Queens school district erupts in chaos when parents protest diversity plan : Code Switch In 2019, a school district in Queens N.Y., one of the most diverse places on the planet, is selected to go through the process of creating something unexpected: a diversity plan. Why would the school district need such a plan and why were some parents so adamantly opposed?

School Colors Episode 1: "There Is No Plan"

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It's a Thursday night in December 2019. We're in a nondescript government building on Sutphin Boulevard in Queens, N.Y., in a meeting room with a drop ceiling and fluorescent lights. And the room is packed. Every chair is filled, and parents are standing in the back and on the sides. There are many more parents crowded in the hallway just outside the door. Security won't let them in. They say it's a fire hazard.

VIJAH RAMJATTAN: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone. At this point, we'll call this meeting to order - do our roll call. Can I have the attendance, please?


This is a meeting of the Community Education Council for School District 28. Their meetings are usually small and sleepy - not this one. Vijah Ramjattan, president of the council, tries to start things off on a positive note.

RAMJATTAN: I see some familiar faces and some new faces and some media faces, which is amazing. You're on camera.

FREEDMAN: But pretty quickly, he starts to lose the room.

RAMJATTAN: The way I've been running the meetings here for the past X amount of months...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why are we considering canceling this meeting? I mean, why are we in such a big hurry to do this?



RAMJATTAN: So if we going to talk and I'm going to talk.

VENUS KETCHAM: Let him speak.

RAMJATTAN: If you want to speak...

KETCHAM: Sign the speaker sheet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't want to be rude. I just wanted to bring that...

KETCHAM: You are being rude.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: How is that rude?

KETCHAM: You are being rude. You're interrupting. That's called being rude. You're interrupting. That's called being rude. Let him continue and complete what he's doing. You're interrupting...


RAMJATTAN: If you or the parents choose to speak over the other parent, that's what you choose. That's your choice. Now we can make this meeting what you want to make it. We all scream and we all yell, and the media gets a nice article for the media - yeah, they were screaming and yelling and that's great. But what do we get?


FREEDMAN: What exactly were these parents so riled up about? Well, District 28 was selected by the city to get something called a diversity plan, but no one knew exactly what this diversity plan would look like. When it finally came time for public comment, one of the parents asked questions that spoke to what a lot of people in that room were feeling.

IRENE RAEVSKY: Why are we here? I don't understand. What is the issue that we're trying to resolve? Is the issue overcrowding? Is the issue the lack of diversity? Is the issue under-resourced schools? These are very different issues and solutions to them are very different. I'm very happy to participate in the process - I'm sure like everybody else is - and help to find a solution. But I need to know what the problem is. And we're discussing it among ourselves, and we don't see what the problem is. Yes, we have...

GRIFFITH: What was the problem? What was the diversity plan trying to fix? It's a fair question because District 28 is not just anywhere. It's smack dab in the middle of Queens.


UNIDENTIFIED FOX 5 REPORTER: When it comes to diversity, look no further than the borough of Queens. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, not only is it the most diverse borough, it's actually the most diverse place on the planet. And that fact isn't exactly lost on its residents.


TIA KEENAN: I mean, the thing that you're going to hear from people when you're talking about school integration is, you know what? I moved to Queens because it's so diverse. It's diverse (laughter). It's so diverse here.

MICAH MORRISON: It's like a little United Nations. There was people from all races, all ethnicities.

FADIA MOHAMA: You know, what New York - what Queens has to offer, I don't think anywhere in the world you'll find, you know, when it comes to, like, cultures and diversity and the food and the people and...

GRIFFITH: But diversity is not the whole story.

KETCHAM: Bring the diversity here. Why is there no diversity here? Like, why do all the Black people live together? How do - why do we keep getting concentrated with each other and nobody wants to be with us? Why don't nobody want to be with Black people?


GRIFFITH: From NPR's CODE SWITCH and Brooklyn Deep, this is School Colors, a podcast about how race, class and power shape American cities and schools. I'm Mark Winston Griffith.

FREEDMAN: And I'm Max Freedman. In our first season, we followed generations of Black parents fighting for self-determination through their schools in central Brooklyn, where Mark and I both live and work.

GRIFFITH: In Season 2, we're coming to you straight out of Queens.

JELANI COBB: To the extent that we represent a nation composed of nations - Queens represents that.

KEENAN: This is a borough of dreams. The thing is, is that sometimes a dream is a lie. A dream is often a lie.

FREEDMAN: Queens has long been a place where people come from all over the world to try to get a slice of the suburban American dream within New York City. My family did it.

GRIFFITH: So did mine. But Queens has always been a place of deep contradictions - opportunity and inequality.

FREEDMAN: Diversity and segregation.

GRIFFITH: Tolerance and fear.

FREEDMAN: The story of District 28 puts those tensions on full display.

GRIFFITH: And this season, we're trying to make sense of why a school district in the most diverse place on the planet would need a diversity plan and why that plan went off the rails.

BILL SCARBOROUGH: There has always been, in District 28, a clear sense of the north and the south.

ODESSA EAGLES: The south side does not get the fundings or even the treatment as they do on the north side. Everybody sees the divide.

NATALIE DAUPHIN: Everyone just started speculating and sharing articles and rumors.

JEAN HAHN: And they kept saying, oh, no, no, we don't have a plan. Bullshit. They had a plan.

LORRAINE REID: Keep their kids over there, keep our kids over here, but give us the same tools you give to their kids.

PAT MITCHELL: Separate but equal? Nah, that's not good enough.

JAY CASPIAN KANG: I still think we think about race and talk about race as a binary, and I think that it ends up isolating a lot of people.

STELLA XU: They would say, well, you know, Asians are basically like white people. So, you know, we don't really have to take into account their considerations.

MORRISON: I think of those people who get up and say to me, well, you're a racist. And you know what I say to them? Fuck you.

ALLISON BELL: I'm like, you'll fight that. I'm like, what are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?

GRIFFITH: In this episode, we're going to walk you up to that ugly meeting that put a public spotlight on District 28.

FREEDMAN: Because every year, more of America looks more like Queens. So what happens here feels like a preview of what's to come for the rest of the country.

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.



GRIFFITH: So you know our - you know School Colors?

