School Colors Episode 9 : Code Switch Over the course of this season, we've explored a rich history and complicated present, but what about the future? In the final episode, we catch up with parents who became activated on both sides of the debate over the diversity plan. And, since the diversity plan never came to fruition, we ask...what now?

School Colors Episode 9: 'Water Under The Bridge'

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MAX FREEDMAN, HOST:

We never really thought we would do a second season of "School Colors."

MARK WINSTON GRIFFITH, HOST:

The first season was about Central Brooklyn. That's where both of us live and work. And the show was inspired by our commitment to our community.

FREEDMAN: Little did we know, the seeds of season two were planted even before the first season was finished.

GRIFFITH: In the fall of 2019, as Season 1 was still rolling out, we started doing local events to get the word out about the show. One night in November, we spoke at an elementary school in Bed-Stuy. In the audience there was a mom from Queens.

FREEDMAN: She was a tall white woman and, I would say, a little intense. Her name was Atina Bazin.

ATINA BAZIN: I showed up, and I waited until you guys were getting bombarded by other people. And I just walked up to you, and I was like, hey.

FREEDMAN: She had come to tell us about a crisis that was brewing in District 28. We didn't even know where District 28 was. But earlier that year, they'd been chosen to receive a diversity planning grant, and Atina had started to see what she thought was racial intolerance coming out of the woodwork before the planning process had even begun.

GRIFFITH: As I remember it, she wanted us to talk to people in the district, to intervene somehow. I have to say, there was a certain desperation about her.

BAZIN: Yeah, it's desperation, I think, because I felt that this was something that was an opportunity for our district. And not only our district, I just thought it was an opportunity. And I saw that opportunity almost immediately being obstructed. And that made me both angry and afraid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Atina and her husband both grew up in the Bronx. Her parents are from Bosnia. His are from Haiti. They have two Black, biracial children who were going to one of the, quote-unquote, "good schools" in Forest Hills.

FREEDMAN: Before this diversity stuff started, she had already been fighting an uphill battle against racism at her children's school. Now a conversation about race and inequality was coming to the entire district.

GRIFFITH: She knew there were other parents in the district like her who were excited about the planning process. But things were moving very fast.

BAZIN: We were not organizing. The antis, as I'll call them, the naysayers were, very quickly.

GRIFFITH: She could see it on Facebook.

BAZIN: Talking about white flight, forced busing. And I was like, man, where did I read about this stuff before? Oh, this reminds me of, like, the shit that I read about that was going on the '60s, like, the same playbook - pages out of the same playbook. I'm like, they're not really doing this, are they? They're not really saying this. And they were.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BAZIN: Overall, my feel was if one district fails at this, that just makes it much easier for every other district to fail because folks will learn how to beat you.

FREEDMAN: When Atina told us about all this, as journalists, we didn't exactly jump at the idea. We thought what was going on in District 28 sounded like the oldest story in the book - angry parents trying to stop change, the kind of thing that always gets a lot of play in the press, with no help from us. That instinct was only confirmed in the following weeks with the coverage of those ugly meetings of the District 28 Community Education Council.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 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.

JASON FINK: This isn't something where the populace 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: But the more we started reporting, the more stories and layers we found that were not just about the naysayers. We tapped into a rich history and complicated present. But what about the future?

(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. This season, we set out 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.

AKINA 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.

NATALIE DAUPHIN: There was no clear information for a very long time of what it actually meant, which meant everyone just started speculating and sharing articles and rumors.

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

GRIFFITH: As we've learned, District 28 is both very diverse and deeply segregated. The tensions we've seen over and over again come back to a North-South divide - not just in schools but in housing.

ANSLEY ERICKSON: We can't do this fault separation between schooling and housing. Like, they've been built up together.

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

SHIRLEY HUNTLEY: All the Black kids stayed in the Black schools, and all the white kids stayed in the white schools. And they didn't want to integrate. They did not want to integrate.

PETER EISENSTADT: There was, I think, a lot of enthusiasm about integration in Rochdale through about '67. And then in '68 it started to fall apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELEANOR FISCHER: It started out as a simple housing development for the poor. Today, it's a national symbol of middle-class opposition to economic integration in suburban and semi-suburban areas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SCHOOLTEACHER: This is today's hate and fear. The people are fearful here. You can see it all on their faces. They're in fear.

MANNY MARTINEZ: It wasn't like we were looking at other schools and saying, well, how come they get this, and we got that? We just survived.

FREEDMAN: Given all that history and these persistent disparities, how do you build an education system that works for everybody?

PAT MITCHELL: It was not on anyone's radar that these kids were underperforming. Like, 7% of the kids were reading on grade level. Seven percent? You can't even make that up. I mean, that is sick.

CHARMAINE BAPTISTE: I feel like we have to fight. Why do we always have to fight? Education is free. Why we have to fight for that?

