School Colors Episode 7 : Code Switch In some ways, this entire season was prompted by the parents who organized against diversity planning in School District 28. So in this episode, we're going back to that one ugly meeting, where they unleashed their fear and anger into the rest of the community. So who are these parents, what do they believe and why? Moreover, why were they ready to fight so hard against a plan that didn't exist?

School Colors Episode 7: 'The Sleeping Giant'

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MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:

Peace, y'all. We're coming to the end of this season of School Colors, and we'd really like to hear from you. Have you heard something on the show that's moved you or changed the way you think about race, class, power and schools in your own life? This goes out to everybody, but especially our friends in Queens. Give us a call at 929-483-6387 and leave us a voicemail. You might even hear your voice on the last episode. All right. On with the show.

MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:

So right before we started, I was telling you how there was this diversity plan that was supposed to begin, but then it didn't because of the pandemic. So you had - you - this is - you need to have, like...

CHARMAINE BAPTISTE: This is my first time.

FREEDMAN: You never heard about it?

BAPTISTE: Never. And I'm very much into figuring what's going on with school, what's going on in my community and nothing.

FREEDMAN: You met Charmaine Baptiste and her son Elias at the end of the last episode. I spoke to them in December 2021, more than two years after this proposed diversity planning process set off a firestorm in District 28. But Charmaine had never even heard of it.

BAPTISTE: I haven't heard nothing from it from anybody at all, nobody at all. Nothing. Just - you just telling me this is the first time I heard it ever.

FREEDMAN: I didn't tell her much, but what she heard, she took personally.

BAPTISTE: I felt like they don't want my son around, and they don't even want to give him an opportunity. Why? Tell me why. Why you don't want my son to be in that school or - you know what I'm saying? Why? What is the threat? You know what I'm saying? I don't understand what - why - I would love to be in that meeting to, like, ask the question. What's the problem?

FREEDMAN: I explained to her some of the problems parents raised at a dramatic meeting of the Community Education Council or CEC in December, 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED CEC ATTENDEE #1: If we're going to be honest here, most families in Riga Park, in 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.

UNIDENTIFIED CEC ATTENDEE #2: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED CEC ATTENDEE #3: 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.

BAPTISTE: I understand what they're saying, because maybe, if I was in their shoes, I would probably feel the same way because I felt that way too. Why I have to take Elias out of South Jamaica and bring him over to Forest Hills?

FREEDMAN: Charmaine's son Elias travels more than an hour each way to school. Every day, he takes two buses from their home in South Jamaica to attend sixth grade at a school in Forest Hills.

BAPTISTE: We come here all the time. We come to this side of the fence all the time. So why can't you come on this side? It's not good enough for you to come to our neighborhood. We always have to - why we always have to seek out, like, the good schools? And I feel those parents' nervousness because they're going to be challenged to wake up their kids early in the morning, but there are a lot of people that lives in South Jamaica that get up 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning just to get their kids in a different area just to go to school. So what if you have to do that? It is what it is, you know what I'm saying? Like, I don't know. I don't know. But it's - this is very upsetting to find out, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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 some ways, this entire season was prompted by the parents who organized against diversity planning in District 28. We started all this with that CEC meeting where their fear and anger spilled out into public.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Parent after parent after parent, they were complaining, and they were screaming. I have never seen anything like that before.

GRIFFITH: Parents who opposed the diversity plan said it was an act of social engineering imposed from on high, devised in secret.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: But when it got wind to people who are more experienced and affluent and know what this jargon means, they went, what? And it awoken a sleeping giant.

GRIFFITH: That meeting raised a lot of eyebrows, including ours. We promised we'd come back to it, and here we are.

FREEDMAN: Who are these parents? What do they believe, and why?

GRIFFITH: Why were they so ready to fight so hard against a plan that didn't exist?

FADIA MOHAMA: Diversity plan sounds amazing, right? But when I started hearing that they were going to dezone the schools, that's when I was like, oh, wait, what? No, we can't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The quality of the school isn't just the grades. It's also about building a community. And how do you build a community when you're shipping kids all over the place?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I didn't feel any way. I'm glad they didn't want our students over there 'cause I didn't want them over here either.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Things got pretty ugly on Facebook.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: They just started calling people out as racist. And I can't believe people here are saying things that are racist.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: The whole attack with me was you're just, like, a rich housewife. What I have, I have because I busted my ass. Like, you don't know where I come from.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: I'm like, you'll fight that. Like, what are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?

FREEDMAN: In this episode, we let the opposition speak for themselves.

GRIFFITH: Welcome back to School Colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MOHAMA: So do I start with my name or just - OK. So my name is Fadia, as you guys know. I've been living in Forest Hills for about 15 or 16 years. My son is currently in middle school.

GRIFFITH: Fadia Mohama is a senior director for a big social service agency in Queens.

Are you originally from Queens?

MOHAMA: No, I'm from Miami.

GRIFFITH: From Miami? OK.

MOHAMA: So my dad is originally from Lebanon. He moved to Bolivia. And that's - obviously, that's where he met my mom. My mom is from Bolivia.

GRIFFITH: Bolivia is also where Fadia was born, but her family moved to Miami when she was 7.

MOHAMA: My dad passed away when I was 12, so that, you know, was a little bit, obviously, challenging 'cause my mom doesn't speak English. She was working a minimum wage job, and that's when the struggles happened and - but we made it through, I guess.

GRIFFITH: And what brought you to Forest Hills?

MOHAMA: The food and the restaurants.