KETCHAM: Oh, yes. I was listening to it yesterday for a refresher.


KETCHAM: I was obsessed. I was - I think - I can't remember who sent it to me, but I listened to every episode.

GRIFFITH: Oh, so you (inaudible) episode. OK, cool, cool.

KETCHAM: I sent it to every friend. I put it in every email.

GRIFFITH: That's what's up.

KETCHAM: I'm, like, your No. 1 fan. That's why I was like, oh, my God, I'm talking to the actual people from the podcast.

GRIFFITH: We first met Venus Ketcham in September 2020. Because of the pandemic, we had to do most of our interviews outside. So we walked to the park down the street from her home in South Jamaica, Queens.

So, hi.


GRIFFITH: Why don't you - could you just introduce yourself?

KETCHAM: Yes (laughter). Hello. I'm Venus, like the tennis player, but I'm older than her. My father liked Greek mythology, so he was going to name me Aphrodite or Venus.

GRIFFITH: When we started looking into this story, Venus' name came up again and again. She's actually one of the voices you heard during that contentious meeting at the top of the episode. She's called herself the queen of Queens in education.


GRIFFITH: Venus actually works for the Department of Education as a paraprofessional - a teacher's aide. But her real expertise on the DOE comes from being a parent, working the system to make sure her son gets what he needs. And she uses what she's learned to help other parents in South Jamaica.

KETCHAM: If someone says something to me or I get a vibe or someone tried to highlight something, I show up to their school. So I've been to every single school on the south side's PTA.

GRIFFITH: When we first heard about what was going on in District 28, straight up, I didn't even really know where District 28 was. And I grew up not far from here. So we asked Venus to help us get our bearings.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Woo, woo, woo.

GRIFFITH: And so what district is this?

KETCHAM: This is District - it was funny. I was going to tell you, I live in District 28.

GRIFFITH: So this - we are in District 28 right now.


GRIFFITH: Got it, got it, got it.

KETCHAM: Do you know this area? You know where you are?

GRIFFITH: I mean, yeah, yeah, yeah. I mean 'cause - I mean, you know, again, I lived in Laurelton for a good part of my childhood.

KETCHAM: Oh, so you know a little bit. So you know where Rochdale is?

GRIFFITH: Yeah, of course I do. Sure.

KETCHAM: Well, Rochdale is District 28.

GRIFFITH: Right. Right.

KETCHAM: And that's the end of 28.

GRIFFITH: Well, that's what really threw me because when we were describing District 28, and they were talking about, you know, Forest Hills...

KETCHAM: And Rego Park.

GRIFFITH: ...And then someone said, Rochdale's like - Rochdale...

KETCHAM: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GRIFFITH: ...Is in the same district?

KETCHAM: It's like a (inaudible).

GRIFFITH: Because that's a different world.

Here's what you need to know about District 28. There's a north side, and there's a south side. To be blunt, the south side is Black. And the further north you go, the less Black people you see.

FREEDMAN: Of course, it's more nuanced than that. The district has at least nine distinct neighborhoods. Parts of the north side are especially known for being Jewish. There's a whole sort of middle section that often gets left out of this conversation entirely. We don't want to bog you down in the details. But just to give you a sense of it, here's how Venus describes the district.

KETCHAM: I would say that Liberty Avenue is a - the dividing line. Our district is also unique, where it goes over the Van Wyck. So if you go up into the left, you kind of get all of the African American community...


KETCHAM: ...Mostly East Indian, Bangladeshi, Guyanese population. Caucasian is mostly - that's Forest Hills, Rego Park - Caucasian and everything else - 'cause they say, oh, we have diversity.

GRIFFITH: Yeah, right.

KETCHAM: But what about us?

FREEDMAN: Of the kids going to school in District 28, 31% are categorized as Asian, 29% Hispanic or Latino; 18% are Black; 15% are white; 4% are Native American; and 3% identify as multiracial.

GRIFFITH: So there's the rub. This district is diverse, and it's segregated, just like New York City. In 2014, the UCLA Civil Rights Project published a blockbuster report on school segregation across the United States.


JOHN OLIVER: In a city like New York, you're probably thinking, oh, splendid. I know where this is going - a story vilifying the backwards and racist American South. Let me just grab a handful of kale chips that I can munch on while feeling superior. Well, hold on. There is something you should probably know.

CHRIS HAYES: According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the South is the least segregated region for Black students. And, in fact, New York state is now the most segregated system in America...


HAYES: ...In large part due to New York City.

OLIVER: Oh, shit, liberal, white, New Yorkers.


OLIVER: Twist ending - you were racist the whole time.


GRIFFITH: If you'd spent any time in New York City schools, this may not have come as such a surprise. But, at the time, segregation wasn't being widely talked about and certainly wasn't being addressed.

SADYE CAMPOAMOR: I don't think people had, like, wanted to revisit that conversation. I think it had been a lightning-rod issue, like the third rail. Oh, we tried integration, or we tried to desegregate - didn't work.


FREEDMAN: Sadye Campoamor worked at the DOE under Mayor Bill de Blasio, leading the office of Family and Community Empowerment, otherwise known as FACE. De Blasio came into office the same year that UCLA report was published. But, at first, he would barely acknowledge that schools were segregated. He wouldn't even use the words segregation or integration. Sadye says DOE staff were encouraged instead to talk about diversity and inclusion.

CAMPOAMOR: Took a few years, but we eventually got there. We heard the call of the people. We realized, yeah, our schools are dissimilar (laughter). They weren't diverse. They weren't reflective of the city's demographics, if you catch my drift.

FREEDMAN: The DOE didn't get there on their own. Parents and principals, even students were pushing for change.

CAMPOAMOR: We got to a place where we said, you know what? You're right. There are reams of research that say diverse learning environments do add value, whether it's student outcomes, state test scores, socioeconomically after college, that they go to college, that they end up living in more integrated neighborhoods. There are a lot of both qualitative and quantitative measures of the, quote, "why diversity."

FREEDMAN: And they tried to walk the walk, starting with District 15 in Brooklyn.


GRIFFITH: In 2017, the DOE kicked off a yearlong diversity planning process in the district. For Sadye, that process was just as important as the outcome.