STELLA XU: I would go back to my progressive circles, the people who would be supportive of diversity, and 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.

GRIFFITH: These are real things worth talking about, things the diversity planning process was meant to address. That never got to happen. But even the prospect of a district-wide conversation about diversity provoked a backlash that's still alive and well today.

FREEDMAN: The opponents of diversity planning are not the only parents in this district, and backlash is not the only game in town. In this episode, we're going to catch up with parents who got activated on both sides of this issue.

GRIFFITH: And we're also going to recenter the Southside of the district, whose concerns may have gotten lost amid the noise. Welcome back to School Colors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VENUS KETCHAM: This was the last place I ever thought I would live. No disrespect to Jamaica, Queens, but I grew up in a - with a different frame of reference. So when I came here, I was always thinking, I'm going to leave here and I'm going to go back to my own neighborhood. But I developed a love and a passion.

GRIFFITH: Venus Ketcham is a parent and a teacher's aide who lives in South Jamaica. She goes to PTA meetings at every school on the Southside of District 28, but she's not originally from the neighborhood. She grew up in another part of Queens called Flushing.

KETCHAM: My neighbors were Colombian. Down the street were East Indians, Vietnamese. It was a very, what I call, "Twilight Zone" diverse neighborhood with a strong African American presence. So my...

GRIFFITH: "Twilight Zone" diverse neighborhood.

KETCHAM: Yes. Because it's like - using diverse means we are the world, everybody. In my neighborhood, it was a strong thread of African American homeownership and diversity. So people who come from my neighborhood are very proud Black people because they feel like, you know, I got to grow up amongst Caucasian and Asian but still have the pride.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KETCHAM: I was in Flushing until I was 25, but my mom got sick. My mom had lung disease, COPD, emphysema, and we lost our home. We lost our home in a scam. But it was prime real estate. I mean, I'm sure worth - and they built a house, like a three-family house. And God knows what his plan is.

GRIFFITH: Yeah, I'm sorry.

KETCHAM: It's OK.

GRIFFITH: For decades, Queens has been a haven for Black homeownership in New York City. But the housing bust of the mid-2000s devastated Black homeowners across the country. Millions of families like Venus' saw their hard-earned wealth wiped away.

FREEDMAN: When Venus' family lost their home, she wound up finding an affordable apartment in South Jamaica. But that wasn't her first time in the neighborhood. When she was only 19 years old, she had gotten a job at an after-school program at PS 140. It left an impression and not a good one.

KETCHAM: A lot of yelling, a lot of foster parents, a lot of cursing, a lot of stuff that I wasn't used to. It was just cultural, different style, different participation. You know, in my neighborhood, parents came in, like, cookie cutter, blah, blah, blah. Over here, it was hood to me. Now that I live here, it's great. But I was young and naive and dumb and rude. So it was hood. But that was my first experience with 140. So when I moved and I knew that that was my son's school, it was like, oh, God, not my kid.

FREEDMAN: By the time she had a son, she was no longer working at PS 140. But she was not happy to be sending her kid to school there.

KETCHAM: He came from a day care where he knew the basics - ABCs, all the way through, one to 100. Kids were coming in here crying they wanted to go home. They were doing one letter a week. I told the teacher, my son knows the alphabet. I'm not going to have him do a letter A, cut out all the colors of letter A, the shapes and blah, blah, blah. No, no, no. And I said, skip him. And they said, what? We don't do that. And I just harassed them, and the superintendent said, give Ms. Ketcham what she wants because I was attending CECs and I was starting to speak up. And I was emailing - everybody in the DOE email I could CC, I would add it. You're going to hear me. You're going to do something. And in the meanwhile, he was signed up to take the GAT, but I knew he has ADHD and he might not test well, but I knew what he knew. I understand it's a failing school. You got to cater to the kids that are failing, but I wanted more for my kid.

GRIFFITH: She complained so much that the superintendent offered her the opportunity to transfer to a different school.

KETCHAM: Well, she asked me - she said, Ms. Ketcham, are you sure? Like, I wasn't sure because I wanted to make a difference in that neighborhood, but I'm not going to have my kid suffer so I could do that.

GRIFFITH: Venus felt the new school had stronger leadership, but even there, her son wasn't getting what he was supposed to get.

KETCHAM: I said to them, he's struggling with reading. If this is not addressed, I'm going to hold you accountable. So they would pull him out one on one and work with him in his weak spots. And he still has weak spots, but I know he got that one-on-one attention and that that instructor was committed because she knew I was going to follow up. Every - most kids are not getting that 'cause parents don't know. It's not anybody's fault. It's just being knowledgeable and having the confidence to question and hold accountable.

FREEDMAN: For Venus, it was never just about one school and never just about her kid. She wants all parents to have the knowledge to hold their schools accountable.

