Mountain Brook: We can do better

Brantley Fry
Brantley Fry

Today’s guest columnist is Brantley Fry.

Here’s the thing…I do not have all the answers.

In fact, I am left with infinitely more questions than answers on how to resolve the current dispute in and around Mountain Brook Schools (MBS).

As a Mountain Brook Resident, I am not alone. And perhaps that’s part of the solution – forging the unknown together and the willingness to challenge our own perspectives.

Many, if not most, people following this debate are in the same boat as I am and are getting information through the rumor mill and vitriol laced posts on social media. We are adding to the echo chamber by talking only to those with whom we agree. “Heck, yeah!” “That’s right!” “What are those people thinking!”

Well, what are “they” thinking? I’ve asked myself this question. I urge others to do the same. May we each stop to ask in a respectful and truly intellectually curious way that is steeped more in humility than blind judgement and self-righteousness. May we each stop to think that the issue is too complicated to boil down to just two sides – us against them.

There is much comfort in hashing and re-hashing the issue with those who nod along and fail to question the premises and the substance of our arguments, especially when the issue at hand is actually really uncomfortable to acknowledge, much less discuss.

The issue, simply stated, is that Mountain Brook lacks racial and economic diversity. The historical context for this truth is far more complex than my limited word count will allow; so, for sake of brevity, I will just stick with the actual stats: According to the U.S. Census, the City of Mountain Brook is 97% white; 85% of us have a bachelor’s degree or higher; we live in houses that have a median value of $629,000; and we have a median household income of $152,000. This is indisputable, but so what?

What should (or can) be done about it? There seems to be consensus in the community – even among those who signed the letter in opposition to the Anti-defamation League (ADL) training – on the stated goal to respect diversity and prohibit discrimination. On paper, anyway, it seems like overtly ostracizing the ADL may not be a winning strategy to achieve that goal.

There are multiple (and one relatively long-standing) policies and strategic goals that have been adopted by MBS to address this. Those are:

MBS Strategic Goals – Goal 4“Develop structures to ensure that the school district honors diversity and that all who are associated with the school district are treated with respect.”

 Desired Results: “Students, staff, parents, and visitors report that our schools and classrooms are physically and psychologically safe. There is evidence of mutual respect among students and staff. Students and staff find value in each other and feel they can openly express ideas and opinions. Students and staff are encouraged to respect and honor diversity.”

MBS Cultural Practices:  6. “Provide a climate that recognizes diversity and encourages respect for all persons.”

Professional personnel – G-1: “It is the belief of the Mountain Brook Board of Education that one of the tests of a true democracy is the extent to which minority groups, be they religious, racial, or ethnic, are able to maintain their individuality within the broad framework of society-at-large.  Basic to both our American type of government and our way of life is the principle that diversity is a strength to be cultivated, not a weakness to be eliminated.  It was this premise that led the founders of our nation to formulate the various freedoms set forth in our Constitution.

 Our public school system provides not only the initial, but also in many cases the only sustained contact students have with youngsters from a wide range of differing groups.  It is vital, therefore, that our school system adhere to this concept of ‘strength through diversity’, and use religious, racial, and ethnic differences as a basis for teaching tolerance.  In a like manner, it is essential that personnel at all levels within our school system develop and cultivate respect for, sensitivity toward, and appreciation of the views and feelings of minority students.  A conscious and concerted effort must be made to inform, educate and sensitize personnel regarding areas of special concern to minority students.

Unless such sensitivities are successfully cultivated and applied, religious, racial, and ethnic minorities within our school system will experience both prejudice and embarrassment; and our public schools may waste the opportunity which they possess to teach our children, through example, the ‘universal brotherhood of all mankind.'” (Adopted:  July 2, 1979)

To some, these policies may seem disingenuous coming from an all-white community with its historic origins derived from “White Flight.” To others, these policies may seem like more than enough to acknowledge a sincere aim to respect diversity. And as they say, “therein lies the rub.”

We cannot stop the conversation here though. What if we look at other stated and longstanding goals of MBS? For example,

MBS Cultural Practices:  2. “Ensure that each individual is prepared to become an independent, lifelong learner.”

MBS 11 Things We Want People to Say:  5. “Mountain Brook Schools pursues a deep, rigorous, and relevant curriculum.” 6. “Mountain Brook Schools is a friendly, welcoming, and respectful community that develops caring and well-rounded students.”7. “Mountain Brook Schools prepares students to flourish now, in college, and in careers.”

If we look at these (and other related, but not wholly on point) goals, it is more difficult to deny the need not only to respect diversity, but also to increase diversity in MBS. The world outside of Mountain Brook is not 97% white and it’s difficult to flourish “in college and careers” if students are not adequately prepared to interact with people different from themselves.

The best way to prepare students for “the real world” is for them to be exposed to a variety of ideas, cultures, and people.

In fact, it seems that the root of the current dispute over the ADL training could be the lack of diversity in decision makers and stakeholders.

Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A virtually all-white community cannot solve issues of diversity. An internal committee of MBS representatives does not help us achieve our stated goals.

Instead, we need the perspective of those with different ideas, from different cultures, and who don’t look like us to help inform the discussions. We need to open our minds to the idea that our lived experience does not remotely resemble those of less white or less affluent communities. This is hard stuff. It’s uncomfortable. It’s messy. AND it’s necessary.

