Farmington district launched ‘equity challenge.’ Protests erupted

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Parents and others protested on Tuesday a recent Farmington Public Schools “equity challenge” they said promotes racial division and political indoctrination but what the district called a voluntary outreach effort "about the very diverse population within our own community."

Bearing homemade signs with messages such as "Family Lives Matter" and "Keep Politics Out of the Classroom," dozens stood in the cold outside North Farmington High ahead of a school board meeting to voice their opposition and call for the district to end the practice.

"Why are they trying to change the culture?" said Eugene Greenstein, a longtime Farmington Hills resident who joined the demonstrators. "... It's just evil but it's all done in the name of self-righteousness."

Tamra Farah, executive director of MomForce at Moms for America, joins the protesters before the Farmington Public Schools board meeting at North Farmington High School on Tuesday.

The uproar comes as educators across the country grapple with reactions to approaching how race is taught in classrooms.

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The district’s optional “21-Day Equity Challenge" was open to staff and residents in the district in an online program that did not become part of the curriculum. Held in November, it was modeled after a similar initiative by the United Way for Southeastern Michigan and “curated to contain information about the very diverse population within our own community,” the district said.

“… 21 Day Equity challenges are designed to offer participants the chance to deliberately focus on issues of equity on a daily basis. By building an ‘equity habit,’ we believe we can learn how to more effectively understand and celebrate our differences," it said.

The challenge featured “weekly wonderings and Reflections Zoom sessions” that allowed residents to interact with each other and ask questions, Superintendent Chris Delgado said in a statement.

“These activities were completely optional and community members were invited to participate in as many or as few of the activities as they would like,” said Bobbie Goodrum, the district’s assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and inclusion, who coordinated the challenge.  

The guidelines and materials for the initiative, which no longer appear on the district website, were gleaned from sources including the Justice Leaders Collaborative, the Equity Literacy Institute and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, officials said.

News of the effort has sparked controversy since the website for the conservative Young America’s Foundation last month said someone reported the challenge’s “pseudoscientific leftist talking points” through its campus bias tip line.

A section adapted from a book, “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation,” listed the statement “America is the land of opportunity” as among comments that “assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes,” according to the document the foundation posted.

Understanding how some comments are perceived is "crucial," board president Terri Weems told the audience Tuesday. "The board of education wants to promote adult behaviors that support a culture of equity and innovation ... This includes being able to respond to real life challenges and experiences."

Board president Terri Weems during the meeting Tuesday acknowledged the program discussed the section.

Addressing the sections of the challenge materials that sparked controversy, she said it did not call on participants to join the Black Lives Matter group and the "microaggression" resource list aimed to explain how some comments are perceived.

Understanding those perceptions is "crucial," Weems told the audience. "The board of education wants to promote adult behaviors that support a culture of equity and innovation... We believe in addition to learning basic math or English and science that our students need other skills, which we hear from employers are necessary to be successful. This includes being able to respond to real life challenges and experiences, thinking critically and creatively, being able to communicate clearly and effectively, considering multiple experiences, responding to diverse viewpoints with an open mind, sensitivity and understanding."

Demonstrators from groups including the Oakland County Republican Party and Moms for America denounced the challenge, which they said was divisive and sent the wrong message about race relations, history and culture. 

"These racially dividing initiatives … are wrong, period," said Debbie Kraulidis, a leader with the national Moms for America, during a press conference that accompanied the protest held before the board meeting.  

Oakland County Republican Party chairman Rocky Raczkowski added: "Don’t indoctrinate. Educate."

District officials said protesters were not looking at all parts of the challenge and taking individual sections out of context.

District officials said the equity challenge should be considered as a whole and not by its individual parts. "It never was intended to stand alone because absent the context of the dialogue, individual (statements) could be misinterpreted or even misrepresented," said district superintendent Chris Delgado at the school board meeting Tuesday.

"It never was intended to stand alone because absent the context of the dialogue, individual (statements) could be misinterpreted or even misrepresented," Delgado said.

Weems during the meeting said the district had received complaints about the challenge but the administration planned to continue its efforts to bolster diversity, equity and inclusion.

"As we become increasingly diverse in our society and as the world continues to change, it is important to become culturally competent to effectively live and collaborate with people of different racial cultural and ethnic backgrounds," Weems said. "I appreciate that some people in our community, and certainly members outside of our community, may feel differently. But this is why we’ve developed, in connection with our community, our strategy."

Over nearly three hours of public comment, dozens backed or thanked the district. Some who spoke carried purple paper hearts with messages such as "truth" and "respect."

"This is only the beginning of a much-needed conversation and I really appreciate your efforts in striving towards values that reflect our diverse community," said Eden Joyrich, who graduated from the district.

Jordan Scrimger, another graduate, said she supported having the equity challenge resume.

"Attempting to shut down conversations about race and racism is not the way to end political divisiveness," she told the board.

Other speakers decried the move, questioning both its content and intent.

"It’s not diversity training," Sam Harris said. "It’s programming. It’s brainwashing."

Meanwhile, supporters launched a petition calling for the practice to continue. “We ask that our elected officials be permitted to carry out their sworn duties without threats and intimidation, and without the interference of outsiders with larger agendas to divide us, neighbor against neighbor,” the petition said.

Debates have erupted over critical race theory, a way of thinking about America’s history that centers on the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions and that they function to maintain the dominance of White people in society. Republican-controlled states have invoked it in legislation restricting how race can be taught in public schools, the Associated Press reported.

Others promote the theory as an academic framework found in legal studies and academia that examines history through the lens of racism. 

Some parents argue it teaches their children to be ashamed, while school districts have defended equity and inclusion programs as attempting to foster greater fairness and inclusion.

The issue and accusations that educators in Michigan's K-12 schools are teaching CRT has divided communities and ended school board meetings.

Last year, state lawmakers introduced legislation that prohibits teaching that any race is inherently superior or inferior to any other, that the United States is a fundamentally racist country and that a person is inherently racist or oppressive based on race.

The bills prompted the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in November to pass a resolution calling for academic freedom and opposition to censorship in state public schools.