CAMPOAMOR: We don't have a lot of examples of, like, what shared decision-making looks like at, like, a leadership level in community with students and parents and non-English-speaking folk and educators and administrators and, you know, central DOE people.

FREEDMAN: So the DOE hired an urban planning firm called WXY to reimagine community engagement in District 15. WXY created a diversity working group made up of different local stakeholders who came up with recommendations based on what they heard in public workshops.

GRIFFITH: Full disclosure - later on, I was invited by WXY to be on the diversity working group for a different district in Brooklyn.

FREEDMAN: And I took a class in grad school with one of the founders of WXY, Adam Lubinsky.

GRIFFITH: So we've both had good experiences with them, as Sadye did in District 15.

CAMPOAMOR: In District 15, we were able to go through with multiple public workshops that were not just come to the mike, and you get your two minutes, and nobody has to respond to you.

FREEDMAN: They broke out into small groups. They had well-designed, easy-to-read maps and data visualizations. They had interpreters at every meeting.

CAMPOAMOR: We're eating dinner together. Kids were hanging around. There were balloons. But also, we were developing shared language around, like, what is integration? What do we mean by that? What does desegregation mean? What are we trying to see for, you know, students with disabilities? It sounds really easy and good and free. It's not. It's not free, and it's not easy.


BILL DE BLASIO: Today I stand here as the mayor of this great city. And on behalf of the city of New York and the DOE, I am here to formally approve the District 15 diversity plan.


DE BLASIO: Congratulations to all of you. Now, I want to make clear, these are big, complicated, challenging, historic issues. But why this plan is so powerful is it was created by this community for this community.

RICHARD CARRANZA: This D15 working group took that challenge, invested themselves, invested their neighbors and came out with a plan that I think is actually a template for many others in our community.

FREEDMAN: That second voice was the chancellor of schools at the time, Richard Carranza. And when he said District 15 would be a template, he meant it - the process anyway if not the final plan.

GRIFFITH: In the spring of 2019, five more districts received diversity planning grants from the DOE. One of those grants went to District 28 in Queens. But why? I asked Sadye.

On the surface - and this is part of one of the opening questions for us in the second season is, why would a school - why would an area that is so diverse need a diversity plan?

CAMPOAMOR: Why not? Why not everywhere? Everyone, no matter what, deserves the opportunity to dig into questions that, quite frankly, we as a society haven't spent time with. When did you first learn about race? When did you first talk about it in your school? Did you ever talk about, like, race and racism in your schooling, you know? All of our answers are worth listening to because listening to people is important for government to go out and say, hey, what matters to you? What do you want to see?

GRIFFITH: But of the districts that actually started this process, it was only in 28 where things went sideways.

RAMJATTAN: I don't think any of us under - knew that this was applied for. I did not know.

FREEDMAN: This is Vijah Ramjattan, the same guy who was trying to run that rowdy meeting we started the episode with. When the diversity grant was awarded to District 28, Vijah was new to the Community Education Council. He'd only been on the CEC for three months. His fellow councilmembers were even newer.

RAMJATTAN: It was a brand-new council, no old members. I was a old member. I was a veteran. I was the veteran.

FREEDMAN: So there was no institutional memory of what had gone into the superintendent's application for this grant.

RAMJATTAN: And we had no idea what come with this diversity planning. And it's like, whoa, are you ready for this?

GRIFFITH: If you're looking for where the diversity plan started to go off the rails, this is a pretty good place to look. All the CEC members, the official parent representatives for the district, were totally unprepared.

FREEDMAN: So in June, when the superintendent announced at the CEC's monthly meeting that District 28 had received this $200,000 diversity grant, most people didn't really understand what it was.

RAMJATTAN: OK. Yeah. That sounds great because you hear, there's more money coming in. So we're like, yeah, $200,000. Yeah, we got to get new computers. No one is thinking clearly, like, this is - that means - what the possible changes may be for who or how it will affect any which group.

GRIFFITH: Some parents, like Vijah, didn't understand what the grant was about. To other parents, it just didn't seem like a big deal.

KETCHAM: I think I might have been at a CEC where the superintendent mentioned it.

GRIFFITH: Venus Ketcham wasn't a member of the CEC, but she had gone almost religiously to every CEC meeting for years.

KETCHAM: At a non-attended CEC meeting, she might have mentioned that she was applying for the grant. I wasn't paying it any mind because she always applies for grants and nobody cares about a grant. Like, nobody ever have concerns about grants. The superintendent has had millions of grants and nobody said a word. She had one for mentoring Black boys, for this and that. It was the word diversity. When it got wind to people who are more experienced and affluent and know what this jargon means, they're like, what? And it awoken a sleeping giant.


FREEDMAN: That's after the break.


AKI YOUNGE: I could tell that there were going to be very tricky things.

GRIFFITH: Akina Younge, who goes by Aki, was hired by WXY as a project manager for the diversity planning process in District 28.

YOUNGE: I knew that there just was, like, such rich cultural diversity, ethnic diversity, racial diversity, socioeconomic diversity in the district. And I thought that that meant that there was really great potential to make a community feel more like a community. And so that gave me great excitement. And I knew that that would be a huge challenge.

GRIFFITH: Aki felt she was uniquely suited to take on that challenge.

YOUNGE: District 28 is this special place because there's so many different kinds of people. And I'm a different kind of person. I'm, like, a special different kind of person.

GRIFFITH: Aki's biracial - Black and Japanese American.

YOUNGE: And so I think I, like, went into District 28 work feeling like, I represent a lot of different things and so does everyone else. And that's really exciting. And so I'm going to be, like, a special, like, connector in a way. And, like, I think I'm going to be able to talk to lots of different people and, like, understand lots of different perspectives because, like, my own identity has lots of different perspectives and histories to it.

GRIFFITH: And she had a strong sense of purpose.

YOUNGE: The education system doesn't work for a lot of people. Like, we know that not everyone is happy and thriving in this system. Like, I don't think that's anything controversial to say. Like, it doesn't work for everyone. And what would an education system that does work for everyone look like?

FREEDMAN: OK. Here's what was supposed to happen.


