We have now officially arrived at where over a year ago I predicted we would, in the midst of an ugly conversation on race. Nashville has long been overdue for a conversation on race and how it plays out in our public institutions. I was praying that when the conversation finally burst into the public sphere, it would be done in a less vitriolic manner. Based on recent events, I think it’s safe to say that prayer will go unanswered. I’m sad for us, but there is still hope that we will use this moment to dig deeper into what drives us all in a racial context and perhaps once the anger subsides, build some bridges.
What does equity really mean? What exactly is implied bias? How much of the criticism directed towards the MNPS Director of Schools is rooted in the color of his skin as opposed to his performance? Will we have the courage to actually self-evaluate with the same rigor we demand of others?
Everyone counsels me to stay away from this subject, especially as a candidate for school board. They tell me that there is no way I can “win” this discussion. One person dismissively told me, “This ain’t your fight.” I respectively disagree.
First off, I’m not in the conversation to win it. “Winning” for me is to continually push the conversation forward and to expand my boundaries and knowledge base. I personally don’t believe race is an issue that we can ignore or a conversation we can shy away from. Too many of our important decisions, especially in education, are rooted in race. Funding, programming, and attendance are just some of the areas where race influences our decisions.
Secondly, I don’t believe that you shy away from difficult conversations during election season because your primary goal is getting elected. My primary goal never changes. Whether I am a school board member, school board candidate, or just some guy typing words into cyberspace, my goal is to support policy that is best for kids, families, and teachers. People need to be able to trust that what you say and do as a citizen is what you’ll say and do as a candidate. What you say and do as a candidate is what you’ll say and do as a board member. I can’t say I’m always perfect, but I always aspire to be better.
I also believe that this conversation suffers, as Nashville is currently suffering, from a lack of leadership. There is currently a leadership vacuum in Nashville that starts at the mayoral level and descends downward. That may offend some, but in their heart of hearts they know it is true. All of Nashville is waiting to see if any one of the current mayoral candidates actually has the ability to lead and who will actually pick up the reins and lead. I’ve never seen a city more in need of leadership to step forward.
Am I suggesting that I am the one to lead a conversation on race? I certainly don’t believe that it is a conversation that can be led by a 53-year-old white man. But I would argue that my decision to run for school board demonstrates a willingness to help facilitate the conversation and to try to bring the people who have the capacity to lead the conversation to the table. In fact, my leadership style has never been one rooted in me being the smartest man in the room, but rather rooted in how we bring the smartest people in the room together in order to push the issue forward. How do we facilitate those important conversations?
Years ago, I read a book by Steven Pinker called The Blank Slate that had a profound impact on me. In the book, Pinker argues that in order to find solutions to our most emotionally-charged challenges, we must have a willingness to allow those thoughts that offend to be heard. We must never censor conversation and attempt to shame people in order to refrain them from speaking. We must take those thoughts and, by disproving them, come to potential solutions and understanding. Only by bringing those uncomfortable thoughts to light can we allow for a greater understanding that leads to progress. It’s like the AA tenet that tells us to talk to someone and warns of the danger of leaving thoughts in our head.
Initially, I fought that thesis, but life has taught me its value. It’s in this spirit that I would like to throw out some additional observations. Observations that hopefully will drive the conversation forward. Please take them in the spirit they are offered.
I’ve listened to many marginalize the song that Dr. Joseph played at the recent principals meeting and in some cases simply dismiss it as a meaningless snippet. This saddens me because it demonstrate to me how the removing of the arts from the classroom has robbed us from a deep understanding and appreciation of the power of the arts. The arts have been reduced to simple entertainment, a distraction, or just another potential revenue stream. In reality, the arts are both the core and a reflection of who we are as people. The books we read are not just distractions from life, but rather life itself.
This is one of the reasons I embrace Project Lit and its mission. Reading is not just about being able to function in life and earn a living. It’s about finding out about who we are as people and who we aspire to be. ProjectLit, through its book club, serves as a conduit to the power of literature. When kids gather with adults to discuss The Hate U Give or Refugee, it’s not about the entertainment value but rather the cultural value of these books. They are introduced to others that offer validation through shared experiences and feelings. The offer up the possibility of decisions that previously might have been unthought of. One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had all year has come from sitting at a table talking with a group of students about their relationship to a book and how it opened their minds.