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

GRIFFITH: How do you describe what it is that you do?

KETCHAM: I'm very clear on it now. As I go to CEC meetings, I've been fine-tuning it for 11 years, educating and empowering parents, parenting for the public school systems. My dream, of course, is to be able to help parents across the city, across this country, across this world really create an education that they want for their kids.

FREEDMAN: Over the last two years, we've been to almost every meeting of the District 28 Community Education Council. And at almost every meeting, Venus raises her hand to encourage other parents to bring up their concerns.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

KETCHAM: Hi, I'm Venus Ketcham, parent and community leader in Queens, throughout Queens, all school districts.

Excuse me. My name is Venus Ketcham, again, community education activist, parent and community leader in southeast Queens.

Good evening, everyone. My name is Venus Ketcham. I'm a parent and community leader in southeast Queens in School District 28.

Me speaking out, it's for other parents to speak out, to not just take what they're given, right? I get messages almost every day, every month, every week. Venus, this happened at my school. OK, do you know the UFT rep? Oh, the teacher said this. OK, dope. Complain - one, two, three, four, five. And I've helped countless people get their issues resolved, taking the proper measures. I'm experienced and seasoned, right? I emailed my son's guidance counselor - I want this. Do this for me. What do you have? And they kind of - they're not used to it, but they have to acquiesce after a while because oh, I'm including the superintendent in an email, CC, BCC, right?

So - but for your average parent, they don't even know that there's someone responsible for answering your questions. Why don't our water fountains work? Why don't we have a crossing guard? I never want to not give people information. I usually tell them first, attend the CEC. Hear the superintendent talk. Get names and emails 'cause once you start smelling yourself, you feel a little confident, it changes your whole experience. Sometimes that's all it takes, is confidence. So I pour into parents so that they get the confidence they need. You know your child best, right? Don't let anybody tell you about your kid.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: From the very beginning of our reporting process, everybody told us we had to talk to Venus. So she seemed like the right person to ask, what's good on the Southside?

You're aware of the fact that I ran a community organizing group?

KETCHAM: That's enormous (ph).

GRIFFITH: Right. So I really want to get an idea of what the organizing and activism landscape is here in South Jamaica.

KETCHAM: Oh.

GRIFFITH: Oh, OK.

KETCHAM: No, no, no. I am not the one for that. I am not a political person and I'm kind of, like, a thorn in the side of - I used to call...

GRIFFITH: Southeast Queens has a well-established Black political class. But Venus says when it comes to public education, those politicians don't have skin in the game.

KETCHAM: A lot of their children went to private school. A lot of their children were bused to District 26. We've got to have those conversations. They don't know the experience of education in this district because they have the resources and knowledge and access to send their kids otherwise. And you'll always hear them say, oh, my kids didn't go to those schools. You - all the time, residents of this community - it's the mentality of - people are afraid of youth in this community. I can't. I'm not a guru. I don't know. But there's something going on here, and nobody really wants to do surgery on that wound 'cause it's generations deep.

GRIFFITH: So Venus doesn't really mess with politics, but she also doesn't see much in the way of effective parent-led efforts to improve the quality of schools on the Southside.

We know, for instance, on the Northside that there are a lot of organized parents, a lot of active parents, a lot of loud parents. We want to focus here on South Jamaica for a moment. And do you have a sense of what organizations may be out there or some activists or...?

KETCHAM: There are none. Email me if you have one. But the reality is, I've lived here for - my son is 15 - 15 years. Something, something education - I've never heard of it. Nobody of elementary school kids except for, like, bougie cliques that they have in southeast Queens - they have a lot of like - don't come for me, but PS 360, where they got $70,000 in their PTA, right? But as far as overall, kids are suffering. Kids are sitting in this park right now with nothing to do. Mayor, hello? They all look, like, 13, 14, 15. Like, the evidence is right here. They're not participating in STEM or the arts. They're sitting in a park on their phones with their headphones on, listening to drill music. And they may not be listening to dream - drill music. I don't want to be stereotypical. As my son would say, you're being racist (laughter).

FREEDMAN: It's not like there's nothing going on down here. There are social service agencies and youth violence prevention programs. But to Venus, that's not enough.

KETCHAM: It's so weird. Like, there's so many anti-gun, anti-violence because there's an issue here, right? In other parts of Queens, there's organizations to uplift good things like STEM and culture and arts. And we have to be worrying about guns. It's so sad. And part of that is because of the schools and a lack of confidence and them having nothing else to live for. It's, like, a never-ending cycle. And I have hope 'cause I have hope in God, Jesus Christ. I have hope in our youth. These are the ones that were supposed to save us. What did Whitney Houston say? I still believe what Whitney Houston said.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREATEST LOVE OF ALL")

WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside.