(LAUGHTER)

GRIFFITH: We laughed, but she wasn't kidding.

MOHAMA: So my husband and I lived in Woodhaven, which - we loved Woodhaven. But then we wanted to kind of - we were always hanging out in Forest Hills. Many, many, many, many years ago, there was a restaurant called Mardi Gras, which is, you know, Cajun food. And we used to come here every weekend to eat there.

GRIFFITH: As she spent more time in the neighborhood, she realized it would make a good place to settle down and start a family.

MOHAMA: I was like, you know what? The school districts here are really, really good, so let's move here so eventually, if we have kids, you know, they can also go to school here. And then we have - I mean, it's a perfect combination, right? Like, great school, amazing restaurants and great stores - Austin Street is really great. And then, as we kept coming here, we just loved the vibe. We loved everything. So we found an apartment, and we moved.

FREEDMAN: Fadia liked one school in particular, PS101, the School in the Gardens.

MOHAMA: For me, it just had a really good balance, so we moved in that zone. We wanted to make sure that my son went to 101.

FREEDMAN: OK. So how did you first hear that there was going to be a diversity plan or...

MOHAMA: In the school.

FREEDMAN: You heard about in the school?

MOHAMA: Yeah.

FREEDMAN: And do you remember when or from who?

MOHAMA: It was right before that meeting. I had no - so I remember seeing articles.

FREEDMAN: Right.

MOHAMA: But I was like, diversity plan sounds amazing - right? - 'cause that's what we want. That's why we live here. But then when - so, like, there was one parent who broke - that's what it was. One parent broke it down on social media in one of the community groups. They broke it down exactly what that meant. And that's when all the parents sort of, like - oh, wait, what?

FREEDMAN: And when they broke it down, what did they say?

MOHAMA: The dezoning - that's - I think that's the only thing I remember, was, like, dezoning the schools.

FREEDMAN: You're going to hear this a lot, especially from Fadia - dezoning. Here's what that means. Most schools in the district have a zone. Every student in that zone is guaranteed admission to their zone school. The zone schools on the north side are almost all overcrowded because so many people, like Fadia, choose where they live based on where they want to send their kids to school. Rezoning would mean changing the boundaries that determine who's entitled to attend each school. Dezoning would mean getting rid of those boundaries entirely so that no one gets priority for any school. That idea freaked Fadia out.

MOHAMA: But when I started hearing that they were going to dezone the schools, that's when I was like, oh, wait, what? No, we can't. Like, you can't dezone the schools. Like, parents are already struggling enough, you know? Like, for me to send my kid 30 minutes away from my house doesn't work for me. It doesn't work for my lifestyle. It doesn't work - just - and I only have one son. I can't even imagine parents that have two, three, four kids going in different directions. Like, they just - I'd have some moms cry to me and say, you know, I live here in a one-bedroom apartment with my in-laws, three kids. You know, we've made that sacrifice so my kid can go to 101 or my kid can go to Russell Sage, you know? And now that the rumor was that they were going to dezone the school, it was like, I can't - I just - I cannot have my kid go on a bus and go to another school. Again, there's just a rumor, but, as parents, we freak out sometimes, right? Whether it's a rumor or not, we worry, right? That's just a normal reaction from any parent, I think.

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

GRIFFITH: Jean (ph) is another parent in Forest Hills. She grew up in Texas, the daughter of Korean immigrants. She asked us not to use her last name.

JEAN: Out of the people that live here, I - you know, me plus a few others have done extensive research on the diversity plan. We've really delved into the history and also documentation. So I've got a lot of documentation.

GRIFFITH: She does, in fact, have a lot of documentation. She gave us a flash drive full of it.

JEAN: And I found a presentation that the Department of Education presented to the - at the CEC meeting in October. And in there, there was a slide - and I don't know that parents or people even caught it, or even the CEC members realized what it was about - but the slide very specifically was about dezoning. So they wanted to dezone our middle schools.

FREEDMAN: We looked at the presentation she's talking about. The slide is actually about rezoning, not dezoning. Still, it was a clear signal that changes were afoot. So she kept digging.

JEAN: People started looking at the schools and the state test scores and wondering, wait a minute, why are they shuffling children around? Is it just for the sake of mixing up the races because if it's a racial issue - right? - isn't that unconstitutional? And then, on the other hand, if they're going to be shuffling kids around, what's the likelihood, and where would they be sending them?

GRIFFITH: One document that made her think this was just about mixing up the races was the report of the city's School Diversity Advisory Group, or the SDAG. Earlier that year, the SDAG had recommended as a long-term goal that every school in the city should strive to match the demographics of its district.

JEAN: And you did the basic number crunching in terms of the racial composition 'cause that was put out there by the DOE as something they were looking at. You know, you realize there is no way for them to fulfill that without forced transit.

GRIFFITH: One more key piece of evidence for Jean was that there had recently been a diversity plan created for another district, 15 in Brooklyn. That diversity plan changed the rules for middle school admissions in that district, although middle schools in District 15 were already unzoned. So this was not a dezoning plan.

FREEDMAN: Jean believed District 28's plan would also focus on middle schools, and she knew that for middle school, the city doesn't provide yellow school buses, which meant if they were forced to go to middle school far from home, they'd have to drive or take public transportation.

JEAN: Everybody around here - south Queens, central Queens - all working parents. Many are dual-income families. And then I imagine down in the south, where you have a higher poverty index, wouldn't the burden be even worse for somebody who's a single parent having to take and drop off the kid, you know, whatever distance it was? So people were like, OK, wait a minute, if we're going to have to send our child to a school, how long is it going to take?

