Relevant founder accused of creating racially insensitive workplace

Relevant founder accused of creating racially insensitive workplace

Cameron Strang, the founder and CEO of Relevant Media Group, found himself under attack from a host of former employees this week who accused him of behavior they said was racially insensitive and changed depending on his mood.

Relevant Media publishes a Christian bimonthly geared toward young evangelicals, as well as a website and a network of podcasts.

It was the allegation of racial insensitivity that came in a Twitter barrage on Wednesday (Sept. 18) after Relevant recommended a podcast episode about race and the church on the social media platform.

In reply, Andre Henry, an African American writer who served as Relevant’s managing editor from October 2017 through July 2018, shot back: “Several experiences & stories from my time at @RELEVANT … convince me the org is not committed at all to creating an antiracist culture internally to produce a race podcast with integrity.

“Nor do they honor Black people,” he added.

Henry followed his tweet with a blog post on Medium, titled “Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group.

“The company is in need of the very information they wish to publish for others,” Henry wrote.

Recent Relevant magazine covers. Screengrabs

Henry’s retorts spurred a stream of online testimonies from people who used to work for Strang, both African American and white, men and women, who registered indignation about what some called a toxic environment that they say Strang created. They described a workplace in which Strang exhibited various levels of high-handedness, shouting fits and racially insensitive slights.

On its website Friday (Sept. 20), Relevant issued a statement, headlined, “RELEVANT’s Stand on Racial Justice,” explaining that the magazine had reached out to Henry to apologize.

“In our conversations with him,” the statement said, “he discussed ways we could improve our corporate culture, and based on his insights, we are looking into options to continue improving and create systems to ensure every member of our team has a positive experience.”

After the statement brought further criticism over the course of the day, Strang appeared to delete his Twitter account.

In an interview with Religion News Service, Henry, who now works for Evangelicals for Social Action and hosts a podcast called “Hope and Hard Pills,” described Relevant’s office culture as not outright hostile to people of color — “no one’s using racial slurs,” he said — and added the staff included a range of writers.

But he said that the company’s commitment to diversity was more cosmetic than genuine.

Andre Henry. Video screengrab

“They have done well at appearing to be about racial justice,” said Henry. “They post the right things. They say the right things. They make sure that they have a good mix of people of color in the magazine and on the web, but I don’t think that in their practices as an organization that they honor people of color in that way.”

In his blog post, Henry said the beginning of the end of his tenure at Relevant came after a run-in he had with Strang over coverage of Black History Month.

Henry had planned a month’s worth of content related to the topic, but Strang reportedly warned him not to “waste editorial energy” and complained the site would have to post seven or eight articles each day online to “offset” one article about race, he said.

Not long afterward, Henry wrote, he was “stripped of all decision-making power.”

While he kept his title as managing editor, responsibility for web articles was given to the outlet’s brand manager and articles in the magazine to its contributing editor.

The March/April 2012 issue of Relevant, featuring The Roots on its cover. Screengrab

Ryan Hamm, who worked at Relevant as an editor and managing editor from 2009 to 2012, told Religion News Service of an incident in which members of the editorial staff, including Strang, were discussing the poor newsstand sales of an issue of the magazine that featured an image of the band The Roots on the cover.

“(Strang) said, as I recollect, ‘Well maybe our audience doesn’t want to see scary black men on the cover of Relevant,’” said Hamm, who is now employed at a nonprofit that fights religious persecution. “As soon as he said that, (I thought), ‘If that’s true, then I have no interest in writing for this audience, and I’m done.’”

Rebecca Flores, who preceded Henry as managing editor and whose pen name is Rebecca Marie Jo, wrote in a blog post published Friday that Henry’s post validated her own experiences.

She recounted a meeting in which Strang suggested running an image of a black Christian rapper with a noose around his neck as a “shocking image to symbolize his lynching by white evangelical America” after the rapper was criticized for his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Flores, who is Latina, said that she told Strang that she found the idea deeply troubling and offensive.

“Listen. I’m telling you, as a person of color, that if I was reading this magazine, whoa is not the reaction I would have. I would be deeply disturbed. And alienated,” she said. “We do not need to publish an image of a Black man in a noose. This isn’t a good idea.”

Flores said the incident made her feel “like I was in a trap I wouldn’t get out of safely.”

She said Strang “was obviously annoyed with me, and I left trying to hide my exhaustion towards this environment.”