KETCHAM: They say, oh, not these kids. No, these kids. What I'm saying is we have to get empowered so that we can level the playing - not level the playing field 'cause that's DOE jargon, but accentuate our brilliance and let everyone know we work hard. We're as smart as you. We have dedication and the same cares as you. We want the best for our kids. And I want the best for other people's kids 'cause other people's kids impact my kid.

GRIFFITH: But in terms of diversity plan, when it was first announced, you know, did you have any expectations or hope that it was going to have any kind of impact on the kids and parents in South Jamaica at all?

KETCHAM: No. Not at all.

GRIFFITH: And why not, just real quick?

KETCHAM: Racism is here to stay. I love what it brought up.

GRIFFITH: What the diversity plan brought up - after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Back in the summer of 2019 when the District 28 superintendent was recruiting for the Diversity Working Group, Venus Ketcham was an obvious choice. Venus agreed to do it, but she had her doubts about the process.

KETCHAM: They wanted me because they wanted me to be the one, but I wasn't doing it for them. I was doing it 'cause my community needs information, not anything to do with diversity. They need to know the conversations that are happening. And I wanted to know what y'all was saying so I could tell them, you know, this is what they're saying about us.

GRIFFITH: So when did you realize it was going to become such a...

KETCHAM: No, it was right off the bat - September, I believe. The September CEC meeting - they were there, a million of them.

FREEDMAN: At the September CEC meeting.

KETCHAM: I believe it was September...

FREEDMAN: OK.

KETCHAM: ...That it was all of them there. I know because I'm always at CEC meetings, so I - like, why are y'all here? Who are you? Like, oh, so - you just know that new faces are here, and they have a concern about a grant. Like, nobody ever have concerns about grants. The superintendent has had millions of grants, and nobody said a word. It was the word diversity. And I said to them this room is packed. I've never seen any of you before. Please come back. You're only here for this one particular issue. Our district has a plethora of issues. And the only person that took me up - or one of the people that took me up on my word was Simone. And she started coming more regularly when she could. And now she's a member of the CEC.

SIMONE DORNBACH: Back then, I had no idea that I would then become active in, like, yeah, education on racial justice. I had no idea.

FREEDMAN: Simone Dornbach is a parent who lives in Rego Park on the Northside of District 28.

DORNBACH: I was interested. I was curious. I was interested. But I was definitely not an activist.

FREEDMAN: Before the diversity plan came around, she may not have identified as an activist, but she was the co-president of her school's PTA. And she was chosen to serve with Venus on the diversity working group. The intense opposition to diversity planning was a wake-up call.

DORNBACH: I was very uneducated about race in the United States, and I had to do the work. I had to educate myself and work on myself, too, not only - you know, it's one thing to know it, but it's also - you also need to live it.

GRIFFITH: The diversity working group never really got to do its thing because of the pandemic. But for Simone, the pandemic only made the need for change more obvious.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Because she was on the council of PTA presidents from across District 28, she had a unique window into how COVID-19 was playing out differently in different parts of the district.

DORNBACH: I mean, New York City has been really going through the worst. It has been horrible. And in our district, there was this divide. I attended president's meetings where we were, like, trying to reach presidents from certain schools. We didn't know what was - what happened to them. We knew that some schools were affected very badly where a lot of parents had died. And then, yeah, George Floyd - the murder of George Floyd happened.

GRIFFITH: Just a week after the death of George Floyd, the District 28 CEC held its monthly meeting, now on Zoom. More than 7,000 people had already died from the coronavirus in Queens alone. Millions of Americans were protesting in the streets. But parents from Forest Hills were still fighting for the status quo, to preserve admissions policies that Simone believed would continue to segregate schools. She was outraged, and she did not mince words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DORNBACH: You keep institutionalized racism up and going. You are what you shouldn't be.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm...

DORNBACH: Right now, we have a chance to change things. We have seen what has happened to the Black population in the South of our district. I don't understand why we cannot help children to thrive and why we have to think of our child first before we think of others. We are one community that's come together - make sure that we can help our Black brothers and sisters and make sure that their children can thrive...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you, Simone.

DORNBACH: ...As much we can do. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Simone and a few other like-minded progressive parents had been meeting informally even before the diversity plan. But after the upheavals of early 2020, they got organized.

DORNBACH: Because of all the tensions that came up during the CEC meetings, we felt that it was really important to have a counterbalancing voice from the district.

FREEDMAN: Eventually, that voice took the form of an organization called District 28 Action for Equity.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DORNBACH: It took a long time, several months, to come up with our mission and vision.

FREEDMAN: During that time, they realized they had to question some of their initial assumptions.

DORNBACH: We were focusing on school integration. And with the input of other parents, especially with the input of Black parents, we reconsidered, and integration is not really a top priority for us.