FREEDMAN: In the fall, Aki and her colleagues at WXY would assemble the diversity working group. It was to be about 20 dedicated people - parents and students, teachers and principals, representatives from community-based organizations. The working group would help organize public workshops across the district, starting in January, 2020. By the end of the spring, they would come out with recommendations.

GRIFFITH: But first, Aki needed to make connections, build relationships, find people in each neighborhood and school with the deep social networks that she could draw upon when the process formally began. She called this pre-engagement.

FREEDMAN: She spent the first few weeks just getting to know the territory.

YOUNGE: I was sometimes just walking around (laughter) by myself to get to know the district. I, at one point, like, I think, walked most of the district.

FREEDMAN: Over the course of the fall of 2019, Aki says she and her colleagues spoke to over 150 people from more than 70 organizations and schools.

YOUNGE: In general, there was a great distrust of outsiders. And WXY was seen as an outsider. And even the DOE was seen as an outsider.

GRIFFITH: By September, Aki was already starting to get more negative feedback from one particular area.

YOUNGE: It felt very much so. Like, the news spread fast in the north side of the district. I was getting lots of emails very early on. Sometimes they were very open and just wanted to know about the process. Sometimes they were very open with 10 bulleted questions about the process.

GRIFFITH: Sometimes the emails were not so open.

YOUNGE: There was someone who emailed me with an email address of, like, somethingyogamom@gmail.com (ph). And I was like, oh, great. Like, someone who's very Zen and, like, thoughtful. And it just was like this tirade at me of, like, why are you ruining my kid's life? You're making everything terrible for them. Like, you don't know what you're doing. Are you even a parent? Like, you don't care about kids. You don't care about my kid. Stop messing up my kid's life. And I was like, wow, that was a turn for the Zen yoga mom, I'm sure. And yeah, just like lots of emails like that - not always from yoga moms.

HAHN: Parents were suspicious. They didn't believe that this was in good faith.

FREEDMAN: Jean is a parent in Forest Hills on the north side of District 28. She asked us not to use her last name. She's Korean American. She grew up in Texas. And she's an architect.

HAHN: When we were told, hey, great, great news, you guys are getting a diversity plan, everyone was like, what? We're in Queens. We're the most diverse city in the world.

FREEDMAN: At the time, her daughter was in third grade in a gifted and talented program.

HAHN: It's like a little mini U.N. I remember going to Culture Day. And - people that were diplomats, people that come from other countries, some you've never heard of, most people have never heard of before. So that's why it was so wild to hear that we needed to be more diverse.

FREEDMAN: Throughout the fall, the word about the diversity plan was spreading on the north side through Facebook groups, Yahoo groups, personal networks and PTAs.

HAHN: The little information that was given to us, we started putting two and two together.

FREEDMAN: The first Jean heard about all this was when two parents from another school showed up to her PTA meeting with a flyer about the diversity grant. The flyer talked about some topics that could be part of the diversity planning process - resources, overcrowding, racial demographics.

HAHN: That's when I was thinking to myself, wait a minute. That kind of sounds like what they just did in Brooklyn, and over there, it was busing.

GRIFFITH: Remember that process we told you about in District 15 in Brooklyn? The recommendations that came out of it would become a big sticking point for Jean and her allies. We'll get into the details later, but let's just say the word on the street was busing.

HAHN: Wow. For us to do busing, it's pretty bad. I mean, it's not busing. It's public transportation. It's pretty far. It's really far.

GRIFFITH: Jean pointed out that, in most cases, the city doesn't offer yellow school buses for middle school.

HAHN: So we're talking about putting a 10-year-old on a subway and then getting off the subway and then getting onto a bus and then getting onto a bus and then walking another 10, 15 minutes to get to middle school, and then doing that in reverse. So parents around here, a lot of helicopter parents. They don't want their kids wandering around on public transportation by themselves.

GRIFFITH: Jean told us that if she were going to take her daughter to the southern-most middle school in the district, drop her off and then go to work, it would take more than 2 hours - and that's just in the morning. She probably would be doing pickup, too.

HAHN: So I'd have to quit my job or do something or go part time. I don't know. I mean, and this is what was really running through parents' minds, that we don't want this. We do not want - we want a community discussion.

FREEDMAN: Community discussion was theoretically the whole point of the diversity planning process. But as Jean gathered all the documentation she could get her hands on, reports and recommendations, PowerPoints and meeting minutes...

HAHN: It was like peeling an onion, you know. Every layer, like, we peeled off, we were like, oh, my gosh, you know, it's leading to this and this.

FREEDMAN: All the evidence seemed to prove that any community discussion would be a charade.

HAHN: They had very clear ideas about what they wanted to impose on not just our school district, but citywide.

FREEDMAN: This was going to be a top-down process with a predetermined outcome.

HAHN: And then it came out about the working group members, how the working group members were already selected. They were already picked out before parents were even told about the plan. That in itself was like, well, wait a minute. What's going on here?

CAMPOAMOR: People really got stuck on the working group as if the working group were the one and only people informing the decisions. But there was going to be a whole process where, like, parents are supposed to come.

GRIFFITH: To make matters worse, who exactly was on the working group was secret at first. Aki says that was to protect people's privacy. Eventually, the names of the working group members were made public. But in some ways, the damage was done.

HAHN: It was about busing. It was about transit. And they kept saying, oh, no, no, we don't have a plan. Bullshit. They had a plan.

FREEDMAN: Sadye from the DOE will admit that while they may not have had a plan, they did have some goals. She and Aki and their colleagues were walking a fine line.

CAMPOAMOR: How do you balance entering a process around diversity that clearly has some non-neutral goals? That is, we value demographic diversity in our classrooms. We think that they add value to student outcomes and school communities, right? How do you say that and mean it, and then also say, we're just here to listen and figure it out, right? We're not here to just listen and figure it out. We are here to do a community engagement process that will result in fostering a more integrated school district.

HAHN: They kept saying, oh, this is - we're going to have community engagement. No, it did not seem like community engagement.

FREEDMAN: Aki heard this over and over again from parents on the north side. Nobody asked us. Nobody talked to us. We haven't been engaged, which proves we will never be engaged. And this whole thing is a sham. But the diversity planning process as such hadn't started yet. Aki's pre-engagement was somewhat informal, but the point of it was to ensure that the formal engagement would be as open and public and widespread as possible. If anything, Aki wishes she had spent more time on the south side, but that became more and more difficult as she spent more and more time at her desk in Manhattan responding to emails and phone calls from the north.

