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Countering The Culture Wars Panel Storms SXSW

Amid a charged moment in education, where conflicts sparked in Texas, Tennessee, and Florida are now rippling across the nation, a panel of esteemed individuals gathered to shed light on countering the culture wars.

“There is a concerted far-right attack on public education by well-funded groups. And we can go into who they are if that’s important. These attacks are not new. There’s a history of them,” said Laura Pappano, award-winning journalist, author, and moderator of this SXSW panel. 

Not long ago, passionate parents rallied against pandemic-induced school closures and mask mandates. Today, that fury has shifted focus towards school library books addressing race and gender issues, and the alleged teaching of critical race theory, a college-level concept not part of Texas public school curriculum.

Joining Pappano in the panel titled “Countering the Culture Wars: Help from the Front Lines,” were prominent figures like Laney Hawes, a mom of four and co-director for the Texas Freedom to Read Project, Laura Leeman, mom and parent activist in Grapevine-Colleyville school district, and Dr. James Whitfield, a principal caught in the crossfire of false accusations regarding the implementation of critical race theory.

During the panel, Dr. Whitfield recounts his tenure at Colleyville Heritage High School, which was overshadowed by controversy surrounding allegations of embracing critical race theory, accusations he strongly refuted. Despite student and community support, including recognition of his significance as the first Black principal at the majority White school, the school board chose not to renew his contract.

“I just want to just remind you these were not parents of students at my school that were in these groups saying these things. A lot of times they weren’t even community members that lived in this community, but I was everything from the CRT lieutenant to Dr. Wokefield,” Whitfield said. “I was the CRT boogeyman for these people.”

All the panelists agreed on the same thing: “These people do not care about facts.” In the panel, they describe “these people” as well-funded groups who want to dismantle public education through an organized strategy.

“Lately in the last couple years legislative actions, we are seeing state legislators pick up legislation from Alec from the Goldwater Institute, and literally copy and paste and propose it. And these bills are passing around the country. We’re seeing them around vouchers. We’re seeing them around, quote-unquote, parental rights there. We’ve seen them in the past, also around books, and criminalizing librarians having books in their libraries that they deem obscene,” Poppano said.

To tie the whole panel together, Hawes recounts her journey from concerned parent (of four) to grassroots activist. She recounts her discovery of restricted access to online resources in schools, to then attending school board meetings and seeing the heated debates that took over book content escalate to targeted smear campaigns against incumbents.

She recounts in 2021 when Patriot Mobile, a far-right, Christian cellphone company, injected $400,000 into 11 school board races to flip seats.

“All of a sudden our mailboxes start filling up with fliers about the school board candidates, there were three, all on the same fliers. And it was paid for by Patriot mobile, and they had pictures of crying kids on the back, about being exposed to, you know, inappropriate content.” Hawes continued.

“They spent half a million dollars on 11 seats, they put so much money, and then our candidates that had $5,000 didn’t stand a chance.

Despite their efforts to rally support for incumbent candidates, the well-funded opposition prevailed, highlighting the power dynamics at play in local education politics. The whole panel sheds light on the fact that if these culture wars haven’t arrived in your neighborhood, they will soon.

Jovanka Palacios
Jovanka Palacios
Jovanka Palacios, a Mexican-American Politics Reporter and Managing Editor at RA's Gun Violence Watch, unveils the Capitol's inner workings. Focused on Public Education and Gun Policies, she passionately advocates for informed dialogue, delivering concise, impactful insights into the intricate political landscape.


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