FREEDMAN: District 28 Action for Equity calls itself a community of diverse and anti-racist parents, students, teachers and allies, who stand for building a district that is inclusive, fully funded and culturally responsive. They have monthly member meetings. They have committees. And they have staged a couple of public events to educate parents in the district.

DORNBACH: We are trying to reach out to parents who are like-minded, who are willing to speak up either at the CEC or to call elected officials or to write letters.

FREEDMAN: They're also part of a network of like-minded organizations, and they try to rally support for citywide campaigns - for universal childcare, for more school counselors instead of school cops, for an end to mayoral control of schools and, most recently, against school budget cuts.

GRIFFITH: The network includes citywide organizations led by Black and Latinx parents and educators. But ironically, Simone says, it's been more difficult to connect with Black and Latinx parents in her own district.

DORNBACH: It's really hard. It's really, really hard. We haven't really been able to, like, be physically in spaces with families and schools. We haven't been able to connect with families from the South. It's been really hard. It's about building relationships. And we all live here in Forest Hills and Rego Park. It's also just - I feel like you need to have the resources to do that, and it's already so much work. It's really hard to do that.

FREEDMAN: As much work as Simone was already doing between the PTA and the President's Council and D28 Action for Equity, when a seat opened up on the CEC a few months ago, she decided to throw her hat in the ring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: It was just her and one other candidate vying for eight votes from the other CEC members. But things got hairy in the Zoom chat.

DORNBACH: I know that there are some people who don't like me (laughter), but I must say that I was a little bit surprised by how much parents started to attack my character without having ever met me. They have absolutely no idea who I am, but they made up this picture of who this parent is and were very upset about me.

GRIFFITH: You remember that CEC meeting in June 2020 where Simone really went off? Apparently, she was never forgiven for using the R-word.

DORNBACH: I did not say, you all racists, but I understand that it can be interpreted that way. And, you know, I still stand by what I said. If you are pushing and pushing for more resources, if you're pushing for a system that is designed to keep certain - a certain population out, then you are supporting the system.

GRIFFITH: In spite of the haters, she was elected. But it was a good reminder that the tensions from the diversity planning fight have not been resolved.

DORNBACH: I think we are in a better place than we were two years ago, where there was just a big chaos. And - but, you know, they are also better organized. That is very clear.

HAHN: None of us really have any political experience, but I had always thought that this is a political problem. We need a political solution.

FREEDMAN: This is Jean, a parent in Forest Hills. She asked us not to use her last name. She was a leader in the fight to stop the District 28 diversity plan. In late 2019, she started a Facebook group called Queens Parents United.

HAHN: I'm moderate. I'm about as middle of the road as you can go. Even politically, I'm right down the middle. I've - you know, for the most part, I've always voted center-left. And, you know, I feel like with this, this is really turning me more center-right.

FREEDMAN: Jean says her political awakening started with the diversity plan, but she was pushed even further by the mayor's response to the pandemic.

HAHN: Because you would have figured when schools were closed down and you saw kids being harmed by not being able to go to school, kids not getting access to food. I mean, what the hell is that? That's not equity, and that's not being progressive. That is - you know, it's outright shameful, actually.

GRIFFITH: Her Facebook group, Queens Parents United, started as one of the main platforms for parents who opposed the diversity plan, but it quickly transformed into a forum about much more.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Queens Parents United calls itself a coalition of parents, families and other community stakeholders committed to pursuing excellence in our public school system for all by improving schools within each local community.

FREEDMAN: For almost two years now, I've been watching the activity in the Queens Parents United Facebook group. Mostly, it's Jean sharing articles about local education and politics and a few other parents commenting on those posts. Not all but a lot of the news comes from the New York Post, the conservative local tabloid. The most vocal parents in the group appear to be concerned about a lot of the same issues that have activated parents all over the country recently - vaccine and mask mandates, attacks on hard work and merit in the name of equity, what the right calls critical race theory in the classroom and the cancelation of parents and teachers who won't fall in line with woke ideology.

These fears have led to some truly wild school board meetings in different districts throughout the U.S. many captured in videos that have gone viral.

Like, what do you see when you see that happening all over the country? Do you identify with that?

HAHN: I do identify with some of it, and I can understand why parents are upset. But as far as, you know, what I see the right doing in terms of, like, oh, we're going to have a book banning law now, I don't agree with that. I - or where they start to legislate, you know, how you can teach or not teach. I mean, I think having a - what DeSantis did in Florida was kind of interesting, where you had it as a parent's bill of rights. I think parents do want transparency with what their kids are being taught.

FREEDMAN: Well, let me ask you - you've said a few times that, like, the - you know, you're reacting against other people who are ideological. But I think, you know, from opposing the diversity plan to keeping the schools open to, you know, opposing mask mandates and vaccine mandates in schools and opposing critical race theory, like, is there an ideological throughline among those things?