RNS reached out to Strang for comment and to corroborate accounts from former staffers, but he did not immediately respond.

Strang, the son of Charisma magazine publisher Stephen Strang, founded Relevant Media Group in Orlando, Florida, in 2000, when he was 24 years old. As hip as his father’s magazine was religiously conservative, the sleekly designed magazine and website heralded unorthodox Christian heroes from the rock and literary world such as Bob Dylan and the rock band U2, about whom the publishing enterprise also issued adulatory spiritual and musical biographies.

Offering a glimpse of God in popular culture, Relevant’s magazine alone claimed a readership of more than 100,000 by the mid-2000s and had become a guide to navigating mainstream American culture for a generation of young Christian adults venturing out of the evangelical bubble.

But the publication wanted to “avoid taking any strong stances that may be polarizing,” Henry wrote on Medium. And, he believed, it catered to its “mostly white, male, conservative-leaning base.”

“It’s just not for us. We’re welcome to partake, but this is white content for white people,” Henry wrote.

Reviews of Relevant Media Group on Glassdoor, which publishes job listings and company reviews, also hint at issues within the company.

In a one-star review from June 2019, an anonymous user who identified themself as an employee who worked there less than a year, described the outlet’s “work culture” as the “most toxic I’ve ever worked in” and noted the high turnover of staff.

Another review from a user who said they are a current employee who has worked at the company for more than three years gives the outlet four stars, but expressed concerns about Relevant’s leadership.

“The CEO can be erratic, sometimes irrational (especially with female employees) and is very stubborn about everything. He is very controlling, and everything must go through him,” the review said.

Henry said he hopes Relevant’s response can be a teachable moment for evangelical organizations.

“I think that all evangelical institutions who see this, they can be looking to see what to do or not to do depending on how well Relevant doesn’t just listen to me but listens to all the other people that are chiming in,” he said.

Hamm and others were quick to celebrate the work of Relevant as a whole and pinned their frustrations specifically on Strang. Even though he used terms such as “spiritual abuse” to describe his former boss’s behavior, Hamm insisted he remained proud of the work he produced at the magazine.

“Besides Cameron, it would have been the best job I’ve ever had,” Hamm said.

Bibles but Not Textbooks: Trump’s Tariff Exemptions Pick Winners and Loser

Bibles but Not Textbooks: Trump’s Tariff Exemptions Pick Winners and Loser

The article was originally published on ProPublica.org


President Donald Trump’s aggressive trade brinksmanship has split the American economy into new castes of winners and losers, with few consistent criteria defining who ends up in which group — as illustrated by the $2 billion in products that won exemptions last week from a new round of China tariffs.

Bibles and other religious texts got a pass after U.S. publishers and Christian groups argued that tariffs would infringe upon the freedom to worship around the globe.

Salmon and cod — caught in Alaska and processed in China — won an exemption after the state’s Republican senators successfully argued that tariffs would pose an “economic security” risk to Alaska’s fishing industry.

Chemicals used in fracking escaped tariffs after the oil and gas industry argued that taxing them would threaten America’s “energy dominance.”

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative carved out those products from an original list of $300 billion based on what it called “health, safety, national security and other factors.” About half of the original list was delayed until December in order to get past the holiday season, but after that, importers will pay 10% of the value of whatever they bring in from China.

Although the companies that won relief may not be markedly different than the interests favored by other Republican administrations, this cycle of tariffs and exemptions is happening faster and at a larger scale than any remotely similar exercise in the past, giving far more companies reason to protest.

Take religious texts like the Bible and the Quran, which were the only kind of publication exempted by trade regulators. Other written works, from pulp fiction to textbooks, were denied clemency.

In the weeks following USTR’s announcement of a new batch of tariffs ostensibly justified by China’s violation of intellectual property law — this one covering a huge swath of finished goods, since duties had already been assessed on most kinds of intermediate materials — Christian publishers and religious groups made their case for a reprieve.

In letters and testimony, they argued that China had become America’s primary source of Bibles because of its unparalleled proficiency in printing the 800,000-word text, which requires thinner paper and often more ornate, hand-stitched bindings. The U.S. imported almost $140 million worth of religious texts in 2018, 67.3% of which came from China, according to Panjiva, the supply-chain research unit at S&P Global Market Intelligence, a commodities data provider. The world’s largest producer of Bibles, China’s Amity Printing, said it produced 14.15 million copies in 2017.