This is where I’d ask, how many of those who are decrying about a lack of equity and an undervaluing of cultural competency have regularly attended ProjectLit book clubs? I know Vesia Hawkins has been a regular attendee, and I commend her, but how many district leaders can say the same? How many community activists have demanded that schools allow during school time to facilitate the discussion of literature in order to promote both reading and cultural competency? Allotting before and after school time isn’t sufficient because that limits access right from the beginning and access is essential.
I can’t say it enough, a “song” is never just a “song.” A “book” is never just a “book.” A “film” is never just a “film.” A “dance” is never just a “dance.” A “painting” is never just a “painting.” If nothing else, this instance demonstrates a need for a robust arts integration into our classrooms, one that is devoid of dependence on science or technology. If you still have doubts, I urge you to read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth.
At yesterday’s budget meeting, four Metro Council members felt it was appropriate to utilize their elected position to publicly criticize school board member Jill Speering for her recent actions. Councilwoman Sharon Hurt leveled the charge, “The board member is taking the context of what was shared and has negatively emphasized what was not the intent. Not only is this inflammatory, it seems racially motivated, perhaps more appropriately stated, as culturally and generationally insensitive.”
Fair enough, though I’m not sure what generation she is referring to. I wonder if, prior to making her public statement, Hurt reached out to Speering and asked her why she took the actions she did? Did she ask about the conversations that Speering had with Joseph over the past year in regard to policy and spending? Did she consider Joseph’s recent last-minute cutting of Reading Recovery, a move many perceived as retaliatory for her calling for an audit? Did she call and ask Speering why she and Board Chair Anna Shepherd asked for an audit? Did she ever ask Speering how she went from introducing Joseph to the Mayor at last year’s budget hearing as the “best superintendent in country” to filing a complaint this year? Perhaps she could have asked her why she thought Dr. Joseph chose to compare fellow board member Amy Frogge to Donald Trump in a recent TV interview. Did she ever show Speering the expected professional courtesy one elected official should show another elected official by contacting her before stepping to the microphone and making an inflammatory public statement that seems racially motivated?
Also stepping to the microphone was Metro Council’s Budget and Finance Committee Chairwoman Tanaka Vercher. I want to go on record here as a fan of Vercher. We are Facebook friends, and as such, I’ve watched her execute her official duties with grace and intellect. During the recent mayoral crisis, I felt she deftly navigated the difficult waters of holding a popular leader accountable while not letting it appear personal. She is on my short list of people who I feel have the potential to step into Nashville’s leadership void.
It’s in this light that I’m disappointed that Vercher did not use her considerable experience to reach out and offer guidance to Speering in steering the difficult task of holding a leader accountable. I think if she would have taken the time to speak privately with Speering, she would have found that her concerns are rooted in performance rather than skin color. Perhaps there were some areas that Vercher could have also offered clarity on the subject in a manner that would have assisted Speering in forming her opinions. Hopefully, Vercher will follow up yesterday’s public performance by calling Speering and offering some private consultation in order that both will get a greater understanding.
One reader asked yesterday, in response to the call to support Dr. Joseph, support him in what? Another raised the question of what is the outcome we are looking for? Is it the Game of Thrones Cersei perp walk? I think we have to be real cognizant of the road we are on and where we want it to take us. We must also be aware of the potential peripheral damage.
Lost in yesterday’s dust-up was the news that as part of budget cuts, the district will no longer be paying for tests associated with advanced academic classes. If you are at all concerned with equity, this should alarm you. Last year was the first year that MNPS paid for those tests and as a result saw an increased participation rate. That meant that kids who previously could not take the class or test due to financial barrier had access. That is a huge component of the equity conversation. Many fear that with the district withdrawing funds, those barriers will rise again and access will be lost. That would be more tragic than the Director being disrespected. You could disrespect me all day long if you promised to grant access to those kids.
Many are trying to separate the song from much larger issues. I disagree. I think it’s all connected. As a leader, you make choices. Some are great choices. Some not so great. Those choices are the only indicators people have of your competency. As a leader, you have to recognize that your choices will be overscrutinized. Go ask Donald Trump about that. Everything you do and say is under the microscope. That’s why the salary is what it is. Joseph can’t afford to ignore the potential ramifications of decisions and their impact. How you navigate those waters is an indication of your skill as a leader.