HAHN: I don't see it as ideological. I mean, I think it's - when we're talking about anti-mandate, it's not about saying you can't wear something or you can't take - you know, if you're talking about, let's say, a vaccine, you know, being anti-vaccine. It's not about being anti-vaccine; I think it's about giving people options. So is that ideological? I don't think so.

Leave it out of the schools. You know, let the parents choose. If you have a child that you think, you know, my child is at risk and you think the masking works, you know, by all means, let them do that. But to impose it onto everyone else - I guess it's more of a Libertarian outlook (laughter). You know, it's, you know, let me choose. And I think that's where I do sympathize with what conservatives and Republicans are saying. Let the parents choose about what is best. In terms of CRT, you know, same thing. Let the parents decide.

GRIFFITH: Jean may think she's not ideological, but she's not shy about being political. Queens Parents United makes endorsements in local elections, just like two other organizations she's part of. Jean is on the executive committee of PLACE NYC, which advocates for gifted and talented and other accelerated learning programs. And she's on the board of a new political club called the Asian Wave Alliance.

FREEDMAN: Jean says she's a Democrat, but this year, she's considering voting against her party. And she says she's not alone.

HAHN: I'm not actively telling people vote for this or vote for that. When I talk to people, the deep anger that I hear from people about what has happened to schools and with schools over the past years and people connecting the dots on their own - it's not going to be a pretty picture in November. It is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: This has become conventional wisdom. Parents are angry about woke education and/or COVID policies. They're going to take it out on Democrats come election time.

GRIFFITH: Here's the thing. The media loves a backlash. Every baby step towards racial and economic justice in this country triggers a wave of stories about real Americans who are tired of all this divisive talk about race and social change. It's red meat. Whether you agree with the forces of reaction or you're horrified by them, it's hard to look away. Meanwhile, there are plenty of passionate parents who don't get anywhere near the same kind of attention. For every lavishly covered protest against mask mandates or CRT, there have been parents out here fighting for better remote learning, better ventilation in school buildings, more funding for all public schools. It's not sexy, and it doesn't get much play.

FREEDMAN: That's not to say the backlash doesn't exist, but journalists choose who they pay attention to. When they put this stuff on the nightly news, parents hear it and say, oh, that makes sense to me. Or politicians hear it and say, well, there's a lot of them, and they're upset; I better do what they want. So it almost doesn't matter if the backlash represents a majority or not. The story they tell about themselves is self-fulfilling.

HAHN: I do check-ins here and there with other parents. And trust me, you know, they're not happy. And I'm talking about progressive parents, parents that identify like myself, maybe even more to the left, that are not happy with how things have gone. And I think that they won't say anything. It's just going to be a quiet, like, check the box - check the red box at the ballot box. Yeah.

FREEDMAN: I mean, are you comfortable with that? Like, there's so many other things that the Republican Party stands for that I think you wouldn't like, you know?

GRIFFITH: Right.

HAHN: Nobody has it right. Who's got it - who's had it right, you know? (Laughter).

FREEDMAN: Well, I mean, one party is, like, actively trying to stop, like - you know, ban books and stuff and stop the government from doing anything about climate change. So it's - I don't know.

HAHN: I know. But when you see your child getting harmed, you know, some things will take priorities over other things. You know, it's - I don't know. I mean, I agree. I think there's some things that don't sit well with me. But when you have to, you know, at the end of the day, think about what the future is going to be like, that's my top priority - you know, my child.

FREEDMAN: I think about what the future is going to be like all the time. I don't have kids, but I want kids, and I know their future will be shaped not just by the schools they attend but by the world they have to live in.

GRIFFITH: As we've been working on this season, trying to make sense of everything we've learned, there are a couple of pieces of tape from Episode 1 that have really stuck with us. As complicated as all this stuff is, sometimes it feels like the core problems in this district, maybe in the world, can be boiled down to these essential ideas.

SADYE CAMPOAMOR: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: For the people in District 28 who feel so threatened, the diversity plan was a trigger point for their fears, and many have made a lot of noise in response to that fear. But after two years of reporting, we needed to check ourselves on whether focusing on that noise and those fears was productive.

GRIFFITH: You're not worried that they're getting too much attention or we're even spending too much time thinking about them?

KETCHAM: Well, you know, 2020 is past. 2021 is past. Y'all are really not thinking about that. I mean, the podcast right now, but this is gone. This is our, like, water under the bridge. This is, like, on to the next whatever - on to the next, right?

GRIFFITH: Venus is right. Yeah, the fallout from the diversity planning debate can still be felt today, but the diversity plan itself is pretty much old news. Or is it?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: The District 28 diversity planning process was stopped dead in its tracks in March 2020, not because of the opposition but because COVID proved too much for the plan. But Sadye Campoamor hasn't entirely given up on what a diversity plan could do.