YOUNGE: In that way, by default, I was like engaging with folks from the north more because they disproportionately represented the people who were emailing and calling me. And in order to be talking to folks in the southern part of the district more, I needed to, like, be there.

FREEDMAN: She had already learned that email was not the best way to reach many parents on the south side, but it could take an hour and a half just to get from her office to South Jamaica. And as emails kept rolling in from the north, that time was harder to find.


GRIFFITH: The person who should have been responsible for the diversity grant was a District 28 superintendent who applied for it, Mabel Sarduy. But as outrage continued to swell, Sarduy left the district.

YOUNGE: I didn't know the superintendent was going to leave and be promoted to executive superintendent. Like, that was really hard.

GRIFFITH: So there had been a leader with power and authority in the district who could have owned this thing, and then she was gone.

YOUNGE: And so that left a really big vacuum for people to develop different conspiracy theories.

GRIFFITH: Sarduy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

FREEDMAN: Aki wasn't the only one starting to worry.

CAMPOAMOR: The ground was moving under us. And, you know, it kind of was a recipe for confusion, misinformation.

FREEDMAN: Sadye was overseeing all this from the DOE central office.

CAMPOAMOR: And when you talk to people in general about their kids, you're talking to their amygdalas. And an amygdala is a part of your brain that's the lizard brain that's like threat, threat, threat. That's what happens.

DAUPHIN: Everyone just started speculating and sharing articles and talking about Brooklyn and what that meant and what they did there and rumors.

GRIFFITH: Natalie Dauphin is one of very few Black parents in Forest Hills. When the rumors started swirling online and in PTA meetings on the north side, Natalie was running the Facebook page for parents at her daughter's elementary school.

DAUPHIN: The tone of it started to get pretty nasty because what people had pretty much come up with on their own was that this means they're going to take seats away from schools on the north side so kids from the south side can come here because our schools are better. And it sounded very definitive. It sounded very clear when it started. There was even a real percentage that was going around. They're going to take X percent out of these schools and bring kids from the south side into the school. And everyone was really super clear about that. But I knew from people - because I know people on the working group when it was formed - I knew people in certain positions, and I knew there was no actual plan created. But all that took was to play off of people's fears, and they took it and they ran with it.

GRIFFITH: Natalie understood some of those fears. Like a lot of parents, she had moved to Forest Hills because of the schools. Like a lot of the schools in Forest Hills, her daughter's school was in demand and overcrowded. Because of that, not every kid in the school zone was guaranteed a spot, which Natalie knew could be frustrating. But with the diversity plan, she felt like something else was going on.

DAUPHIN: When you hear people say, those kids, to me, I know what those kids means. They don't want Black and brown kids coming into their schools.

FREEDMAN: Whatever was behind it, fear and anger kept rising through the fall.

RAMJATTAN: Parents' frustration was lack of transparency.

FREEDMAN: Vijah, president of the Community Education Council, saw what was happening. The diversity planning process wasn't supposed to begin until January, but he invited WXY and the DOE to make a formal presentation to the CEC in December.

RAMJATTAN: Hey, you guys got to come down here and face the public. No, I don't think it was too much too soon. I think it was, like, perfect - exactly the way it was supposed to be. If I feel like the parents felt like, yo, like, fuck this shit, we don't want - they should hear that. And they try to have it very scripted where, we'll have them write questions down, send to us, and then - no. Then you're going to pick through it and select the ones that you feel you most confident answer (ph) and that doesn't reflect the raw, real frustration. And I wanted to provide a platform for parents to do that. And that's exactly what we did.

FREEDMAN: That would be the ugly meeting we started this episode with. After the break.


GRIFFITH: December 5, 2019 - when Vijah and Sadye arrived at the District 28 office for this Community Education Council meeting, the room was already overflowing.

RAMJATTAN: It was mayhem. What I mean by that is the room was filled to capacity. We had to let - parents were locked out. People were locked outside the door.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Reschedule. Reschedule. Reschedule. Reschedule. Reschedule. Reschedule. Reschedule.

CAMPOAMOR: So many people that they were spilling out into a hallway and couldn't get in. So, like, I don't like to wait on the line to get into the club. Like, I definitely don't want to wait on line to hear about my kid, right? Amygdala - threat. Someone's going to do something. Someone's going to say something, and I don't even know what it's about, and it's going to impact my family. So the energy got real hot.

GRIFFITH: The CEC was used to seeing maybe 10 or 20 people at a meeting. At least 250 people showed up to this one.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: You shouldn't have 40 seats available for all of Queens, District 28. That's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: Can you get Stephanie (ph)? Can you get Stephanie? I - no, there are 112 in there, something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Regardless, it's District 28 of Queens. You're asking pre-K all the way to high school parents - we all have multiple kids.

GRIFFITH: The security guard had to ask people to leave. Parents were threatening to call the fire department.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: Let's call the fire department.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: We're going to make it sure that you guys don't get this plan done.

FREEDMAN: Inside the room, Sadye tried to make the best of it.

CAMPOAMOR: So I went around the room and tried to shake people's hand. Hi, Mark (ph). Nice to meet you. I'm Sadye. I'm going to be talking about the diversity plan. What's up? The first thing I heard was from a family who just, like, looked over and was like, they sent a Latina? So I just kept it moving, just shaking other people's hands.

GRIFFITH: Who - what - did - who...

CAMPOAMOR: Just a family person. I don't know - I didn't know their name.

GRIFFITH: Was it a white family?

CAMPOAMOR: It was a non-white family. It was a family that, from a visual, was from the AAPI community.


CAMPOAMOR: So we packed as many seats as we could in that room, and it ended up being, like, physically a challenging space that it was like a rectangle. And I was very close to the first front row - like, knee to knee with parents. It was packed. It was hot, physically uncomfortable. And you have these bureaucrats who you've never seen before saying they want to do a process that will foster more diverse schools.

FREEDMAN: To Aki, this was exactly the kind of thing that she was trying to avoid. The whole point of the process was to not have meetings like this one.

