Listen: 20210630_PKG: Pequot Lakes (Shockman)

Many Minnesota school districts are launching equity programs in an attempt to correct Minnesota’s well-documented and long-standing racial inequalities. But in numerous places, groups of parents, and sometimes students, are combating those programs. Education reporter Elizabeth Shockman followed just such a battle over SEED program in the rural, mostly white district of Pequot Lakes in north-central Minnesota.


2021 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Hard Feature - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: Many Minnesota School districts are launching equity programs in an attempt to correct Minnesota's well-documented and long-standing racial inequalities. But in numerous places, groups of parents and sometimes students are combating those programs. Education reporter Elizabeth Shockman followed just such a battle in one rural, mostly white district in North Central Minnesota.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: When Pequot Lakes School Board Vice Chair Curt Johnson walked into the high school gymnasium for a school board meeting last month, he saw a crowd of more than 150 people waiting on the bleachers. It was more people than he'd ever seen at a meeting in his 16 years on the board. A school resource officer in uniform stood nearby in case things got out of hand. The meeting lasted less than 30 minutes. But by the end, so many people were shouting, it was hard to tell what they were saying.

SPEAKER 2: Just wait! Next time, I'm going to bring 600 people! Just wait!

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: The officer had to call for backup. Johnson could see friends he'd known for years yelling at him.

SPEAKER 3: --take those words back and stick them!

CURT JOHNSON: Looking at me, just staring me down, saying, shame on you, shame on you. And these people have known me since I'm 18 years old. And at that point, you cannot engage, I don't care how well you know them.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: 10 days later, the superintendent resigned. The scene Johnson saw playing out in Pequot Lakes is a microcosm of the latest culture war embroiling schools across the country. As districts move to address long-standing racial disparities in the classroom, they're running up against the outrage of parents, many of them white. In Pequot Lakes, the trouble started in March after superintendent Chris Lindholm taped a video celebrating the work his district had done to make their school a more welcoming place. He started by describing his impression of the town when he first moved there in 2013.

CHRIS LINDHOLM: It didn't take long for me to see that life would probably be pretty lonely and difficult if I was a student of color or a student that is gay or transgender or living in poverty in our school district community.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Lindholm talked about the SEED project, which stands for Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity. It's a national training program that's meant to help teachers make their schools more equitable. Cohorts of Pequot Lakes teachers have been volunteering to participate in the program for the last several years.

The population in Pequot Lakes is just over 2,000. But in summer, the resorts and golf courses filled with tourists who take boats out on the lakes, bike the Paul Bunyan Trail, eat burgers and porcupine meatballs at Lucky's Tavern. More than 1,700 kids, over 95% of whom, are white are enrolled in the district, which draws kids from several nearby towns.

Lindholm, who has led the district for eight years was surprised by the uproar his video sparked online. In April, he asked to take the video down and apologized for parts of it. But he refuses to apologize for the SEED program or the equity work he'd helped lead in the district. And he insists his decision to resign has nothing to do with the uproar that followed the video.

CHRIS LINDHOLM: I have talked to students of color. I have talked to students who are gay. It weighs heavily on me that some people don't feel like this place is welcoming. If that didn't weigh heavily on me and I was the sup, something would be wrong with me. We are here to serve each of those kids.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Not everyone was upset by Lindholm's video. 24-year-old Shy Lloyd, a 2015 Pequot Lakes graduate, saw it after former classmates sent it to her on Facebook.

SHY LLOYD: I love Pequot, I do. Just every place has their little things they could fix or be better about.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Lloyd, who is Black, white, and Mexican says, she personally didn't deal with any bullying when she lived in Pequot.

SHY LLOYD: It's more passive. I mean, up North, I don't think people are aggressive, just mainly remarks, those little slick remarks that you wouldn't catch if you weren't taught that was wrong.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: She noticed, for example, that Pequot police officers always seem to be keeping an eye on her. Classmates called her ghetto, touched her hair without asking, and said things like, "You're so cool for a Black girl." She tried to shrug it off. But now looking back, she saw that the way people treated her had an effect.

SHY LLOYD: People think because you don't complain while it's going on that trauma equals character building. And high school and middle school, those are things you carry with you your whole entire life.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Still what Lloyd remembers best is how well the people in Pequot loved her. Her senior year of high school her brother died by suicide. That's when Lloyd says people in Pequot rallied around her. Lloyd knows how wonderful Pequot Lakes is. She also says she knows how racist it can be.

Mariah Hines disagrees. She is one of many white Pequot parents who doesn't think racism is a problem there. Terms like equity, diversity, critical race theory, and white privilege set off alarm bells for Hines. And when she found some of those terms on the SEED program's website, she worried teachers were indoctrinating Pequot children telling them it's bad to be white, making them feel guilty for their skin color, and ignoring the mistreatment of poor white kids. The way she defines white privilege is a common misunderstanding.

MARIAH HINES: It doesn't matter your individual morality, if you're white based on your skin tone, you're an oppressor and you get to benefit from this rigged society. And so the SEED project is definitely concerning. That was something that we found out that Lindholm had brought up.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: White privilege does not mean white people don't have disadvantages or can't make moral decisions. It means that their race itself hasn't hindered them in the same ways that people of color face discrimination in a system that has historically benefited white people. And critical race theory is taught in graduate-level courses, not K through 12 classrooms. It's an academic framework for understanding how racism has historically influenced American institutions and thinking. But Hines, who doesn't think systemic racism is real, worries the SEED program will have teachers telling Pequot Lakes children it's bad to be white.

MARIAH HINES: My concern is that these teachers, again, are going to be less empathetic towards the group of students that are getting bullied because they are white, but they're disadvantaged. They're poorer than some of the other students, less sympathy, there's going to be less fundraisers for them, less opportunities, and things like that.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Hines created a Facebook page called Parents of Pequot United. Hundreds in the community have joined. And they use the group to share ideas, memes, articles from conservative news sites, and lists of teachers who've received the SEED training. They organized a meeting at the local Legion Club a few weeks ahead of that explosive May school board event. School Board Vice Chair Curt Johnson joined them.

CURT JOHNSON: There was well over 100 people there. And quite frankly, I was able to correct a lot of misinformation, all kinds of crazy stuff. And I'm going, "Look, this is the same organization you're accusing of being tied to the George Soros climate change in the UN." I said, "No, you guys are nuts. No."

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Pequot middle school teacher Karen Rubado has a hard time understanding why families she's known for decades are suddenly up in arms about teacher equity training. She's helped facilitate SEED. And she says, it helped her recognize ways she can offer options to students who might not have the time or supplies to complete their assignments at home.

KAREN RUBADO: I am a seed facilitator. If there is anybody who is likely to have changed my teaching style to one of indoctrination, it'd be me. And I haven't had any parent complaints about indoctrination. If they're not complaining about me, then I'm the one.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Rubado says, she's always had a good relationship with her students and their families in Pequot Lakes. But she says, in the last several months, it's felt impossible to address parent concerns.

KAREN RUBADO: A lot of attempts that we have made to have conversations haven't been successful because some of the concerned parents are saying, well, you're just lying. What else can I say after that? For most teachers, there's confusion and strong desire to fix the situation, but also knowing that to just say we're not going to do any equity work ever isn't the direction that we want to go.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN: Rubado says she's changed her approach to teaching in hopes of giving every student an equal chance to succeed. And no matter the backlash, she says, the district's shift to inclusion and belonging isn't something that's going to turn back now. For NPR News in Pequot Lakes, I'm Elizabeth Shockman.


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