|ORCSD DEIJ Coordinator Rachael Blansett and Superintendent Jim Morse|
Happy last day of school and happy Juneteenth! This post was mostly written Wednesday night after the board meeting. At the time, the meeting video was no longer available. I held off running this post then because Yusi asked me to run her essay, and this is essentially a response to that. I'm just going to post this now, without going through the posted meeting video again to pull out exact quotes.
I decided Yusi was right and I was wrong about the SPED cut. I'm really sorry about that. Please see my full apology near the end. - Dean
Coordinator Blansett Appears on Video
Newly appointed ORCSD DEIJ Coordinator Rachael Blansett was expected to be at tonight's board meeting. Instead of an in-person appearance, board watchers were treated to the following video in which Coordinator Blansett was interviewed by Superintendent Jim Morse.
When I listened to the board meeting live, it had distant, reverberant sound for this video and the public comments which followed, sound which I found mostly unintelligible. This video has fine sound; hopefully the board meeting sound can be straightened out before that meeting is uploaded [it was].
The community has been roiled in a controversy about the position [posts: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7], mostly stemming from Rachael's podcast 2 Happy Heauxes. The podcast contains content which shocked many community members; please see the previous posts for details. The interview gets to the issue of Rachael's podcast at the 5:00 mark.
JM: Rachael, you produced some podcasts that have caught our district population's attention, Can you talk to us about when they were created and what their intent was? I know that part of what's caused our community's attention is the language specifically that can come across as coarse and vulgar. Would you address those?
RB: Definitely. The concerns are valid and I'm happy to address the question. Just to give a little context, the podcast was created by me and my best friend. It was after we were graduating graduate school and embarking on our professional journey in our careers. It not only served as a way for us to maintain our relationship and connection with one another, but I think the other piece was that we really wanted to provide a space and a platform to talk about the racialized experiences that we had as black women within academia, within life and within our profession. So we've been really trying to use it as a platform to raise awareness and hold different dialogues and discussions around these different topics that impact the black community, specifically black women. So speaking from our own lived experiences, but also inviting different guests and different folks within our own networks to engage in this dialogue to learn more. As with any form of media and content, it's not for everyone.
JM: ... I think the biggest concern that I'm hearing Rachael is that you would bring that kind of language or those types of podcasts into this school district. Can you address that?
RB: No, absolutely not, and as I said this was a personal and creative outlet....We started the podcast back in grad school, and that's no longer where we're at, so from here on out we will not be doing the podcast anymore.
As one podcast listener told me, “what struck me was that the whole purpose was a kind of chummy expression of anti-white sentiment. I mean that was the purpose of the hour.” To minimize the concerns that many people have expressed about this content sounds a lot like dismissing it as “locker room talk.” Some of our mostly white district might not be that inclined to welcome someone who appears to dislike white people, which isn't unreasonable. I believe this still needs to be addressed.
A public comment pointed out that "back in grad school, and that's no longer where we're at" is a bit disingenuous given the last podcast episode appeared two weeks ago. Well, it was two pretty eventful weeks. For the record, it appears Ms. Blansett finished grad school in 2018, and there are 34 podcasts in the series, which began in 2019 and the last one was indeed posted a couple of weeks ago. Many people have downloaded and listened to them. The podcasts were scrubbed from the Internet a week or so ago; exactly why is undisclosed.
By now it's pretty clear how this unfolded. On paper and in person, Rachael was the best candidate to emerge from the hiring process. The superintendent says he never looks at social media for district hires to avoid finding facts he's legally not supposed to know. I believe him. Member Yusi Turell stated the board knew all about the podcasts. So by the time the offer was made, the district, including the superintendent, knew all about the controversial content, but decided to go forward anyway, eyes wide open. What I don't get is why there was no plan to address right then the controversy that had already started.
My opinion is it's a mistake to avoid looking at a candidate's internet presence, especially in a very public position, because it erupts into scandals like this. It was a bad decision to offer Rachael the position once the controversial content was revealed. Finally, given the choice to hire, it was bad not to attempt to immediately address the controversy that had already erupted.
Are podcasts even social media? If you ask me, they're pretty much just media, modern day radio. We wouldn't ignore a candidate's very public TV appearances, so we probably need to redraw the line here.
Yusi agrees that the district's roll-out of the position was bungled. She stated [I'll use her written post for quotes]:
How much healthier for our community, and for Ms. Blansett, if administration had immediately released a press release at her hire, with a photo that matched the job at hand? Instead, an article from the high school student magazine, written by a student and using a photo grabbed online, was sent to the Town of Durham’s Friday Update – causing some to think that the administration and Ms. Blansett had selected this photo as a message for Oyster River – and certainly distracting from everything else Ms. Blansett brings.
As online concerns grew, the district should have sent a clear message to squelch speculation, something like:
- “The administration and School Board were fully aware of the podcast prior to hiring Ms. Blansett.