Those volumes are already more expensive than the average beach read. Biblica, a nonprofit that gives Bibles away around the world, testified that a tariff on religious books would “dramatically affect” the number of Bibles it was able to donate, “impacting the religious freedom of individuals in countries where Bible access is limited and often nonexistent.”



Video Courtesy of NewsChannel 5


Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the 15.2 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, wrote that a tariff on Bibles would require “higher prices incompatible with the high and consistent demand for Bibles in the United States” and affect “all Christians’ ability to exercise their religious freedom in the United States.”

The USTR’s decision wasn’t all good news for churches and religious publishers, however. They produce and consume plenty of religious-themed books that wouldn’t qualify under a strict interpretation of the exemption. Besides, most of them urged a return to the long-standing practice of avoiding burdensome taxation on all publications on First Amendment grounds.

“All books should really be exempt, because that’s been the tradition of the United States,” said Stan Jantz, executive director of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. “It was never an intention to only be the Bibles. If anything, I would hope the Bible would help them open up and see the value of all books.”

That was also the hope of independent publishers and bookstores, which already operate on thin margins. Dan Reynolds, CEO of Workman Publishing, which has several nonfiction imprints as well as a line of children’s books, says the focus on Bibles was part of a conscious approach.

“We strategized when this started to happen about which parts of our business would get the attention of the administration, as well as which products that are reliant on Chinese production, with the hope that by making our case with Bibles and children’s books primarily, that that would make all books exempted,” Reynolds said in an interview. “So we’re partially victorious, but it didn’t help all the other categories.”

The tariffs for children’s books were pushed to December, but Reynolds isn’t sure what his company will do after that. Chinese printers are especially good at producing affordable children’s books with all kinds of bells and whistles, like pop-ups and textures. The fixed budgets of schools and libraries won’t expand to pay for tariffs, so Reynolds said he’ll probably sell fewer books. And if he has to move production out of China, he said, he’ll keep costs down by dialing back some of the fun features.

The situation is perhaps more difficult for small bookstores, which don’t have the cash on hand — or the space — to stock up on inventory before the year-end holidays. Jamie Fiocco, president of the American Booksellers Association and owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is resigned to the fact that religious works were protected while others were not.

“I think it’s a statement about the environment we’re working in these days,” Fiocco said.

Books aren’t the only product where the USTR has had to make tough choices about which industries to favor and which to leave hanging. (The agency did not respond to a request for further explanation of why it exempted the products it did.)

The roughly two dozen product categories that escaped tariffs included frozen cod, salmon and haddock, which are often harvested in Alaska and sent to China for processing into fillets and nuggets that are sold in grocery stores and restaurants. A tariff on those reimports would have hurt the fishing industry. Under pressure from Alaska’s congressional delegation, they had been dropped from previous rounds of duties but ended up included again in the fourth batch, which meant having the argument all over again.

A joint letter from Alaska Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan and Rep. Don Young referred to their “many discussions” with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, and it warned him that failing to exempt salmon and cod would carry consequences. “You risk losing critical congressional support if your actions end up having the result of targeting and harming some of the very Americans we know you want to help,” they wrote.

In response to a question about what seafood tariffs had to do with health, safety or national security, Murkowski spokeswoman Hannah Ray highlighted the part of the USTR notice that said “other factors” could come into play.

“Beyond those explicitly listed, there are additional factors that USTR could consider in deciding to remove items from its final list,” Ray wrote. “This administration broadly interprets ‘national security’ to include domestic economic security. Senator Murkowski shares the administration’s desire to ensure fair and reciprocal trade.”

The lawmakers weren’t against all fish tariffs, however. They advocated for continuing to include pollock, a divisive issue in the seafood industry. There are more American companies that process pollock and also more Russian pollock that comes into the U.S. after processing in China, creating a stronger domestic lobby for taxing imports. But resellers and restaurant chains complain that all tariffs make food more expensive — in this case, pollock fish fingers.

“Compared to the range of outcomes that we could’ve had, it’s certainly better, but it’s still overall a very poor outcome in my opinion,” said Matt Fass, president of the Williamsburg, Virginia-based distributor Maritime Products International. “A couple of the species have been exempted, which is a good thing. The largest volume species has not been — that’s pollock. … Everything is immediately higher priced when the tariffs hit.”

Beyond fish and Bibles, USTR also spared several types of minerals with defense applications that would meet the “national security” criterion.