YOUNGE: The setup was to do exactly the same traditional kinds of community engagement, sign up on a card, you get to talk, whoever signs up first gets to talk first for the longest, for the most. It just, like, was the exact kind of, quote-unquote, "engagement" that we see happen all the time that privileges privileged voices and puts a thumb on the scale for, like, voices that are very comfortable being heard and, like, get to be heard all the time.

GRIFFITH: We weren't there that night. So what you're hearing comes from the phone of a Forest Hills parent named Fadia Mohama (ph). Fadia got to the meeting early enough to get a seat in the front row, and she livestreamed the whole thing on Facebook. If you hear a voice that sounds close to the phone, that's Fadia.


MOHAMA: It's hot, right? I feel like my face is, like, red, right?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone.

FREEDMAN: After the council's regular monthly business, Vijah turns it over to Aki.


YOUNGE: Hi, everyone, again. My name is Aki Younge. I work at...

FREEDMAN: Aki's first mistake, as she's introducing herself, is to mention that she grew up in Westchester, the suburbs just north of New York City.


YOUNGE: My own educational experience and the opportunities I've had as a biracial woman through the educational system that I was a part of in Westchester County, N.Y. So that's a little bit about me. I also want to introduce Adam.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: Are you a parent?

GRIFFITH: Ooh. Why'd she do that?

FREEDMAN: Her second mistake is one I find very relatable. I've been a teacher and facilitator. She starts doing her facilitator thing.


YOUNGE: So I want to take a second to do some interactive introductions 'cause I know you've been sitting, and we've been talking to you all.

I thought I would do some fun questions to get people to get to know each other.

My first question is, if you are from District 28, can you raise your hand?


YOUNGE: That's amazing.

That did not go over well.


YOUNGE: I just want to emphasize, the next question was how many people know 10 people in this room? There's over a hundred people in this room, and not that many people raised their hand.


YOUNGE: And so I'd like to just emphasize that a lot of people are going to have an opportunity to meet other people through this process, and that's what we're really excited about. So we are going - if you don't mind...

MOHAMA: So she needs to keep going.


YOUNGE: I want to continue, but if you continue to talk over me, it's hard for me to keep going with my presentation. So...

FREEDMAN: Finally, she brings up a PowerPoint and explains the diversity planning process step by step.

GRIFFITH: The role of the working group, how the working group was chosen.

FREEDMAN: The schedule of the workshops, what would happen at every workshop.

GRIFFITH: How community feedback would be collected and incorporated at every point along the way.

FREEDMAN: The areas of focus for the process - access to information, access to resources, admissions policy, student achievement.

GRIFFITH: Yes, of course, the district is diverse on paper, but what does that really mean?


YOUNGE: How is that diversity reflected in schools versus the district? How can we think about (inaudible) issues? Not to say that the solution is to make all the schools look like the district, but we should be thinking about - do all the schools look like the district? And if they don't, why not? Let's think about that. And let's talk about that.

MOHAMA: It's New York City. It's already diverse.

YOUNGE: So next is school capacity.

FREEDMAN: She also reiterates that this meeting is not a part of the planning process, which has not started yet. This is a presentation about the process.


YOUNGE: Something really important that I want to mention is that there is currently no plan. I think that is one of the biggest questions we've been getting is how this plan is going to get implemented. The plan says this. The plan doesn't say this. There's no plan right now. What's going to happen is a process. And we are happy to answer your questions about the process, but we don't have any answers to questions about how will the plan be implemented because there is no plan. There are no recommendations yet.

FREEDMAN: Between the superintendent's presentation and the WXY presentation and questions from the CEC members, it's more than an hour before Vijah finally opens it up to the parents in the room. That's a lot of pent-up energy.


RAMJATTAN: So we can move now to your questions, OK?


RAMJATTAN: I'm going to try to pronounce names as best as I can.

GRIFFITH: It's a rough ride.


JASON FINK: District 15 is one-third the size of District 28 in both population and geography. The geography is important because it means longer travel times for those being allocated schools that they did not choose.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: I foresee additional traffic, more pollution, kids getting home later, having to do their homework still, less time to rest, less time to spend time with their family, less time to socialize.

JASON FINK: Now, the question you all have to ask is, do you want that plan to be serving as a model for this one? Because that's what's on the table.

JOHN SCHAEFER: If we're going to be honest here, most families in Rego Park and Forest Hills are not going to put their kids on extensively long commutes for the pleasure of attending a subpar school. It just doesn't make any sense.

NANCY CHASE: We need to know what you're going to do to make the low-performing schools better instead of shipping out kids to a low-performing school and spreading it out to make everyone look better.

MICHELLE KATZ: This grant was applied for but doesn't seem like it's actually reflective of what the community is looking for.

SCHAEFER: None of us here are millionaires or billionaires, and you're pitting families in Queens against each other because there's not enough good schools.

KATZ: Rearranging the deck furniture when the ship is sinking. Why don't you take care of the ship and stop messing with furniture?

SCHAEFER: And if you're going to say that to the families in South Queens the only way to get a good education is to send your kids to North Queens, that is an embarrassment. And...


GRIFFITH: This idea that the DOE is rearranging the deck furniture on a sinking ship, that nobody wants to fix the real problems, it's something that resonates with a lot of people, even me. As a Black parent living in a mostly Black neighborhood, I've always had the sense that for my kids to get a quality education, they had to go to school with white folks. And I deeply resent that.

FREEDMAN: But there are a lot of assumptions being made about schools in the south side of District 28 by parents from the north side, people who, until a few weeks ago, may not have even known the south side schools were in the same district as them.


GRIFFITH: After each parent gets their 3 minutes, Vijah gives the folks from WXY and the DOE exactly 30 seconds to respond. He's pretty strict about it.

FREEDMAN: Aki and Sadye and their colleagues are trapped. People keep asking about specific hypothetical scenarios, and they just can't answer those, which they say repeatedly.


YOUNGE: There is no plan. I don't know because there's no plan yet.

KATZ: This is not my plan. I'm not making up plans. This is intended to be a community plan.

YOUNGE: But at this point, there's really no recommendations, and there's no plan.

ADAM LUBINSKY: There's no plan. There is a range of ways of approaching diversity.