FREEDMAN: One parent actually timed it and shared this video to Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I am going to make a trip that will illustrate what a typical commute will look like for a middle schooler using public transportation from Rego Park to South Jamaica. I will use Halsey Middle School right here as point A and Redwood Middle School as point B.

I'm approaching 63rd Drive subway station. Time is 7:39, 7:40, so it took me, like, 10 minutes to walk.

7:50 - last stop along Continental, no trains.

OK, it's 7:55.

OK, it's 8:07.

All right. What time is it? 8:10.

Time is 8:13 a.m. I'm waiting for Q111 bus.

OK, so final stop - 8:40 a.m. It took me an hour and 10 minutes to get from Halsey Middle School to Redwood. Man, it's a long commute. I've got to tell you. It's a long, exhausting commute.

JEAN: It scared people. I mean, it's a massive quality of life impact that people, I think, don't understand.

GRIFFITH: As documents and articles and theories circulated on the north side throughout the fall, like-minded parents kept finding each other, and Jean decided it was time to get organized.

JEAN: And I said, guys, I think we got to start a Facebook group (laughter).

GRIFFITH: She called it Queens Parents United.

So Queens Parents United - what - how would you describe the mission?

JEAN: Protecting your local neighborhood schools.

GRIFFITH: Which means protecting your right to go to the school in your neighborhood.

JEAN: The quality of the school isn't just the grades. It's also about building that community. And how do you build a community when you're shipping kids all over the place? You don't have that. You lose it, you know? And if you have an immigrant neighborhood, you know, what good is it to send those kids out, you know, to a school where they have to commute an hour away if it's not by choice, right? It doesn't. It doesn't help them. And I feel like it's a very targeted way to actually - what's the word? - to break up communities.

GRIFFITH: Within a month, she says something like 800 people joined Queens Parents United on Facebook. Some of them she knew, but most of them she didn't. Jean had barely been on Facebook before all of this, so she was surprised by just how many parents signed up.

FREEDMAN: But at least one north side parent we spoke to was not at all surprised by the scale of this response.

TIA KEENAN: I remember reading an article naming the districts that won the diversity grant. So, you know, just reading the news, I remember reading that and thinking, oh, shit. That's going to be something else here - right away, being like, fuck, that's going to be...

GRIFFITH: Well, please explain that. Why?

KEENAN: I mean, 'cause this is, like - this district is a tale of two cities. It's totally racially segregated. I mean, these Forest Hills parents are, like, the worst, just the worst. I just knew it was going to be a lot.

FREEDMAN: Tia Keenan lives in Kew Gardens, which is next door to Forest Hills on the north side.

KEENAN: You know, I consider myself part of, like, the striving class. You know, we live in a home in New York City. We have immense privilege. But we did that through working in restaurants. Two incomes, 15-hour days - you know, I was a chef. He was a sommelier. And we just busted. We were just grinding. Once I moved into this house, it was the first time - really, when I got married, it was the first time I had ever been financially secure in my life. I told myself that I had to start doing some organizing because I didn't feel comfortable with abundance without some sort of redistribution of that.

FREEDMAN: Unlike Jean, she already saw herself as an activist long before any diversity plan came along. She had started a local organization called Neighbors Against White Supremacy.

KEENAN: I'm part of the culture of the north. I'm part of the northern culture of the white people who are used to being listened to, who are used to getting the resources that they want. But my personal politic is to use that culture to pass that power off in whatever way I can.

FREEDMAN: Tia is the only person we talked to who lives in the north but sends her child to a school in the south, a charter school in Jamaica.

KEENAN: What's your biggest resource in the school district? It's your kid. Your kid is your biggest resource. People thinks it's tax dollars, but it's actually your children. When you send your child to school, you're sending your resource, especially as a white parent, as a parent with privilege, because all the privileges and resources that are attached to my son go with him.

FREEDMAN: And what are those?

KEENAN: A loud-mouthed mother who will raise hell, someone who knows how to write a letter to a politician, someone who knows how to call up an agency and ask questions or send emails and file complaints, someone who is home enough so that my son goes to school every day well-rested, well-fed, and feeling loved - the resources that economically and racially privileged parents have are about the ways that we don't experience violence in society. You know, it's the stability of not being a target. And those are endless, those resources. That's part of white community wealth, too. It's not just the dollar. It's all the ways that power is available.

GRIFFITH: We have to point out Jean and Fadia are not white. Many opponents of the diversity planning process are not white. But Jean and Fadia are not necessarily representative of their movement. When we started reporting this season, we asked around. Who had been most active in organizing against the diversity plan? Most of the parents we were told about were white.

FREEDMAN: And we tried to talk to some of those white parents. They turned us down. A couple of them had already moved out of the city or left the public schools and said they wanted to put this all behind them. One woman told me on the phone she'd been warned about us. You don't have a good reputation in this community, she said. I've been to your website. You only care about Black people. She was very polite, but she told me, I wish for you to fail.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Whether or not white parents wanted to talk to us, they were some of the loudest voices in the room when the simmering opposition came to a boil at the meeting where we started this season, on December 5, 2019. We'll revisit that meeting and tell you what happened next after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: To quickly recap from Episode 1, the Department of Education hired an urban planning firm called WXY to facilitate the diversity planning process in District 28. That process was supposed to formally begin in early 2020. But when it became obvious that some parents, especially north side parents, had serious concerns, staff from the DOE and WXY went to the December meeting of the Community Education Council to present and field questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Hi. Good afternoon, everyone.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: You shouldn't have 40 seats available for all of Queens, District 28.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Can you get Stephanie (ph)? Can you get Stephanie?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: That's ridiculous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #13: I - no, there are 112 in there, something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Regardless, it's District 28 of Queens.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Reschedule, reschedule, reschedule, reschedule...