- “We hired Ms. Blansett for her full self and we stand by our decision. We do not ask Ms. Blansett to disavow how she expressed her version of the messy, sometimes angry, sometimes hopeful feelings that we all feel at times (but especially when we’re on the receiving end of bias and discrimination). We know that we cannot claim to want a DEIJ Coordinator who speaks and listens with experience, knowledge, and nuance – while also insisting that their whole life fit in a small box of what we deem ‘polite.’
- “Ms. Blansett will not continue her podcast as an Oyster River employee. We support her choice, recognizing that society needs both provocateurs and healers in order to change – but that it is near-impossible for one person to hold both public personas, without confusion, at the same time.”
I agree the roll-out was bad and the controversy was predictable, as Yusi said. It was also avoidable, as Yusi also said, but probably only by choosing a different candidate. In my opinion the real problem was the board forgot how to play hot potato: (1) don't pick it up, and (2) pass it on. Despite all of Rachael's good qualities, the controversial podcasts made her a hot potato, guaranteed to embroil the district in the current controversy. The district picked it up and didn't pass it on. Controversy ensued and we're all worse off as a result. Hopefully we get through the pain to the good part and it will have all been worth it.
Frankly what happened makes the entire political left look bad. We're making true the conspiracies theories of liberals executing secret plans to spend tax dollars to indoctrinate children with questionable dogma. Given the precarious state of democracy in this country, we really don't want to make that impression right now.
As for the photo in the Mouth of the River piece being "grabbed online," it was Rachael's official photo for the NH Listens fellowship she currently holds, not a random photo. I won't rehearse the content of the shirt again, especially now that it's been swapped out for something more acceptable. I just think we'd all have been so much better off if all this internet scrubbing took place before Rachael's name was announced, rather than after a month of scandal.
After throwing the superintendent under the bus about the roll-out (without mentioning his name, so I'm reading between the lines here), Member Turell goes on to criticize Ruth and me, saying:
In contrast, I’ve observed that a few members of our community are intentionally spreading rumor and fanning flames online .One such falsehood is that the DEIJ hire cannibalized $50k from special education, a message that drives a wedge between DEIJ and special education. (I will respond to this and a few other claims in the comments.)Ruth and Dean, I know that this process and documentation for the DEIJ Coordinator have not been how you personally would have gone about it. We have learned from some of your points, including better transparency. But the fact is, you weren’t the ones rolling up your sleeves over the past 5 months or 5 years to make the district more inclusive and to support teachers in this area. Your approach was not the one that the Board approved after much discussion, or that the community supported. You reached out the day before the Deliberative Session and tried to cram. At what point does misunderstanding from late arrival, turn into willful ignorance, turn into intentional harm and sabotage?
I want to start my response to this by saying I welcome Member Turell's criticism, and I harbor no ill will toward her because of it. I'm a big boy playing in the public sphere, and comments like this, and much worse, are part of the deal. She could have mentioned my name at the board meeting but she didn't, because she's nice. She had expressed her concerns to me privately when the previous post went out, but I declined to make changes for reasons I'm about to get into. I guess she felt the need to go public, which is fine. I enthusiastically supported Yusi for the board and I consider her my friend. I hope she still feels the same.
That said, I disagree with Member Turell's criticisms and I stand by my comments. All but one, anyway, which was an error on my part, not willful ignorance.
As for "intentionally spreading rumor," I have been known to post a rumor or two, usually because it's the only information available, and which I try to clearly label as rumor. But around this DEIJ issue I've tried to stick to district meetings, documents and publicly available sources on the internet. Every reader is free to click the links to verify the accuracy of my claims. I am eager to correct inaccuracies as soon as I learn about them. I'm going to do it below.
Regarding "fanning flames online," I'd argue that it was the controversial choice of finalist candidate that ignited the flame and the subsequent hiring of said candidate was the fanning. I publicized the controversial stuff because I thought it was important for the community to see what we were getting into. This blog was started in 2012 because a board member was making racist and sexist tweets. I'm not going to ignore similar stories just because they're coming from my political side. The plan the DEIJ boosters seem to prefer was to keep it all secret until Rachael's hiring was a done deal. I had to attend two meetings at 5:45 pm just to learn the names of the candidates! I still haven't figured out the names of all the committees that were working on the issue.
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From my perch it appears the board and district knew they wanted this position and didn't much care how the public felt. I've been hearing from a number of folks who say they don't like the controversial content, but they don't want to become a target by voicing their concerns. I have to agree that it's not much fun being a target. The touchy topic means the board should have worked extra hard to discern actual public opinion, instead of glossing over it.Yusi gets hurtful with, "You reached out the day before the Deliberative Session and tried to cram. At what point does misunderstanding from late arrival, turn into willful ignorance, turn into intentional harm and sabotage?"
In this case, we were not forced to choose between order and justice. The district tried to complete the hire of a controversial candidate before the public noticed, and then the boosters tried to bully the citizens into not complaining about mess that resulted. That's not just, and it definitely wasn't order. The district needs to strive for transparency and accountability.
At this point in time, before Coordinator Blansett has done any work at ORCSD, we need to recognize that we're pretty much all worse off than we were a few weeks ago. It didn't have to be this way. We see various attempts to shift the blame, but we all share it, myself included.