Last night’s actions at the budget meeting were clearly orchestrated. The Metro Council members were initially denied the right to speak because it was a meeting that did not include public comment. However, for some reason, Budget Committee Chair Tyese Hunter allowed them as representatives from her district to speak. One has to question what the outcome would have been if a similar tactic had been employed at the Metro Council Budget and Finance Committee meeting. I only wish the women would bring the same passion they brought to defending Dr. Joseph to the defense of Antioch High School, a school that 2 years ago was a 5-star school and now, due to inept leadership, is a 1-star with an astronomical teacher turnover rate. I only wish they’d bring the same passion to making sure that Joelton MS and Buena Vista ES’s needs are met. I beg them to defend the district like they defend Dr. Joseph.
In closing, I’d like to share a piece that is being shared via social media. It’s a well written piece that offers a different perspective on the ongoing controversy. There are many things in it that I don’t agree with, but I want you to read it unencumbered by my observations. In my opinion, it raises a lot questions about race, but also sexism, professionalism, and our culture in general. Questions that we owe it to ourselves to try to find answers to. I appreciate the man’s honesty in writing it, and I’d appreciate if y’all would read it. Don’t dismiss it, but think about it, and consider ways that we can lower barriers instead of raising them:
” Never Would have Played It ” – Silly Accusations Against Nashville Superintendent
By Shawntaz Crawford – SOTG Staff Writers
I get up, drink my morning coffee, and am transported back to 1955. A young man accused of whistling at a white woman is beaten to death by an incited white mob.
Unfortunately, 14-year-old Emmett Till’s perceived act while visiting family along the Mississippi Delta cost him his life.
As far as we have come as a society, lately there are so many specific moments that illustrate we may not have come as far along in race relations as we have thought. Once again, in Nashville, a black man is reminded of his place in society and that no matter how high he climbs, his career and integrity can all come into question by a preposterous accusation.
Last week, Metro Nashville Public Schools Superintendent Shawn Joseph played a snippets of Marvin Sapp’s “Never Would Have Made It” and Too $hort’s “Blow The Whistle,” as audio aides to a speech being given to illustrate how he uses music to motivates him; yet, the effort managed to offend the honor of a school board member who wasn’t even in the room.
In this age of overt sexual misconduct and me-tooism, you would think that you could tell the difference between a genuine act of chauvinism and a man making an innocent presentation to his colleagues.
On Monday morning, Nashville schools board Vice Chair Jill Speering filed an email complaint to the district’s federal program and oversight director. In the email, Speering said Joseph’s use of the Too $hort clip was “highly offensive, reprehensible and inexcusable” to play in a public setting. Later in the email, she insists that Joseph played the song to suggest that he was calling her and another school board member, Amy Frogge, a derogatory word toward women for their opposition to Joseph in recent weeks, all based on the profanity present in the song.
However, an MNPS spokesperson—and even Joseph himself—has repeatedly said that no profanities were played and that he explained the context of why he played the lyrics during the meeting. Joseph also warned the audience that the rest of the song was laced with profanities.
I once saw a magic show where I was amazed at how the magician pulled a rabbit out of a hat. I find myself transfixed by the same sense of amazement as I wonder how this woman managed to pull an overt act of disrespect out of a snippet of blow the whistle that was being used to make a point.
I don’t know whether this is a case of racism or cultural insensitivity. This woman obviously doesn’t know what “Blow The Whistle” means to Gen X-ers like Joseph and me. Yes, the lyrics are misogynistic; the lyrics are overtly sexual and disrespectful to women. But this isn’t the first popular song to have problematic lyrics.
Honestly, everything in life is a matter of context and perspective. In this context, I think it is you, Ms. Speering who is being disrespectful. I think it is you who owes Superintendent Joseph an apology. This act is not different from the accusation Carlyn made about Emmitt Till. On her deathbed, decades later she revealed that she’d exaggerated the exchange that cost Till, his mother and people of color so much emotional harm.
This is a poor attempt to leverage a white woman’s justice movement to fuel an obvious agenda to castrate yet another strong black man.
At this point, “Blow the whistle” is as important to my generation as a cherished Negro spiritual—right up there with “Lift Ev’ry Voice & Sing.”
Granted, Joseph probably could have chosen another way to illustrate his point. But a large percentage of those in attendance were both unfamiliar with the song and said they were not offended by the reference. And, to his defense, how would he have known that a whistle could possibly have gotten his career killed?
Please like and share this post to make sure men like Dr. Joseph, who are doing positive things in our community, are not victims of unfair attacks of unjustice.