That’s also convenient for American industrial conglomerates. For example, zirconium goes into nuclear fuel rods used in the Navy’s submarines and aircraft carriers, according to testimony from Allegheny Technologies and BWX Technologies, which supply zirconium to the military. But it’s also used for civilian airplanes built by aerospace companies.

Other exempted products seem to only be priorities for powerful industries. Aluminum oxide, for example, is critical for steel manufacturers, who had been protected by earlier rounds of tariffs on imported steel but could have been hurt by subsequent duties on chemicals they need in order to produce domestic steel. Various forms of barium are used as a stabilizing additive to fracking fluids, and companies including the oil field services firm Halliburton testified that using alternative products would decrease drilling productivity. Fifty-three-foot shipping containers are essential for trucking and rail transportation, and big companies like J.B Hunt and CSX said that tariffing them would make all kinds of freight shipments more expensive.

No industry, however, got everything that it wanted in the exemptions. Take the juvenile products industry: Child car seats were waved through, but cribs and baby gates stayed on the list. Or oil and gas: Despite the reprieve on barium, tariffs remain in place on more than 100 industrial components used in both offshore and surface drilling, and the steel tariffs have pushed costs higher on everything.

“U.S. energy leadership and global competitiveness are also threatened by the ongoing trade dispute with China as U.S. natural gas and oil exports serve as targets for retaliation,” a spokeswoman for the American Petroleum Institute said in an emailed statement.

And of course, all of this could change in a flash. Previously exempted categories could be put on yet another list, as several were in this latest round, leaving business heads spinning.

“It just has gone so quickly, and it’s so volatile,” said Angela Bole, CEO of the Independent Book Publishers Association. “Everything was thrown in. It was like dropping a house on a fly.”

 

Presidential Candidates Struggle to Lure the Young Black Christian Vote

Presidential Candidates Struggle to Lure the Young Black Christian Vote

Video Courtesy of CBS46 Atlanta


It’s no secret that the Democratic Party cannot win national elections without the black vote. Less well understood by major Democratic candidates and donors is that black voters are not a monolith. Particularly in the black church, we fall along a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal social values. Our intersections related to race and gender are complex and nuanced.

When black people say that they are tired of our votes being taken for granted, we are referring in part to this lack of understanding. Gaining our vote requires gaining more than a cursory understanding of who we are as a people. Candidates will need to be able to speak to a full range of issues and concerns and, just as importantly, feel comfortable engaging directly with a range of African American people.

Three years ago, the Black Church PAC was formed to give our historically critical voting demographic a greater voice before we go to the polls. On Friday and Saturday (Aug. 16 and 17), the PAC held its first candidate forum, with an audience of 5,000 African American Christian millennials from 42 different states at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta.

Seven of the top-tier candidates were invited, and five attended: Secretary Julian Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Black Church PAC forum during the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab

The forum not only gave candidates an opportunity to make their case for why black voters should entrust them with their vote; it tested the candidates’ ability to connect with young black churchgoers who lean in a socially conservative direction — a voting bloc that is not necessarily well acquainted with long-established Democratic politicians and that has not necessarily bought in to the traditional progressive talking points.

Candidates got a chance to address the full conference but also met with small groups of voters and engaged in spirited dialogue about critical issues ranging from gun violence and the criminal justice system to student loan debt, immigration, education, health care and reparations. These sessions tested candidates’ expertise on critical issues but also revealed how comfortable they were listening to and being challenged by those with experiences very different from their own.

During the meeting, we ran a survey of close to 800 conference attendees to gauge their opinions about the candidates and issues, in addition to gathering qualitative responses. We plan to have a briefing with candidates to share these results before we make them public, but some quick takeaways include:

  • Candidates who attended experienced a significant bump in their support; candidates who didn’t experienced a significant drop in their support.
  • Close to 10% of respondents are unfamiliar with the candidates who were listed.
  • The most important issues among those to take the survey: jobs/economy, gun violence, white nationalism.

A critical finding here is that most candidates have simply not broken through to young African American voters. This is alarming because, if this vital demographic is not actively engaged in selecting the eventual nominee, Democrats may end up with a nominee who fails to engage a significant voting bloc in the general election.

Sen. Cory Booker addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab

Compounding this problem is the fact that Democrats have a miserable record of investing in black grassroots organizers, black community-based organizations and black political consultants, who are often best equipped to mobilize black voters.

