When the Culture Wars Came for My Job, Part 1

This blog post picks up from “America’s Hidden Figures Deserve the Light of Day

Hardly had the ink dried on many university presidents’ statements responding to the civil unrest of 2020 than the backlash began. I was one of the countless educators preparing the summer of 2020 to teach amid a global pandemic. I watched my Grand Canyon University’s leaders navigate a very fine line, using their formulaic blend of apoliticism and Christ-conscious capitalism to express support for their BIPOC students while keeping calls for accountability at bay.

The semester was intense, but I found support. Our Director of Diversity, Pastor Donald Glenn, insisted that the door of opportunity was opening wider. Our university described itself as interdenominational, but its roots are Southern Baptist and GCU’s doctrinal statement was very much aligned to those foundations. Pressing the pastor into a longer conversation, he assured me that while the pace of change was slower than some would prefer, there would be new, diversity-themed programming where students could express their concerns. I met with the student dance club’s leaders and encouraged them to get involved with campus-wide activities offered through Pastor Donald and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

At 6:00 pm on Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I received a phone call from the dean of COFAP, our college of fine arts, that hastened the end of my era as dance director. I had entertained the notion of what would happen if I left many times before. The GCU Administration would replace me with someone who wouldn’t think twice about shutting down students’ self-expression.

The entire faculty of COFAP received a gift one year, a book entitled, “Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change the World” by Robert Briner. In this thin volume, Briner, a former television producer, explains that “roaring lambs” are “Christians who infiltrate and make an impact on their workplace and world with their faith.” More Christian artists are needed in the world. “There are now almost no lambs roaring in Hollywood and anything close to a Christian message or theme rarely appears on the screens of the thousands of movie theaters across the country.” Playing the victim is a common theme. “No one in public life wants to offend blacks, Jews, gays, or women,” he writes with exasperation, “but hardly anyone worries too much about offending Christians. Art, literature, movies, music, and television can be anti-Christian with impunity.”

Staying at GCU all those years was like snorkeling just below the surface of a lake. Underneath the surface, I took steps to establish a departmental culture that was acceptable to my conservative Christian administration yet welcoming to every type of student. Through the years, I would be forced above the surface from time to time as my efforts would bring me to the dean’s office and occasionally the HR Director’s office.

Based on this phone call, I knew I had failed to do one thing, keep my flock within prescribed spaces where we could operate without scrutiny. I finally had flown too close to the edge. I wasn’t even aware of everything that had happened or would happen yet, but I know I had failed to walk the line that had been determined by GCU’s leaders.

The dean’s question on this infamous call, following what passed for a greeting, was this: “Did you know about the meeting on race in your department?” Two angry letters had found their way to President Brian Mueller’s desk. They pointed to a meeting on race and reconciliation, held within the dance department. A faculty member had allegedly cursed the name of the president (then President Trump), which was all they needed to prove their claim that we had not engaged in civil discourse.

My mind raced as I tried to remember what had happened two weeks earlier. I couldn’t remember. If there was a meeting held, it was not on the department calendar. If it was a student meeting, there had been no meeting request approved. I remembered my colleague talking about a conversation about race with some students, but I didn’t connect it with any planned event. I told the dean this much. He used the words “rogue meeting” to explain the fact that it had not appeared on the department’s or college’s event calendar and the fact that I had no notice of it occurring. He was trying to protect me, as he had a habit of doing. My responsibility was to oversee all operations in the dance department, no more and no less. If I caught attention for the wrong reasons, there would be serious fall-out.

“Retrenchment politics are taking shape all across the nation,” observed Kimberlé Crenshaw in Educators Ungagged, a 2021 panel discussion by The African American Policy Forum. Conservative school board candidates are running on platforms against a legal theory that they neither understand nor have any real reasons to fear. The backlash against critical race theory, and the anti-racist principles and the educators who continue to teach culturally relevant and factually accurate curriculum, is unnerving to say the least.

Amy Donofrio is a former English teacher from Jacksonville, Florida’s Robert E. Lee High School (recently renamed Riverside), where the majority of the student body is Black. She is also the co-founder of the EVAC movement, in which she mobilized students to work together and address the inequities affecting their education. She was fired, even after she led students to present at the White House, Capitol Hill, and Harvard University. “Ms. Donofrio’s case is part of a pattern of attacks targeting educators’ efforts to support Black students and oppose racism,” the SPLC said. “It’s really horrifying,” said Donofrio, “that so much of it (the fallout) was spurred simply by students being empowered and the system that’s supposed to support them, literally being the ones who are shutting them down.”

The American Library Association & its Freedom to Read Foundation does an annual awareness-building campaign called “Banned Books Week.” The Top 10 Challenged Books of 2020 includes The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds. While my story took place within a Protestant Christian Fundamentalist institution, where censorship is may not be controversial, students across the nation are being ill served when their access to unorthodox or unpopular ideas through literature is expunged within our public education institutions. In the United States of America, our young people are guaranteed the freedom to seek and to express ideas through the First Amendment of our Constitution.

Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subdueing the freeness of speech.

– Benjamin Franklin

Please continue to follow my story in the next blog post, When the Culture Wars Come for Your Job, Part II.

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