GRIFFITH: The CEC may have been caught off guard by the size of the crowd, but Fadia Mohama saw it coming, so she got there early to get a good seat.

MOHAMA: We went there, I think, an hour earlier 'cause we knew from what we've heard from the community and what we saw on Facebook, what we saw in our PA meetings - we were like, OK, this is going to - parents are going to show up. So we knew.

GRIFFITH: Fadia is the one whose voice you hear behind the camera.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #14: 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.

GRIFFITH: Parents kept asking for specifics about the diversity plan, which the presenters couldn't really provide because there was no plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: There is no plan. I don't know because there's no plan yet.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #16: This is not my plan. I'm not making a plan. This is intended to be a community plan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #15: I know this sounds like a broken record, but there is no plan. And so this is definitely...

MOHAMA: What a waste.

Yeah. And then after that meeting, we left going, OK, there is no plan, so things changed.

FREEDMAN: So you believed it.

MOHAMA: No, I don't. I didn't believe it.

FREEDMAN: (Laughter).

MOHAMA: I believe there was a plan, but they didn't want to share with us because people were so pissed.

GRIFFITH: But why did you believe that? Did you believe that because of evidence of what you saw coming from WXY and the city?

MOHAMA: Yeah, the way they presented it that was, like - we were - I was like, were you not prepared for this meeting (laughter)?

GRIFFITH: But did you feel like there was - was there anything that they said or did that gave you the impression that there was, like, a master plan that they just weren't being forthcoming with?

MOHAMA: No, but I just felt that - I mean, there's no way you were going to invest this much amount of money to hire a consulting company that has nothing to do with education if there is no plan.

FREEDMAN: OK. I take this a little personally. That consulting company, WXY, is an urban planning firm. And to say that urban planning has nothing to do with education negates, like, my whole career. I went to school for urban planning, and it was my thesis in urban planning that eventually turned into the first season of this podcast. That's why we say it's a show about American cities and schools, because Mark and I believe you can't understand one without the other. But long before we started working on the podcast, when I started my research, what I hoped to do was bring the tools of an urban planner to the field of education. Tools like data analysis, mapping and facilitation - in other words, exactly what you need to run something like a diversity planning process. And WXY got the job in District 28 because they had already done this. They had facilitated diversity planning in other districts, like District 15 in Brooklyn.

GRIFFITH: So WXY may not have had a plan, but they did have a framework. The process they used in District 15 was the template for the process in District 28. And at the center of that process was the diversity working group, 20 volunteers - parents, educators and community leaders. They would be the ones to come up with an actual plan based on what they heard in public workshops around the district.

FREEDMAN: Parents like Jean had two problems with the working group right off the bat. One, the members of the working group were handpicked by WXY. Two, their names were kept secret to protect their privacy. In response to parent outcry, those names were eventually made public. But for Jean, knowing who was on the working group only deepened her suspicions of the process.

JEAN: One thing that came to my mind - well, they're talking about a diversity plan so that every school could have a racial breakdown that matches the district. The working group members didn't even match the racial breakdown - racial composition of the district, you know? They clearly weighted it more heavily towards POCs. A good chunk of the ones that were the parents had children in middle school already, which mean they would be out of the system and off to high school by the time the diversity plan would've, you know, been enacted. And then we found that they had students on the group. Why would you have students? And we suspected that those two students were coached. Or how were they selected? The community groups were groups no one had ever heard of before. I don't know, I could be wrong. But we thought that was disturbing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: There's a lot there. Whatever you think of her specific complaints, here's the bottom line. Jean believed that WXY and the DOE had stacked the deck, that the members of the working group reflected their agenda, who they cared about and who they didn't.

FREEDMAN: In fact, Jean saw WXY at the center of a web of organizations who were working together to impose their vision on District 28. She's an architect, and she used her design skills to create a diagram that she shared with other parents. We asked her to show it to us.

I'm just reading what you're showing me. It's a diagram that says - at the top, it says community-led or community-fed? The D 28 diversity plan has been an illegitimate community engagement and planning process behind closed doors. It does not explain how or why a group of ideologic activists, unelected by the local communities, will be gathering and presenting recommendations for the D 28 diversity plan. And then there's a - kind of a flowchart. Can you explain the flowchart?

JEAN: OK. So here it shows the activist group that we saw connected with the SDAG report and then starting to come into the conversation for District 28. And at the center of it is WXY. We see WXY also cropping up and showing up here and there and all of that being intertwined and connected. So it didn't seem like this was coming from the community.

FREEDMAN: Jean insists that, if diversity planning had come from the community, she would support it. She says she would welcome a grassroots effort to bring people together to talk about issues in District 28.

This is a big if. But if you take what the folks who are supposed to be facilitating this diversity planning process - if you take what they've said in public at face value, then theoretically this process that never really got off the ground is - would be the space to have a sort of dialogue that you're talking about, a more kind of open dialogue about these issues.

JEAN: No.

FREEDMAN: No?

JEAN: No, I don't believe it. I don't think this was started and begun with - in good faith. They had very clear ideas about what they wanted to impose on not just our school district, but citywide.

