the chairman of the Hollis Select Board said he had not witnessed systemic racism in his fifteen years as a town official. A mother from Brookline worried it would teach kids who “don’t see color” to be racist.
As Putney watched the live stream at home, she started texting her friends. She asked them to write down incidents of racism, sexism, and other biases they’d experienced or heard about at school.
“We wanted to disprove the narrative in the community that there isn’t racism in Hollis Brookline,” she remembers.
The towns of Hollis and Brookline are dotted with farmland, pricey houses, and some of the best-performing schools in New Hampshire. They’re also over 90 percent white. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last year, the school district set out to become more inclusive for students of color and students with other marginalized identities.
But a year in, the districts are embroiled in a debate that has shaken school boards and state legislatures far beyond New Hampshire: how schools should teach kids about racism, race, and white privilege.
Over 20 students contributed to the list Putney helped start. The list of incidents included white students using the N-word, students using a racist slur about the origins of the coronavirus early in the pandemic and a teacher who told a student being gay was a sin.
By the time they sent it to school administrators, it was over six pages long.
The list prompted the high school to look into specific incidents and the superintendent to start an advisory group on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). He recruited members from the community to join the group, including conservatives who had expressed skepticism of these efforts. For the next four months, the group met to develop a framework for a Hollis-Brookline DEI initiative.
Equity, Diversity, and the ‘Radical Ideologies’ of CRT
But as this work continued, another local group started organizing. They launched a website, AboutHollis.com, with a cartoon on the front page of a white child surrounded by words like “whiteness,” “wokeness” and “inequity.”
“I never knew I was such a horrible person,” says the thought bubble above her.
The group publishes anonymous testimonials from students about being bullied for what they consider conservative views and excerpts of classroom discussions that parents say they overheard on Zoom during remote schooling.
Among its examples: a teacher telling students Christopher Columbus was "evil," a suggestion among teachers to rethink Thanksgiving as a "day of mourning," and a high school student who said they were afraid of being called a racist if they shared their conservative views.
The source of the problem, the group writes, is the “radical ideologies” of critical race theory, or CRT. But critical race theory isn’t in the curriculum in Hollis-Brookline, nor in some of the other New Hampshire districts where the anti-CRT movement is growing.
CRT is a decades-old theory developed by legal scholars. Its basic premise is that racism is embedded in American laws and institutions, and not just the product of explicit bias. But in the last year, CRT has become a target of conservative media and a catch-all phrase among conservatives to describe diversity and equity efforts they say divide students by race.
CRT influences some anti-bias trainings for teachers. But when NHPR reviewed hundreds of pages about professional development trainings attended by Hollis-Brookline teachers over the last two years, less than a dozen focused explicitly on oppression, cultural sensitivity and racial inequity. None focused explicitly on critical race theory.
But whether critical race theory has made its way into Hollis Brookline schools through teacher training or lesson plans is beside the point, some residents say. They are alarmed by a cultural shift in the country, and they’re making sure school leaders hear about it.
‘We wanted to grow the conservatives in the community’
Marcia Donaldson, a white resident of Hollis for nearly 40 years and one of the contributors to AboutHollis.com, says this is the first time she’s gotten involved in school politics.
“I’m very concerned about education in this country and what children are being taught,” she says. “CRT is Marxist.”
While CRT draws on a variety of theorists across disciplines, including the writings of Karl Marx, scholars of the theory say it’s reductive to claim that CRT is only Marxist.
Donaldson says even if CRT isn’t taught in Hollis-Brookline, her goal is to “keep it out before it invades.”
AboutHollis.com didn’t respond to NHPR’s request for an interview, but Donaldson says the group that runs the website has a vision.
“We wanted to grow the conservatives in the community,” she says.
“Hollis had been a fairly liberal-dominated town for quite some time so - what are you going to do about it? Get going, get involved, right?”
The people behind AboutHollis.com are also organizing locally. They’ve mailed out fliers to homes in Hollis and Brookline, collected testimonials, and encouraged residents to email school board members through the website’s portal.
In April, as the towns debated a proposal to ban critical race theory in schools, AboutHollis.com introduced an amendment.
It included: welcoming students of all races and “equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.”
It also borrowed language from a Trump executive order that has served as a model for anti-CRT bills across the country, including in New Hampshire: “No individual or group, by virtue of race or sex is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive consciously or unconsciously.”
The proposal to the Hollis Brookline Cooperative School Board failed; the State House bill recently became law.
In May, as Republican state lawmakers were gathering support for the bill, AboutHollis.com hosted a forum on CRT along with the local Republican committee and the Virginia-based activist group Friends for Limited American Government.