YOUNGE: We can't really predict what will happen because we don't know what we're trying to make happen, and so we can't know what will happen if we don't know what we're trying to make happen yet.

LUBINSKY: We are not here to pronounce on solutions at all.

YOUNGE: I know this sounds like a broken record...


YOUNGE: ...But there is no plan. And so this is...

MOHAMA: What a waste.

FREEDMAN: Adam Lubinsky from WXY at least tries to explain why this is happening in District 28.


LUBINSKY: The city has looked at data of all the districts across the city and done something called a dissimilarity analysis. And that analysis shows...


LUBINSKY: So it shows when you have an average in a district and then when you have schools that are far from that average, so that means the schools that are most dissimilar from each other. District 28 ranked very high in terms of dissimilarity from the average in the district.


LUBINSKY: So I'm not making a statement as to what the solution is.


LUBINSKY: ...Both in terms of income levels...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #31: Excuse me. Thank you.

LUBINSKY: ...And in terms of racial diversity.

RAMJATTAN: Moving on...

FREEDMAN: On some level, I don't blame the audience for laughing. These are just numbers, and nobody will say what these numbers mean for students. I think it's a Catch-22 born out of good intentions. Instead of the DOE and WXY coming and saying, this is the problem, here's how we're going to fix it, they're trying to have this collaborative process to identify the problems. But because they can't or won't name the real problems, they have a harder time getting buy-in to the process.

GRIFFITH: But Sadye's not sure if there's anything they could have said that would have gotten buy-in from this crowd.

CAMPOAMOR: I mean, it was just speaking to, like, a roomful of amygdalas, which was just, like, standing up and sort of, like, spewing, screaming. Like, you know, talk about droplets. It was like droplet city. And so because my amygdala sort of was also firing off at times, I'm not sure I was my most eloquent of making the case for integration. I'm also not sure if that was the space to make the case for integration. I was in my head of, like, well, is this the moment where I'm like, there's a moral imperative and a legal imperative and academic intervention? I don't know. I didn't totally lose my voice, but I definitely had to, like, re-root and re-ground in the physical space and be like, let's get back out of my own amygdala of, like, these people are shouting at me and, like, it feels very harmful and racist to a place of understanding, of, like, no, of course this is not harmful and racist. People are just worried about schools and their children and their families, and these are people, and they need to be heard. So that's how it felt. And, like, that kind of chaotic response is sort of how it felt, too, in the moment.

FREEDMAN: One of the most charged moments in the meeting begins when a parent with an Israeli accent speaks up. She's a little hard to hear in the video, so I'll summarize. She has a number of questions, but one of them is about the working group. Given that the north side of the district is heavily Jewish, she asks, why are there no Jews in the working group?


LIMOR NESHER: Why isn't there representation for our community in the working group? Jewish representation is needed, considering the current political climate, such as swastikas in our neighborhood and synagogues that are being attacked and Jews that are being attacked on the street.

FREEDMAN: Adam from WXY tries to answer all this woman's many questions, but for whatever reason, he misses one - the question about Jewish representation on the working group. When Adam's 30 seconds are up, Vijah tries to move on to the next speaker. One dad in the audience is not having it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #33: There was a serious question about Jews and antisemitism, and it was not addressed by anyone up there. I would like one person to address that issue.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #34: Please answer directly (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #33: Is there a Jewish representative on the working group?

FREEDMAN: The answer is yes. There is someone on the working group who's Jewish. He's actually the CEC's official delegate to the working group, which means he's sitting right there, but he doesn't stand up to say anything, and Vijah doesn't give anyone else the chance to explain - another fumbled ball. Not every parent from the north side who was at this meeting was against the diversity plan. But any north side parents who supported it didn't get a chance to speak or chose not to.

GRIFFITH: And not every parent who spoke up was from the north side at all. One of very few parents from the south side at this meeting was Venus Ketcham, the queen of Queens. She was sitting close to the woman who was filming, so you can hear Venus getting into it with the north side parents all around her.


KETCHAM: Just now (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #35: Why are you looking at me?

KETCHAM: I'm looking at all of you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #35: I don't think so.

KETCHAM: I've never seen any of you at these meetings before.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #36: OK, OK, OK, OK, this is not the time...

KETCHAM: No, I've - excuse me. I've never seen any of you before. I've been coming here for eight years, so y'all shush (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #37: Like I said, like I said, like I said...

KETCHAM: Just shush. I'm going to look at whoever I want. What are you going to do about it?

GRIFFITH: When it's finally her time to speak, she starts by introducing herself.


KETCHAM: Good evening. My name is Venus Ketcham. I'm a community education activist. I'm a parent and community leader in Southeast Queens, School District 28 in the greater Queens south area. My commitment is to parents, educating and empowered parents. I attend PTA meetings at PS 80, PS 354, PS 40, PS 312, the Jamaica Children's Learning School, MS 72. I've attended PTA meetings at the Emerson School, as well as York Early College Academy. And I attend CEC meetings throughout Queens, so District 25, District 26, District 24, District 30, District 29.


KETCHAM: I attend CEC meetings as a volunteer service to educate and empower my community.

GRIFFITH: Shots fired, yo. In case you missed that, another parent asked Venus, do you work? That is a loaded question for a Black mother in a room full of mostly non-Black people.

FREEDMAN: Remember, she works full time for the DOE as a para, a teacher's aide. So she's not here to talk about a hypothetical diversity plan. She wants answers to the same questions that she brings to every meeting.


KETCHAM: I really want to know what's happening with the progress in the schools on the south side, where I live, so that we - I can see evidence of the progress and see what additional support we can have. And I hope to see everybody here in April and May and June and September and October and November. I have not missed a meeting.

GRIFFITH: But Venus isn't the only Black parent there from the south side, and she wasn't the Black parent most cited in the press when this meeting was over. That distinction went to a woman in a black abaya named Lorraine Reid. She lives in South Jamaica, but she grew up in Jamaica-Jamaica - you know, the island.


REID: My thing is, if the parents from the north have an issue with the busing and all of that wonderful stuff that is floating in the air and the parents from the south - obviously, there is an issue with the academic setup with the parents in the south. Why aren't we - instead of worrying about spreading out all the inequalities, focus on the schools in the South.