FREEDMAN: It wasn't just WXY. There were parents in the district who supported diversity planning, but Jean didn't think they really represented the community.

JEAN: The same people that are speaking out for the diversity plan - these very strong integration activists - it's, like, the same few voices, and they're all, like, white and from the north end of the district. I don't think that they're hearing really what the voices are in the south. What is it that they want? What is it they - that they need? I know Lorraine Reid came out, and she was very clear about what they want.

GRIFFITH: Lorraine Reid was a name that came up in almost every conversation we had with parents from the north.

KEENAN: There was a woman we - that came to a lot of the CEC meetings. Her name was Lorraine.

MOHAMA: I didn't think there was a problem until I went to that meeting and I heard Lorraine talk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #17: I mean, you see Lorraine, right? You have...

FREEDMAN: Everybody tells me about Lorraine. She's one person. Everyone tells me about that one person.

GRIFFITH: Lorraine gained this sort of fame on the north side because she was one of the few parents from the south who spoke up at that CEC meeting on December 5, and especially because of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORRAINE REID: Why aren't we, instead of worrying about spreading out all the inequalities, focused on the schools in the south...

(APPLAUSE)

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

(APPLAUSE)

FREEDMAN: That was some of the most enthusiastic applause of the night.

I want to know, how did that make you feel?

REID: Great. Me, personally - let me tell you what - I thought it was awesome. Honestly, I was sitting there, and I said it to my son. I was thinking, great, here are these people thinking that I'm on their side when, in reality, I'm trying to protect our kids from being shuffled to a place where their kids do school shootings.

GRIFFITH: I wasn't quite expecting that.

REID: You could cheer all you want. I know what your motivation is. You don't want the little Black kids in your school messing your stuff up. But that's not it. I don't want your kids in our school shooting our schools up. I didn't feel any way - I'm glad they didn't want our students over there 'cause I didn't want them over here either. And it's not because I have a problem. It's because, historically, I've seen what they're capable of. I wasn't offended like some people were offended. I was like, good. They don't want us, and we don't want them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Lorraine says she went to that meeting primarily to call attention to what her kid's school was lacking. She got a fair amount of attention, so she tried to capitalize on it. After the meeting, she wrote a strongly-worded email.

REID: It wasn't pretty, and it wasn't cursing. It was a diplomatic ripping you a new one.

FREEDMAN: We cut it down for brevity. Now, here's Mark with a dramatic reading.

GRIFFITH: (Reading) Please let this email serve as a request, notification, demand or whatever the terminology is or needs to be to have this matter addressed posthaste, as our children - my child is slated to perform on December 13, 2019, in an auditorium that is pretty much in the dark. The lighting in the auditorium to facilitate any event does not work. I would not want to invite anyone to this event for the feeling of embarrassment and shame would be too great. If I were a parent from the north, I wouldn't want my child bussed across town to a school such as this either. Next up on the list of totally unacceptable places in this building is the gym. Let me just say, I have video of roaches in the broken-down, dilapidated, nonfunctioning bleachers - not acceptable. How can you turn a blind eye to conditions that are and can become an out-of-control health hazard? I'll wait for your responses. Sincerely, Miss Lorraine Reid.

REID: I wrote the letter, and I CCed the mayor, the chancellor. I CCed my dead mother, and parents - this is how I got to know a lot more parent leaders - started coming to me and saying, can we help?

FREEDMAN: One of the parents who saw Lorraine's email was Fadia Mohama.

MOHAMA: So we were kind of like, how is this even happening next to us, right? Like, that shouldn't happen. So all the schools should be at the same level. I mean, obviously not because, you know - maybe a little bit here and there 'cause that's just the way life is, right? But they should always be great no matter what. They should all have lights. None of them should have roaches. They should all have new - you know, like, a good - you know, just the books that they need, the computers that they need. Like, they should all have that. Like, there shouldn't be one has more than the other. Like, that should not happen.

FREEDMAN: Had you - did - had you, like, been to other schools in the district?

MOHAMA: No, not until that. Yeah. Not until that diversity - that's why I was shocked when Lorraine talked about her school. I was like, how - like, that was, like, heartbreaking for me 'cause I - you know, I can't even imagine. That was just - that was a little too much to hear that, especially here.

FREEDMAN: So after you wrote that letter, people from the north side of the district did reach out to you.

REID: Oh, my God. Let me tell you something. I was in tears. I had parents that I didn't even know, who knew who I was, that's saying, is that what's going on? The outcry from the parent leaders were ridiculous. It was like, how can they do this to your children? Let us know - everybody. It was like, family was, like, reaching out and was, like, they're not going to help you. We'll help you.

FREEDMAN: These parents wanted to help her son's school by donating money and supplies, but Lorraine says she couldn't take the money because her PTA didn't have a bank account, and she had her doubts about some north side parents' motivations.

GRIFFITH: There were some people who genuinely wanted us to get our school up to a certain standard, she told us. But there were others who only wanted to help us so our children would not end up in their schools.

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FREEDMAN: For Tia Keenan, this is exactly the problem with how many of the most vocal north side parents approached the diversity plan.