Steve Phillips, the civil rights lawyer and founder of the website Democracy in Color, has described at great length the billion-dollar blunders Democratic and Allied Progressive groups continue to make in their political spending. The lessons to take from these unforced errors, he has said, are clear: Political spending in the Democratic ecosystem must be early, often and targeted to groups who register; and we must educate and mobilize black and brown voters, especially for turnout on Election Day.

When these types of investments are made, the results are dramatic. It was the targeted mobilization of black churches and historically black college students by black organizers and black political strategists that provided the margin of victory in the historic election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama in 2017.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, takes questions from moderators the Rev. Leah Daughtry and the Rev. Michael McBride during the Black Church PAC forum at the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab

The same kind of results could be achieved in swing states throughout the country if, rather than centering their campaigns around convincing white “Reagan Democrats” to stay blue, candidates doubled down on turning out reliably blue African American voters in places like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.

We suspect that when candidates and their teams forgo this approach, it is because they do not have either the cultural proficiency or the willingness to make the black grassroots investments required to pull off this type of strategy. No one expects large numbers of blacks to vote for President Trump; however, operating as if African American and other voters will come out in droves simply to vote against Trump — without giving them someone who is compelling to vote for — is a risky and reckless approach.

Even within the more conservative bloc of the black church, Trump’s message is repulsive to millennials and their black elders. Unlike white evangelicals, whose support for Trump still hovers above 80%, socially conservative-leaning black church members detected very clearly the racialized rhetoric and dangerous policies of Trump and overwhelmingly do not support him. With meaningful engagement, these voters can be activated to vote for a candidate who promotes a compelling vision of belonging, justice and opportunity for all.

Through this election cycle and beyond, we will continue to give candidates opportunities to make their case and truly listen to black voters.

Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab

(The Rev. Michael McBride is pastor of The Way Church in Berkeley, California, and national director of Faith in Action’s urban strategies and LIVE FREE Project. The Rev. Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, is presiding prelate-elect of The House of the Lord Churches and a founding board member of the Black Church PAC. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

‘Christian left’ is reviving in America, appalled by treatment of migrants

‘Christian left’ is reviving in America, appalled by treatment of migrants

Video Courtesy of AJ+


Holding pictures of migrant children who have died in U.S. custody and forming a cross with their bodies on the floor of the Russell Senate Office Building, 70 Catholics were arrested in July for obstructing a public place, which is considered a misdemeanor.

The protesters hoped that images of 90-year-old nuns and priests in clerical collars being led away in handcuffs would draw attention to their moral horror at the United States’ treatment of undocumented immigrant families.

American Catholics, like any religious group, do not fit neatly into left-right political categories.

But ever more they are visibly joining the growing ranks of progressive Christians who oppose President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and federal agencies’ negligent, occasionally deadly treatment of immigrants on his orders.

Religious activism

American Christianity is more often associated with right-wing politics.

Conservative Christian groups advocating for public policies that reflect their religious beliefs have conducted extremely visible campaigns to outlaw abortion, keep gay marriage illegal and encourage study of the Bible in schools. Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis, an Apostolic Christian, was jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses after the U.S. legalized same-sex marriage in 2015.

But there’s always been progressive Christian activism in the United States.

I have studied religious thought and action around migrants and refugees for some time – including analyzing the New Sanctuary Movement, a network of churches that offers refuge to undocumented immigrants and advocates for immigration reform.

Black churches were central in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and black Christians have continued to engage in advocacy and civil disobedience around poverty, inequality and police violence. Latinos and Native Americans, too, have for centuries fought for “progressive” causes like labor rights, environmental protection and human rights.

So it’s not quite right to herald the “rise” of a religious left, as several think pieces have done since Christians began openly resisting Trump’s immigration enforcement and other policies. That erases the historic resistance of religious communities of color.

Why immigration

Still, Trump’s hardline immigration policies seem to have spurred a broader population of Christians into action. And their civil disobedience crosses racial, ethnic and even party lines in new ways.

Catholics protesting the treatment of undocumented migrants in US custody at the Senate, on the Catholic Day of Action for Immigrant Children, July 18, 2019.
Eli McCarthy, Author provided

One reason for this is simple: Migration has become increasingly visible in recent years, especially under Trump.

The number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. peaked at 12.2 million in 2007. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama approached this issue by using relatively pro-immigrant language while deporting hundreds of thousands each year.