CAMPOAMOR: I think there are a lot of people in that community that want to be brought together and just asked, what do you think? And spend time in, how do we make our schools better?

GRIFFITH: Sadye worked at the DOE under Mayor Bill de Blasio, leading the office of Family and Community Empowerment, otherwise known as FACE. When we first spoke, she reaffirmed her commitment to diversity work, even as she acknowledged the pandemic had changed the DOE's priorities.

CAMPOAMOR: There's a lot of pain and trauma and loss people are facing. I think we got to spend some time in that before we start getting to the - you know, the eight-point plan, problems and solutions, for sure. I'm wary, though, that because of the pandemic that we just aren't able to move things forward because, like, reopening and all of the things that have been put on our principal's and teacher's and certainly family members' but - superintendent's desks, it's a lot. I am very sensitive to that. I wonder, is there a world where this doesn't feel like another thing, and it's more embedded? That is, are we ever going to, as a society, get to a place where we're not like, let's just do this first, but then we'll get to equity, racial justice, integration.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: At least on paper, the wheels are already in motion to revive diversity planning and not just in District 28.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: Just before the pandemic, the city council passed a bill mandating that every district must create a diversity working group by 2024. And within two years, that working group must come up with a plan. But the bill is unfunded and assigns a significant role to the mayor. And now we have a mayor who, by all accounts, is not all that interested in diversity planning. So there's a big question as to whether any of this will happen.

GRIFFITH: When de Blasio left city hall, Sadye left the DOE. We followed up with her a few weeks ago. Now she's the chief equity officer for the city comptroller. But not even she knows the fate of the city council bill.

CAMPOAMOR: In 2019, we had allies and supporters in city council who were like, this is great. This city does need to do district diversity planning. Part of it because, as you know, there's 32 physical school districts in New York City, and they all have their own vibe. So I was really excited about the bill. But I think along the lines of COVID - but I can't speak for the agency now - it's just how many priorities can you have? And I haven't heard, you know, anyone sort of pick up that bill internally to the DOE and say, like, well, 2023 is our year or whatever it is. So we'll see.

FREEDMAN: Nobody's going to force them.

CAMPOAMOR: That's a question for the city council.

GRIFFITH: But let's just say, for argument's sake, that diversity planning did return to District 28. The question would still remain, does anyone actually want it?

FREEDMAN: Even though Venus agreed to serve on the original diversity working group back in 2019, she was always skeptical. And that hasn't changed.

KETCHAM: Did you actually speak to anybody? Because nobody from the Southside ever attended a meeting and made a complaint about anything, meaning they're not saying they want diversity. Who did you speak to? No Black person said we want diversity. They don't have those conversations.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: As we talked about in Episode 5, the word diversity became popular as a proxy for integration. When people used to talk about integration, what they were talking about was diluting the harmful effects of concentrated racial discrimination. The fact remains that the majority of Black people in this country still live in communities that have been shaped by residential segregation, wage disparities, worse health care outcomes. The list goes on. So however she feels about diversity, Venus knows that segregation is a problem.

KETCHAM: Like, why are all the Black people lumped together? I don't care about the diversity plan. I care about 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? My hashtag is birthright to be brilliant, Black boy brilliance, Black boy joy. Black children are brilliant. Everybody got to believe it. Asian people got to believe it. The North has to believe it. You got to want to be around it. Y'all want to be with Michael Jordan and everything else that belongs to us, be around us. Once we acknowledge how brilliant we are, everybody's going to want to be around us. That's what I'm saying.

GRIFFITH: Well, but at that point, why do we even need them at that point?

KETCHAM: Because look at the - look at - I like Thai food. Like, it only makes life better. Like, you went on vacation out of the country, right? Yeah.

GRIFFITH: Jamaica, which is where my family's from.

KETCHAM: You've only been to Jamaica?

GRIFFITH: No, I went to Italy once.

KETCHAM: Why?

GRIFFITH: Because I wanted to see the world.

(LAUGHTER)

KETCHAM: We deserve to see the world. That's the - thank you because you gave me my whole life and - because it always sounds like, oh, she's - but she's contradictory. She's - no, I like seeing the world. I want my son to see the world. I don't - and I'm the Blackiest (ph) Black person you ever met. So it's not about crossing over, but it's, like, Indian food tastes good, and I want to try Ethiopian food. And every other race gets to experience the world, and then we're - everything is working for us to be isolated. The world is not like that.

GRIFFITH: As much as Venus values diversity, she has no faith in any diversity plan conceived of or initiated from outside of the neighborhood.