It’s necessary not so we can be “politically correct.” It’s necessary because it is true to our shared values of respecting others, offering rigorous and relevant education, and being good and productive citizens who contribute to the betterment of society. Period.

Again, I do not have all the answers. None of us do. But I am willing, as are so many others, to ask the hard questions and engage in challenging conversations with the humility, curiosity, and respect that we expect from our students. Let’s ask for help. There’s no shame in doing so. Let’s model problem solving rather than insult hurling. We know better. So, let’s do better.

Brantley Fry is an attorney and Mountain Brook resident. She is active in the community and holds leadership roles in business and civic organizations both locally and state-wide.  Ms. Fry has over twenty years’ experience providing leadership, management, and legal counsel to individuals, corporations, local governments, and Federal agencies.

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David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

Invite David to speak to your group for free about a better Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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14 thoughts on “Mountain Brook: We can do better”

  1. Insulting to the parents of children in MB school system.

    And, the fact you stated ” an all white community can not ” is in itself. the most racial statement I have heard in a great while. Try changing the statement to ” an all black community can not “………

    Our founding father were all white men and they had the wisdom to create a document that stated ‘All men are created equal “.

    Yes, it is an ongoing process in treating all men equally, including Irish, Italian, Polish, , Asians. Mexican, Jewish and African immigrants. If we are teaching the sociology of prejudice and equality, lets tell the whole story .

    Less monotopic

  2. Thanks Brantley for this thoughtful essay. Advocates on each and every side of the current issue will have something to criticize you for saying.

    I remain hopeful that if reasonable people (who I define as all of those looking out for the best interest of students) will sit down together, they can collaboratively reach a solution.

    Teaching historical truth is not endorsing or detracting from Critical Race Theory. Recognizing bullying, in all its forms, and teaching an acceptable alternative, is fundamental in society.

    I’ve applauded MB’s efforts thus far; and hope that the City’s Fathers and Mothers will not backtrack.

  3. This is very thoughtful, deeply considered and well written.

    I THINK I can see a little glimmer of light for the future.
    Remove hatred of any person, and try to improve hated behavior.

    It is appropriate in trying to find a brighter future to thoughtfully but kindly discuss such troubling issues as this one is.

  4. Sorry, I cannot find a curse word in the introduction?

    Please enlighten me.

    Monotopic is not a curse word…yet

  5. It appears to me, you want something, but the flowery abstract nuancing does not say what it is you want? Perhaps if you came out and stated perfectly clear what it is you want, people could decide on how they feel about it. That’s what scares citizens, the ideals are beautifully prosed, yet they all know there’s much much more that comes with the program. You call those parts, “rumor”, is that an honest assessment, my research says the ADL is unwilling to share their teaching materials with citizens. Forget the back and forth, why would they refuse to show parents what they’re teaching the teachers, more “rumor”? Further, I find it insincere and deceptive to suggest this is to “help MB students flourish in the real world”, again as I said earlier, you need to state what it is you want? Because it is more than clear, your group wants something, because it’s your group that’s forcing this issue.
    I do not mean to be disrespectful, but you’ve been given platform, I hope that luxury will be afforded the opposing point of view.

      1. If there are two sides, and here there seem to be, nothing will be really understood unless both sides are understood. Then cooperation to work things out is certainly better than a battle!

  6. Bravo Brantley. And thank you for speaking on behalf of the silent majority in Mountain Brook who believe that a strong self-confident community is one that listens to all voices and does not feel threatened by diversity, but embraces it.

  7. Critical Race Theory is today’s version of the KKK, teaching young impressionable children to hate based solely on skin color–not exactly what Dr. King advocated as a good way to judge others.

    Incidentally, Article 4, Section 4, U. S. Constitution mandated a republic because our founders knew that democracy is an evil form of government. For one example, under de-mob-ocracy, the white majority in some states would still have Jim Crow laws.

  8. Brantley, I thought your article was well written. Thank you. I graduated from MBHS in 1971. My children also graduated from MBHS and now my grandchildren attend. Your research and sharing Strategic Goals/Practices, etc. and dates, was welcome information.
    You did state what you wanted, “But I am willing, as are so many others, to ask the hard questions and engage in challenging conversations with the humility, curiosity, and respect that we expect from our students. Let’s ask for help. There’s no shame in doing so. Let’s model problem solving rather than insult hurling. We know better. So, let’s do better.”
    I hope that you will continue writing and speaking for so many of us.

  9. My gosh this was alot of words to say nothing. What kind of diversity would she like to see? Sounds like skin color is the only diversity she cares about. You know MB is like 5 minutes from tons of diversity. It’s not hard to find. Also, she mentioned that MB’s lack of diversity makes it more difficult for the kids to function after high school and in the real world. I don’t think MB kids are struggling in college. Do you? She’s saying MB kids need more privilege.

    1. As long as each of us knows who we are, and just rest assured that all can work out if we just worry less about this, all should flow quite happily. All people are people and there are no two alike , not even twins! Reality, common sense, self responsibility and decent politeness, respect are essential for a happy society. Diversity has been around me all my long life and until people started to stir each other up all was just fine. Meanwhile many have benefitted from positive change. Those who cannot accept that are only creating new problems. So I tend to agree with you Jack.

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