Dr. Dena Simmons has lectured all over the country on equity and inclusion in schools. She has faced her share of pushback and knows to expect it. She even welcomes it as part of a healthy discussion.
But the veteran educator wasn’t expecting what happened earlier this year after she spoke during a seminar hosted by the Naperville school district. Her keynote talk focused on the importance of self-care and community.
“It was the first time I have ever received so much hate mail and an article, several articles, that were aimed to discredit me, and threats,” Simmons said, who also reported getting messages that told her to “go back to Africa” or accused her of being racist.
This came after an anonymous teacher took issue with the program, which also covered anti-racist teaching and experiences of marginalized groups. The teacher took some of the seminar materials to The Federalist, a conservative online magazine. Simmons said an article misrepresented her and the work of the district.
Simmons is the founder of LiberatED, a collective focused on social and emotional learning, racial justice and healing. She says the reaction to her speech in Naperville is a reflection of what’s happening nationally. Over the past few years, more schools have incorporated diversity, equity and inclusion programs into their missions, and it accelerated after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. But the rise in DEI programs was followed by backlash, including at the highest levels of government.
“When former President Trump was in office, he was trying to put in an executive order where we should put an end to diversity training because it separates people,” Simmons said.
Simmons believes that reinforced a false idea that DEI work is partisan, and similar rhetoric against anti-racism work continues. In Oklahoma, for example, state lawmakers recently approved a bill that would ban teaching critical race theory in schools. Recently, the Biden administration proposed a grant program for teaching U.S. history that prioritizes efforts to reflect the diversity of all students. A number of House Republicans criticized it, saying it’s divisive.
In Naperville, Simmons wasn’t the only one to receive harassing messages following the February seminar.
One email said the superintendent was “lying subhuman scum” who needed to be protested while out with his family. Another said the district should get rid of “all the black bigots.”
Naperville District 203 Superintendent Dan Bridges says he’s taken aback by these hateful messages, especially since the district is in its third year of equity work.
“We’ve heard from a couple of individuals from time to time questioning and wondering the relevance or the purpose of our work,” Bridges said. But, he added, “We’ve not had the type of reaction we’ve had recently.”
The district has been at this work for a few years, starting in earnest when it hired Dr. Rakeda Leaks as head of diversity and inclusion in 2018. Leaks asks staff to be open to learning something that might feel uncomfortable but to feel safe asking questions.
“Even something like white privilege — in no way is this about shame and blame,” she said. “It is about being critically self-reflective.”
School district said equity efforts are about students, not politics
Bridges, the Naperville superintendent, says there is overwhelming support from the school board and staff for this work. It’s a small number who disagree, and a lot of the hateful messages appear to be coming from outside of the community, he said.
Social studies teacher Seth Brady is one of the supporters of the district’s efforts. He says equity work is not only important for academics but helps give students a welcoming learning environment.
He recalls an incident from 2019 when a white student at his high school posted a Craigslist ad trying to sell a Black student. It sent outrage through the district, and some parents and students said it was not the first of its kind. Brady says it was a moment of realization that he wasn’t listening to students in the degree he should be.
“I think too often we’re concerned with doing the grand tour of curriculum and not taking the time to think about how each student in the class is thinking through those issues,” he said. “The training as a social studies teacher, it opens the door to address these issues much more head on.”
Bridges says it’s sad that the equity efforts are viewed as partisan, when it’s really about the success of students. The school district isn’t following a trend. Rather the DEI initiative is a necessity, he said.
“We’re a very-high achieving school district,” Bridges said. “But when you pull that onion back a little bit and take a much closer look, you see that there’s some pretty significant opportunity and achievement gaps. You look at some of the other data in our school district; we have disproportionate suspension rates.”
Simmons, who was harassed after the Naperville seminar, says what’s happening there and around the country can’t just be reduced to partisanship. This resistance has always existed at some level.
But she says there’s hope. The people who attacked her didn’t take the time to consider her as a person. It may sound Pollyannaish, but she thinks the simple act of spending time with a person should be the baseline.
“I’m not saying we have to agree,” Simmons said. “I’m saying we, at least, need to acknowledge, respect and recognize another’s humanity.”