REID: Let me finish (ph). Build the schools up in the south with the necessary - the basic necessary tools that the students need - hold on, wait - and provide our children in the south with the opportunities that nurture their learning skills. You cannot use a blanket diversity plan to educate all students. Our students are not cookie-cutter products that you...


REID: Why can't it be done that you focus on the schools in the south? Find out how our students learn. My child does not learn like someone else's child. We're from different cultures. Our children do not learn the same, so taking my son or anybody else's child out of the South Park and shipping them there is doing them a disservice.


FREEDMAN: This might be the most enthusiastic applause and cheering of the whole night. I imagine it's cathartic for a lot of the non-Black parents in the audience. They must understand the optics. Thank God there's a Black woman saying the same thing we are.

GRIFFITH: At 8:30 on the dot, Vijah ends the meeting. Who knows how many more names are on the list of speakers? People are not happy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #39: Mr. President, can you please continue with the questioning? This is very important.

RAMJATTAN: So what I'm saying is - what I'm saying, based on our permit time here - we have a business meeting after. We will end the questions at this time.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #40: We should not have another meeting in this building, for the record. We need to have a meeting at one of your...


GRIFFITH: This meeting would be a defining moment in how people thought, and still think, about the District 28 diversity plan.

FREEDMAN: Dramatic photographs of angry parents were splashed across the pages of the New York Post, the Daily News, The Wall Street Journal, Gothamist, Chalkbeat.

GRIFFITH: So Vijay was right.

RAMJATTAN: Now, we can make this meeting what you want to make it. We all scream, and we all yell, and the meeting is nice audible for the media. Yeah, they were screaming and yelling, and that's great. But what did we get?

FREEDMAN: In January, there was a follow-up meeting - bigger venue, same energy. This time, TV cameras were there.


UNIDENTIFIED CBS REPORTER: A plan to diversify a Queens' school district is prompting a protest from parents tonight.

JILLIAN JORGENSEN: A contentious meeting with parents lashing out over a plan to boost diversity in their school district, a plan the Department of Education says doesn't even exist yet.

UNIDENTIFIED CBS REPORTER #2: Parents feel they weren't consulted.

JASON FINK: This isn't something where the populous has said, we want this. It's something that's part of some grand social engineering experiment. I don't know how we wound up with it, but I know that we don't want it to happen here.

GRIFFITH: This was not the end of the road for the diversity planning process, but it didn't bode well. Was all this backlash inevitable? Did it have to go down this way?

FREEDMAN: Remember, 28 wasn't the only district going through this process. There were three others getting diversity planning off the ground at the same time. And by all accounts, they were going OK. So what was it about District 28? Aki has a theory.

YOUNGE: There was more of a consensus in some of the other districts that it, like, wasn't really working at all for anyone versus, I definitely feel like in District 28, the people who paid good money to live in those neighborhoods and are getting into the, quote, unquote, "good schools," felt like there's nothing wrong with this system. There's nothing wrong at all. Why should we do this? And now I'm very angry that you're going to take this away from me.

FREEDMAN: I think it's fair to say mistakes were made - some big, some small, some avoidable, some not.

GRIFFITH: But if the DOE had rolled this out perfectly, would anything have been different? Aki doesn't think so.

YOUNGE: No amount of participatory process, no amount of transparency would have satisfied certain people because the process itself represented a threat to their way of life. They were so stuck on what they had and either the lot that they had or even the little bit that they had - that little bit of privilege or that little bit of access or that little bit of stability to get into this school - that they couldn't imagine a world where it could be better.

GRIFFITH: We'll get back to the CEC meeting, to the parents who rose up against the diversity plan in District 28 and what they were all about and what happened next. As dramatic as this event was, it's only part of a more complicated story.

FREEDMAN: For one thing, we're talking about a couple hundred people in a district with 40,000 kids. They claim to speak for the majority. And I'm not saying they don't. But who's to say they do? This is the activism playbook, right? A few people make a lot of noise, get a lot of attention and push their point of view into the mainstream. And it can be really effective, as we have all seen the last two years.

GRIFFITH: Look, these kinds of meetings, parent protests, they happen. They've happened for decades. Usually the way the story gets told, reporters like us drop in, get a couple of quotes from one side and the other and get out. But we're going to do things differently.


FREEDMAN: Coming up on School Colors - how the south side became the south side, how the north side kept people out and what happened when north and south first got forced together.

GLADYS WEAVER: The real estate people, I remember, they would go around and stick notices in your door and say to the people, the neighborhood is changing, and you're going to have a lot of Black people moving in your neighborhood, courting your daughters.

PETER EISENSTADT: The whole idea of thousands of families, white families, moving into the middle of a Black neighborhood - it was sort of a remarkable thing.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #43: We're going to oppose anybody from a remote place dictating how we're going to live, just the same as they did in '76 when we revolted against King George.

JERRY BIRBACH: We pay all the taxes and we're never heard, and it's about time that the middle-income people of America are truly heard.

SHIRLEY HUNTLEY: We never got what we were supposed to get. We didn't have the books. We didn't have the materials. We had absolutely nothing in our schools in the early days. Everything we got, we had to fight like hell for - everything.


GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman; produced by Max Freedman with Carly Rubin and Ilana Levinson; additional reporting by Carly Rubin and Abe Levine.

FREEDMAN: Our editor is Soraya Shockley. Our project managers are Soraya Shockley and Lyndsey McKenna, fact-checking by Carly Rubin, engineering by James Willetts, additional research by Anna Kushner.

GRIFFITH: Original music by Avery R. Young and De Deacon Board - additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.

FREEDMAN: News tape in this episode from Fox 5, NY1, CBS 2 and the New York Post. Special thanks to Atina Bazin and Matt Delmont, LynNell Hancock and Shereen Marisol Meraji, who made this whole thing happen.

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and our senior vice president of programming, Anya Grundmann.

FREEDMAN: Season 2 of School Colors was made possible by NPR, the Spencer Fellowship in education reporting at Columbia University and by the Brooklyn Movement Center.

GRIFFITH: You can listen to the first season of School Colors at schoolcolorspodcast.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

FREEDMAN: Until next time...



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