KEENAN: The parents who are anti-diversity planning in the northern part of the district - like, they're always like, we think it's messed up, that, like, schools in the south haven't - you know, are crumbling and, like, don't have the budgets that they deserve. But when you talk actual numbers with them, like I did at a CEC meeting when I got up and said, OK, you all seem to want the south to get resources, so let's pool all our district PTA money and redistribute it. And they were like - the room went fucking crazy. You know, they're not interested. It's easy to say, I want everyone to be equal, when you don't actually have to invest anything in that equity. So that tends to be the thing here. It's like, I just - you know, I want those people to have power, but I don't want to have to give up any power myself. And that's not how things work. People just don't understand power, or what they do understand about power, they're not willing to admit to themselves. They want all of these things to happen without any change from them, without any change to their lives, to their communities, to their politics. Nothing can change. But they support change.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Tia was not the only north side parent pushing back against the pushback. In the weeks that followed, two sides emerged, and the conflict between them got ugly - after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: It was clear to everyone involved that the December CEC meeting did not go well, but the DOE and WXY didn't back down. They tried again. They came back to the next CEC meeting in January. Instead of a small meeting room at the district office, they met in a school auditorium to accommodate the crowds.

GRIFFITH: Bigger venue, same vibes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A plan to diversify a Queens school district is prompting a protest from parents tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Tonight at 6:30, leaders of Community Education Council 28 will convene again.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: A contentious meeting, with parents lashing out over a plan to boost diversity in their school district.

JASON FINK: Unless proven otherwise, it's our assumption that Carranza and WXY is trying to ram through a dezoning, forced busing, quota plan and disguising it behind the smoke and mirrors of this false community involvement.

GRIFFITH: The second CEC meeting was not so much an opportunity for people to learn and ask questions and more a chance for different groups of parents to flex their political muscle.

FREEDMAN: Parents who were against the diversity planning process all showed up wearing red. But there was also a much better coordinated effort among parents who wanted to see the process move forward. And they did not go unnoticed by Jean.

JEAN: They came out, and they just started calling people out as racist, and I can't believe people here are saying things that are racist. And, you know, people weren't saying things that were racist. They were saying their concerns, their genuine concerns about putting a 10-year-old on a subway or, you know, having to commute very far distances. You know, these are any concerns that any family would have, any working family would have. And it seemed like they were kind of coming out, and it was a very coordinated thing, you know, 'cause I noticed it. I recorded some of it, and I recognized that some people that were saying these things were all kind of sitting together. They knew each other. So it didn't seem like, hey, these were random people speaking out and saying, you know, we've got to have this. So that...

FREEDMAN: Let me ask you about that, though, because you also are coordinated, and you have a group, and you know each other, and you sit together. So what's the...

JEAN: What's the difference?

FREEDMAN: Yeah.

JEAN: 'Cause I didn't coordinate anything before the diversity plan. It looks like these people were well aware of it beforehand. And these people are all part of these groups that were involved with the SDAG report - Appleseed New York, IntegrateNYC. They said, I mean...

FREEDMAN: The parents were?

JEAN: Yes. Yes.

GRIFFITH: These are all school equity, fair funding and integration-focused advocacy groups that Jean sees as ideological and problematic.

FREEDMAN: For the record, we don't know how many, if any, of these parents were affiliated with these groups before the diversity plan.

If there are parents in the district and they have those beliefs and they have worked with those groups in the past, does that disqualify them from speaking out on this?

JEAN: No, it doesn't. They can have - everyone is entitled to their opinion. But to call everyone out as racist for having their own opinion - it's not right. And for them to try to start canceling people for their beliefs and for their genuine concerns about how they raise their family and how they're able to survive with these additional burdens being placed, it's not right. So when I talk about these social justice warriors - kind of saying it in jest, but I do think that there are people out there that will just cancel anyone if they don't agree with them.

FREEDMAN: Jean used the word cancel a lot. When we asked her what she meant by that, she said she didn't necessarily mean that her friends and allies lost jobs or platforms, but that the supporters of the diversity plan were, in her words, aggressive and abusive. It felt like bullying, she says.

GRIFFITH: And where this mostly went down was on Facebook.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: We were denied access to most of the north side Facebook groups, but from what we heard from parents like Jean and Fadia, the arguments were intense and personal.

MOHAMA: Things got pretty ugly on Facebook. I mean, I've had the worst things said to me that I've never even thought I will hear my life. Anyone who was against the diversity plan was, like, attacked in a way that - they felt that if you're against the diversity, then you're either racist or you don't want the kids from Jamaica coming to Forest Hills. Like, it was just awful. It was awful to have conversations with anyone.

JEAN: They were vicious. Some of them were going on to Facebook and saying that posts came from our group, and they - you know, very racially, you know, biased or racially tinged - you know, tinged with racism - and showing it to our elected officials and saying it came from our group.

FREEDMAN: Are you saying that people were fabricating posts that had not come from your group?

JEAN: Yes. Yes.

FREEDMAN: Jean later told us she heard about this secondhand. We can neither confirm nor deny that anyone was fabricating Facebook posts and falsely attributing them to Queens Parents United.

GRIFFITH: But even the most controversial post that she would acknowledge - Jean didn't see them as crossing a line.

JEAN: I mean, I think that we do have a lot of families in this area that are immigrants. Maybe their English isn't the best. Maybe they're not so politically correct when they say, oh, that's a bad school. Maybe that's not how they intended it. But, you know, I never saw anything outright that was inflammatory and outright racist.

FREEDMAN: We asked Fadia about this, too.

Did you see anything happen on Facebook that justifies the people feeling like there's racism in this community?