KETCHAM: It's going to have to come from us. It can't come from some nonprofit baloney. Sorry. It doesn't work. Show me where it's worked. If you're an agency, you're not about that life. How much do I get paid? Zero. How many meetings of hers have I went to? A million. How much am I getting paid? Zero. Because I'm about that life. Because it's me. I'm a Black woman, and my kid plays with these kids. Those people can't help us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KETCHAM: The people who are - who created it are not trying to dismantle it. That's so weird. That's so weird to me that we're going to think that the people who are benefiting and created it are going to say, no, no, no, we don't want that anymore. We want us all to succeed. Let's be real. I think that Black people have to form some type of organizations where we educate our own. Stop asking the DOE, which is a racist entity, to not be what it is. You cannot depend on the system, or you're doing it at your own risk. And you see that it's a failing - it's failing. Why would you lean on a broken piece of wood?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRIFFITH: Some of this resonates with me. Not all broken systems are really broken. Most actually work the way they were designed to. Expecting the people who run or benefit from a system to fix it requires magical thinking. Where Venus and I part company is in our theory of change. What Venus upholds, the idea that there's nothing you can do about the DOE, so just focus on your own child, goes against my beliefs as a community organizer. In my work, I've tried to mobilize whole groups of people to challenge, then transform policies and practices. I'm not saying it's easy. Feeling that change is possible ebbs and flows. And this is a particularly hard moment in time to say, let's change institutions, when that approach seems to deliver so few returns. The system really grinds down our ability to believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FREEDMAN: But, look; Venus is just one person. It takes all types to make change. It takes people like Venus. It takes people like Mark. It takes insiders and outsiders. It takes people who make a lot of noise and people who just show up. It takes people who want to fight the power and people who just want to foster joy. And maybe it takes a podcast.

GRIFFITH: We know this season of School Colors is not a substitute for diversity planning. But we did have this naive hope that if enough people listen to it, it might generate the dialogue that never happened through the process that never was. But that's a big-ass if.

FREEDMAN: OK. You've heard eight episodes of our show.

KETCHAM: Yes. I bet you I'm the most listened person.

FREEDMAN: Has it changed the way you think about anything?

KETCHAM: No. Well, I really - no. But I really loved the history of Rochdale. I really loved the history of Forest Hills. I love that story with the Spanish woman. But as a Black person in America, we know this already. We know this already. It was interesting to hear it put together that way.

GRIFFITH: Do you think it had any impact - I mean, let's put it this way. If you - if everyone in this district listened to the podcast - right? - and they heard the history, they heard the struggles, they were able to make all these connections, do you think it would have had - it would have any impact on the way people think or act?

KETCHAM: That's, a little bit, a hard question only because the people that listened to your podcast are people like me. And that's like, maybe - I don't know if that's your commitment. But, like, people in the hood is not listening to your podcast. And I can, you know, text it to them and say, here, listen to...

GRIFFITH: But if they did and if people widely heard it, do you think it would make a difference? I mean, honestly...

KETCHAM: You got a start. I feel like this is the beginning of something. Like, if you're a website and you offer something like courses, like workshops, like continuing - but just hearing the podcast? No.

GRIFFITH: OK.

KETCHAM: It - I enjoy it. I love it. But it's, like - it's not in a language that translates to actions at their school or gives, like - leave away with this episode asking this or doing that or saying this or learning about this or reviewing your child's this. Like, it's not - there's no, like, something that they could take away to make action. It's, like, a feel-good. I, of course, am like - but again, I'm already in it, so I'm loving it. But for somebody who's outside, they might listen to one episode and hear, like, oh, yeah, they were racist. But what are we going to do about it?

FREEDMAN: It's a good question. It's a question for us. What are we going to do about it?

GRIFFITH: And it's a question for you. What are you going to do about it?

(SOUNDBITE OF AVERY R YOUNG SONG, "CAULEEN'S JOINT")

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.

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

FREEDMAN: Extra special thanks to our family and friends and everybody who supported us and put up with our shit while we tried to finish this thing.

GRIFFITH: Seriously, y'all are the real ones. We literally cannot thank you enough.

FREEDMAN: There are so many people we interviewed who we couldn't feature on this season. We talked to more than 120 people. And we had more than 200 hours of tape. After we all take a very long nap, we're going to be back with some bonus episodes later this year. You'll be able to find those in the School Colors feed, where you can also catch up with the first season of our show.

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: Have you heard something on this show that's really moved you or changed the way you see these issues in your own life? Leave us a voicemail at 929-483-6387.

FREEDMAN: Until we meet again.

GRIFFITH: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF AVERY R YOUNG SONG, "CAULEEN'S JOINT")

GRIFFITH: All right, y'all. Get home safe.

KETCHAM: Make sure you edit that good because I got really hot. I was supposed to be more calm this time.

GRIFFITH: No, you weren't.

(LAUGHTER)

KETCHAM: Jean, I love you. No.

(LAUGHTER)

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