Recently, handmade lawn signs have popped up, directing residents to the website.
And for some people, it’s hitting a chord.
At a recent Hollis Brookline Cooperative school board meeting, dozens showed up to give input on the district’s draft DEI plan, including those who had become concerned after reading AboutHollis.com.
“If you implement critical race theory, the bottom line is: one’s whiteness is going to prevent them from speaking and addressing and disagreeing,” Hollis resident Jim Gill told the board. “So what you’d be party to is not education but an indoctrination.”
“They think that the solution to racism is to be like: ‘We’re all human.’”
Critics of AboutHollis.com say the group is part of a national movement to sow distrust in public schools, galvanize Republicans ahead of midterm elections, and fight progress by racial justice advocates.
“It’s literally classic fear tactics that are being used,” says Jess Putney, a trans woman who graduated from Hollis Brookline High School in 2020.
Jess is the older sister of Alex Putney, whose list of sexist, racist, and homophobic incidents prompted the school’s DEI initiative.
Jess doesn’t buy conservatives’ argument that focusing on equality, rather than equity among people of all races, will rid the school of racism.
“They think that the solution to racism is to be like: ‘We’re all human. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s unite under our humanity,’” she says. “Which is very kumbaya and great, but the reality of the situation is: We view everyone on the street based on how they look. And you can say you don’t, but you do, whether that’s unconsciously or consciously.”
Here, as in many New Hampshire towns, the debate over diversity and inclusion has very little input from people of color, in part because there are so few of them in the area.
“A lot of these conversations are white folks talking to other white folks about how we should talk about issues concerning people of color,” says Lisa Akey, a white mom who recently moved to Brookline in large part for the schools.
Akey is part of local groups on Facebook that promote racial justice. Some Facebook groups, such as Hollis-Brookline NH - Stronger Together, have been organizing to promote the district's diversity work and fight what they see as efforts to thwart it.
But Akey says they don’t yet have a “playbook” to respond to the anti-CRT campaign or to find common ground with anti-CRT activists.
“Deep down, we all agree on things like keeping our children safe and healthy and making sure our kids have a good education,” she says. “But the way that this CRT debate is being presented is clouding the conversation and making it counterproductive for actually making the school district an inclusive place.”
The Role Of Teachers And Parents
Central to this controversy is a fundamental disagreement over the roles of teachers in helping students navigate a politically polarized world where social media often flattens the nuance of any debate.
Many proponents of diversity and equity efforts say public school is one of the best places for students to learn about how history and their identity impact them, and how to empathize with others.
“Students need to feel safe, accepted, and a sense of connection if they are expected to learn,” says Rick Barnes, the former principal of Hollis Brookline High School.
Barnes met regularly this past year with students to learn about their experiences of racism and other forms of discrimination. He says he wishes “everyone could know the thoughtful and respectful manner” of their conversations, which remain confidential.
But Andrew Scott, a father who served on the district’s diversity committee, says the approach of some teachers and public institutions has conservative students and residents feeling silenced.
He’s met with the superintendent and a handful of students who say teachers didn’t welcome their conservative views.
“It created an environment where students didn’t feel like they could speak - they felt like because of the environment that the teacher in these types of classes creates, it gave license to fellow students to come after them...on social media, in class.”
Scott believes the work of AboutHollis is not for political gain; he says it comes from genuine concerns among parents, students and some teachers.
He says he’s not against students understanding their biases, but he doesn’t think that’s what most diversity and equity initiatives do.
“If it gets down to the underlying principle and it ultimately is: there’s an oppressor and there’s a victim or an oppressed, that’s what I’m against,” he says.
‘There is patience required’
SAU 41 is still working on its draft DEI framework.
Scott, who contributed to the draft, says he thinks it is headed in the right direction, and he says it’s spurred important conversations about what the community means when it uses the words diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Alex Putney says she doesn’t think the backlash against diversity efforts means they failed.
“I also learned a lot that there is patience required in some of these things,” she says. “Because obviously you can’t change a community in one whole year.”
Hollis Brookline Coop Board Chairwoman Holly Deurloo Babcock says it’s no coincidence that this issue is coming to the fore after a year of anxiety and isolation.
”The pandemic has impacted us in such a horrible way,” she told residents at a recent school board meeting. “And we're all so angry and frustrated. Our kids are angry and frustrated. Our community is angry and frustrated. And it’s that anger that is driving us apart instead of bringing us together.”
Babcock says the district is listening to community feedback, but its number one priority is responding to the concerns of students — of all backgrounds.