MOHAMA: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There were some parents that said some things that I was shocked that they said it. And I was like, this guy needs to be out of Facebook, and somebody needs to put him in his place - or woman. You know, there was both sides. But I also felt that a lot of parents were being attacked that were not racist. If we want to do better for our kids, if we want to - we have to listen to each other. Instead of attacking someone and automatically calling them a racist, you can take that moment as a teaching moment 'cause sometimes people - sometimes it's their ignorance, that they don't know.

KEENAN: You know, I think we live in a country where most people don't have any kind of race or class analysis...

GRIFFITH: Tia Keenan is one of the north side parents that others accused of being especially aggressive on Facebook.

KEENAN: ...Where racism is sort of, like, a personal flaw that people have. So you're, like, either racist or you're not racist. And, like, what makes you racist is, like, calling someone the N-word. It's not buying property in a white neighborhood and then getting upset because you think that property means that you should be able to maintain historically and presently systematically racist structures (laughter). So I think people - you know, most white people think of themselves as good white people. And if they're good white people, then they're not racist. They don't think that they can be racist and also be good people. So to tell themselves that they're good people, they have to not be racist and not interrogate their own racism or the ways that they benefit from racism.

FREEDMAN: And Tia told us that on Facebook, the opponents of the diversity plan weren't only playing defense. They also went on the attack.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KEENAN: They, like, basically identified all the, like, strongest anti-racist or pro-integration people in the community. And then they basically, like, picked us off. They set honey pots on social media. I fell for one. That's how mine happened, where they would be like, I just want to hear from one parent in the northern part of district who sends their kids to Jamaica and is happy about that. So I answer, hi, I'm that parent. I send my kid to school in Jamaica. I'm fine with it, blah, blah, blah. And then they just all came. They started saying, you know, like - the whole attack with me was, you're just, like, a rich housewife, and I know where you work.

FREEDMAN: Tia has written several books and says she strongly suspects, though she can't prove it, that a parent from Forest Hills who happens to work for her publisher interfered with her sales.

KEENAN: Threatening my job, my livelihood and just really fucking with me - I mean, just really messing with me and my relationships and who I am in the community. Like, I'm a grassroots organizer who's, like, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, anti-authority. And so painting me in the community groups as a rich housewife who's never had to work a day in her life - like, I'm a working-class person. You know, this is how I earned a dollar at a time to buy a house in a fucking neighborhood that I don't belong in in so many ways.

GRIFFITH: Fadia says, parents who supported the diversity plan came for her in the same way.

MOHAMA: So because I live in Forest Hills, people have this idea that I come from money and that I - you know, and so, you know, she said some things like, oh, I hope you never have to go through what some of these families had to go through. You don't know what it's like. And I'm like, how do you know I - like, I started working at 14 so I can help my mom with the mortgage, you know? So I know what it's like to struggle. I know what it's like to - you know what I mean? I've been through it.

And the reason why - one of the things that I do and I've always tried to advocate for families is because I've been there. And I do live in Forest Hills now, but I - like, I worked really hard. I struggled my entire life to get to where I am today. What I have, I have because I busted my ass. I worked from 7 in the morning to 11 o'clock at night for many years. Like, you don't know where I come from. It got ugly, to a point that a lot of us were like, we're done with social media 'cause it was becoming very hurtful and very, like, depressing, and it was just not - it wasn't pretty.

FREEDMAN: As time went on, many of the north side parent Facebook groups got a negative reputation, especially Queens Parents United.

MOHAMA: Jean, who runs Queens Parents United, is - I - like, we're friends, and she's awesome. And - but there were other parents where I felt was not - I didn't want to associate myself with them.

FREEDMAN: Fadia decided to start her own Facebook group called Our Children's Voice. While she may have wanted to set herself apart from Queens Parents United, they were up to basically the same thing. Both groups circulated online petitions, Fadia's against dezoning, Jean's for more transparency in the diversity planning process.

GRIFFITH: Jean wouldn't say outright that the discourse in her Facebook group became toxic, but she did eventually shut down the comments - for a few months, anyway.

JEAN: This is like this on every Facebook group. You have people that - you know, five, 10 people - it's the same people always posting. So, you know, they're not really - it's great. Everybody was really helpful with their contributions early on. But at some point it seemed like it was only those people that were speaking out, and, you know, it wasn't moving things forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: All this mess was happening almost exclusively between parents on the north side, but the rest of the district was watching.

GRIFFITH: Jean and Fadia believed their concerns are purely pragmatic, but that's not how it sounds on the south side.

ALLISON BELL: For every group - for every diversity group that you join or that you get to know to help bring the schools to be desegregated, there are, like, five groups that want to keep it the way it is.

GRIFFITH: Allison Bell (ph) is a parent who lives in Rochdale Village in South Jamaica.

BELL: And they get lawyered up. They get LLC. Like, they really - I'm like, you'll fight that - like, what are you afraid of? What are you afraid of? You already got a head start. You already got the skin color. Like, what else do you want? Like, why are you - what are you afraid of my kid crossing over? But for someone to really fight to keep, you know, my child out of a certain school and you don't have no other reason - it's not because she's a failing student, so what could it be? I just don't get that. But there are groups like that. I think - I forgot one is, Queen something - parents something. Just - I just cannot believe some of the things that - you know, and they really fight - they fight probably harder than me, OK, you know? And that's crazy. I cannot believe that. That's crazy.

PATRICIA MITCHELL: What the diversity CEC meetings uncovered to me was the parents certainly did not want children of color in their neighborhoods.

FREEDMAN: Pat Mitchell was the principal of PS48. She was also on the diversity working group.

