Last November, I wrote an Open Letter to the Baraboo School Board in response to the viral Nazi salute prom photo that received tremendous media attention. It quickly became my most read blog post, and I appeared on a number of media outlets seeking my commentary in my dual position as a civil rights attorney who concentrates in school law, and as the President of my synagogue, where we have members who live and go to school in Baraboo. Although the Baraboo School Board never responded to my letter, the Superintendent of the Barneveld School District, a small rural community about 35 miles west of Madison, after reading my Open Letter, contacted me to ask if I could come and talk to his staff and students.
When Barneveld Superintendent Brett Stousland called, he informed me that although Barneveld had not experienced the kinds of problems that the Baraboo Nazi salute photo revealed, he hoped that bringing me to talk to the students and staff about Holocaust history would help prevent such a problem. I told him that if he wanted me to speak to his students, in addition to discussing Holocaust history, I wanted to talk about anti-semitism, white nationalism, racism, critical thinking and restorative justice. He readily agreed, and in collaboration with the 8th-12th grade principal, Erin Eslinger, we created a schedule that started with me giving a presentation to all 150 students, followed by me speaking to 7 different classes, and ending with a Q & A session with staff.
After a lot of planning, I made these presentations today. While it is clear to me that one day of exposure to these ideas will not alone prevent an emergence of white nationalism in this virtually all white and definitely all non-Jewish student body, I hope that with at least some of the students, I made a difference. Principal Eslinger informed me that some of the teachers told her that I gave them some good material to work with their students as they followed up in the future.
On the advice of my brother-in-law, Jeff Spitzer, a Jewish educator in North Carolina, and my Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, I utilized a fantastic educational resource, Facing History and Ourselves, and created a curriculum for the day, along with an excellent power point about the 2000+ year history of anti-semitism that Rabbi Laurie graciously shared with me.
We certainly covered the wide array of topics, including:
- White nationalism, through a video about the horrific and deadly Charlottesville protests;
- Racism, through the a video about Gov. Northam and the use of blackface;
- Police attitudes about race, through a video of interviews of police officers discussing racism in policing;
- Critical thinking, through the Monkey Business Illusion;
- Confirmation bias; and
- An audio interview of a German professor recorded 7 years after the end of World War II, in which he discusses his own failure to respond to the incremental anti-semitism the Nazis implemented in the early years of their power.
I also told personal stories of critical thinking, restorative justice and anti-semitism, and invited the students, the majority of whom had never met a Jewish person before today, and I invited them to ask me questions about being Jewish. The students described how uncomfortable it was to talk about race. I had planned on showing them this great video, How to Tell People They Sound Racist, but for some reason, school internet filters prevented me from showing it to them. Instead, we talked through how to work past that discomfort instead of ignoring the problem.
When I met with staff, we talked about the challenge of teaching rural predominantly white and completely non-Jewish students about racism, anti-semitism, and white nationalism. Hopefully, my presentations and discussions with them will help these students navigate the larger world which surrounds Barneveld by welcoming people who are not like them and rejecting hate and prejudice.
As a token of appreciation, Principal Eslinger gave me this t-shirt.
She has a right to be proud of her school and I commend her and the Superintendent for taking a day out of her busy school schedule to provide her students and staff with additional tools to combat white nationalism, racism and anti-semitism. I appreciated the challenge and look forward to the opportunity to help other school districts follow Barneveld’s example.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.