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.
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. email@example.com.