MITCHELL: That was startling. That scared the shit out of me - right? - 'cause these parents were heated. And I'm thinking, what do you think is going to happen if my kids come sit next to your kids? What do you think is going to happen? So that, to me, was both eye-opening and profound and sad. That has to change. So I don't know how you do that. I don't know how you change people's hearts. I can change policy. We can - you know, we can all change policy at some point. In practice it's, well, how do you change people's hearts? I don't know. I don't have the answer to that.

FREEDMAN: There seem to be two conversations going on here, just as isolated from one another as the north and south of the district are.

GRIFFITH: Pat, Allison and many others believe the opposition to diversity planning is driven by a fear that south side families, with all their perceived chronic poverty and low educational standards, will corrupt north side schools and the north side way of life.

FREEDMAN: But Fadia and Jean say it's not about that at all. It's about a burdensome commute. It's about keeping communities intact. It's about a process that was not, in their view, open and democratic and conceived in good faith.

GRIFFITH: The thing is, what rang louder than the words north side parents spoke at those CEC meetings was the intensity and emotion with which they used them. It was how viscerally threatened they were by what, at the end of the day, was simply a conversation about having a conversation about integration. For anyone who has witnessed racialized fear before or is just aware of some of the history we've described in this podcast, this felt all too familiar.

When you look at history - right? - and you listen to School Colors, there were people who defied integration at every turn, who really pushed back against this notion that other children would be coming into their neighborhood. And history has not treated them very well. You must have some idea that - you know, that you were being perceived along the same lines. And so how do you - I mean, I want to give you an opportunity to speak to that because I know you don't think of yourself as a racist, and yet there are people who say that you can give a lot of reasons for resisting integration. But at the end of the day, you just don't want your child to be close - you know, be sitting next to a Black or brown student. Now, what do you say to folks who believe that?

JEAN: I would ask them to open their minds a bit because I don't think how well your child does in school is dependent upon the child that's sitting next to you in the first place, right? I mean, my success in school had nothing to do with what child I was sitting next to. It had - there were other factors involved. I just don't think that integration in the schools is the end-all answer. And I think that people that are pushing this and saying that this is the end-all - they're being a bit fanatical and unrealistic because people will naturally assimilate and integrate. I think it's happening. I don't think that a big, forceful push is necessary. I think that you will have much more support when people come together on their own.

And it does happen. I understand the frustrations that - I can't say I'm in that boat - same boat as a Black person - right? - the frustrations of the hundreds of years of discrimination. But I face discrimination all the time. I'm a female. I've been groped. I've been harassed. I've been - my pay has been cut. You know, I've had reduced salaries. I've been harassed, you know, in the work environment - you know, things you don't expect. But, you know, I - you know, I believe in karma. You know, all of this happens for a reason. I'm going to try to do what I can to improve myself and push ahead. And it's not for the government to intervene and say this or that should be the right way to do things.

FREEDMAN: What are you afraid of? What's your nightmare scenario for all of this?

JEAN: My nightmare scenario would be that if the diversity plan pushed through and we found out that - because now let's just hypothetically say it's now - our zone school has now been dezoned, and they've eliminated all the zoning. No more neighborhood schools, and it's all lottery. She ends up at some middle school where, you know, in terms of my work, it becomes - 'cause it's not going to be a burden for my husband 'cause he's got a job with the city, and all the child-rearing responsibilities fall on me. So it's going to be my burden to drop her off and pick her up and get to work and back. And then when I get home, it's, you know, homework help, it's making sure homework is done and studying, et cetera. All that stuff falls on me. And adding three hours to my day or six hours, whatever it might be - even more than one hour, to me, is - I'm too old for this (laughter). I'm too old, and I'm too tired, and time is valuable. I don't want to be spending it on something that I see as completely a waste of time.

GRIFFITH: I have to confess that Jean and I will never see eye to eye on the diversity planning process. Most of her calculations just don't add up for me. But I know parenting is hard, full stop. And who among us hasn't fought like hell to protect what we believe is in our family's interest? She's learned that you either force the education system to respond to your needs or you get steamrolled by it.

FREEDMAN: This is also a system in which a lot of parents feel like good schools are a scarce resource. And when you believe just a handful of schools are your only possible path to the American dream, you will fight tooth and nail to preserve them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: That's next time on School Colors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #18: I believe exam - exam, it was objective. It was fair. It allowed hope for the poor family, for the poor children like me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #19: We felt under attack. We felt that we weren't consulted, that we weren't respected.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #20: We are used to be silenced, and we are afraid to fight 'cause most of immigrant - immigrant don't have voice. We don't have a right to vote. We cannot change anything. No one going to hear us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #21: All these notions about this community works hard, and this community is lazy - I've heard some terrible shit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #22: People say, well, well, it's just some kids are smarter, and some kids just aren't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #23: That's not how talent works. We know that now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #24: And these are not the only schools in New York City.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #25: And yet we're paying attention to, like, 20,000 kids so they can lead more productive lives when my kid can't even have access to basic services?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #26: I don't want to be dismissed, I don't want to be marginalized, and I don't want to be made invisible.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: School Colors is created, reported and written by me, Mark Winston Griffith, and Max Freedman, produced by Max Freeman with Carly Rubin and Illana 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: Special thanks to Natalie Dofan (ph), Simone Dornbach (ph), Micah Morrison (ph) and Akina Young (ph).

GRIFFITH: Thank you to Leah Donnella, Steve Drummond and the entire CODE SWITCH team. Thank you to our executive producer, Yolanda Sangweni, and NPR's 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...

GRIFFITH: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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