Though immigration at the United States’ southern border has actually been decreasing since 2000, the number of Central American asylum-seekers has grown. In 2014, an unprecedented surge in Central American children seeking asylum protections got significant media attention.

Donald Trump began his presidential campaign the next year with a speech maligning migrants. During his administration, his rhetoric has slowly become policy.

But the primary reason Christian groups are now focusing on immigration, I’d argue, is simply that the notion of welcoming strangers and caring for the vulnerable are embedded in the Christian tradition.

In the Biblical text Matthew 25, the “Son of Man” – a figure understood to be Jesus – blesses people who gave food to the hungry, cared for the sick and welcomed strangers. And in Leviticus 19:34, God commands: “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.”

These texts help explain why support for immigrants crosses traditional left-right religious boundaries.

Denominations that are generally considered left-leaning, like the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly oppose Trump’s harsh treatment of immigrants. So do the Catholic bishops and Southern Baptists, which are typically more socially and politically conservative.

Welcoming the stranger

Beyond directly assisting migrants at the U.S. border by offering food, shelter, translation and legal services, many of these Christian groups also believe that in democratic societies they should pursue laws founded on Christian moral teachings.

After all, they point out, God’s command in Leviticus was to the nation of Israel – not just individual Israelites. And Jesus often told religious and political officials how to act and criticized the oppression of foreigners, widows and orphans by those in authority.

Faith-based support for immigrants is not limited to Christian groups.

Jewish and Muslim organizations have both provided humanitarian aid to Central American asylum seekers and protested a federal ban on travel from Muslim countries.

And 40 Jewish leaders were arrested in New York City on Aug. 12 for protesting the Trump administration’s detention policies.

Connecting to politicians and interfaith cooperation

The 2020 election season has brought Christian faith-based activism into the political fore. Several Democratic presidential candidates have spoken openly about the faith-based roots of their progressivism.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren has referenced the biblical text of Matthew 25 as a touchstone for her critique of wealth inequality and insistence on universal health care.

Democratic presidential candidate Cory Booker speaks about gun violence and white supremacy at Charleston’s Mother Emanuel AME Church, where nine black Bible study participants were slain in a 2015 mass shooting, Aug. 7, 2019.
AP Photo/Mic Smith

In pushing for criminal justice reform, Sen. Cory Booker speaks about the Christian tradition of “grace.” He’s also been known to quote the Prophet Muhammad, Buddha and the Hindu god Shiva.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is a devout churchgoer who is also gay. He says that his sexual orientation is God-given and that his marriage, in the Episcopal church, to another man, has brought him closer to God.

Talk of an emerging “religious left” is ahistoric. American Christianity has always had its liberal strains, with pastors and parishioners protesting state-sponsored injustices like slavery, segregation, the Vietnam War and mass deportation.

But the high profile, religiously based moral outrage at Trump’s immigration policies does seem to be spurring some long-overdue rethinking of what it means to be Christian in America.The Conversation

Laura E. Alexander, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies, Goldstein Family Community Chair in Human Rights, University of Nebraska Omaha

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

2019 National Teacher of the Year on Reducing Suspensions

2019 National Teacher of the Year on Reducing Suspensions

Video Courtesy of TEDx Talks


Originally posted on Chalkbeat by Kathryn Palmer on July 19, 2019


Rodney Robinson will never forget how isolated he felt as one of the few black faces at his Virginia high school.

“Growing up as the smart black kid in a white school is traumatizing,” said Robinson, who was named 2019 National Teacher of the Year. He spoke to more than 200 Shelby County Schools educators and summer school students at Southwind High School earlier this week as part of a two-day districtwide training.

Robinson, who teaches social studies at the Virgie Binford Education Center, located inside the Richmond Juvenile Detention Center in Virginia, recalled how as a high schooler that trauma came to a head in the mid-1990s when a white teacher made a racially insensitive remark.

“In my anger, I turned over a desk,” Robinson told the audience who attended his presentation Tuesday.

“The teacher sent me to the assistant principal’s office,” he continued. “I was scared because the code of conduct said damage of property could result in expulsion,” said Robinson, who has written extensively about rethinking school discipline.

Robinson’s experience resonated with local school officials, who are focusing new attention on ending Memphis’ school-to-prison pipeline, or punitive discipline tactics that can lead to higher rates of incarceration, especially for black boys. In the 2017-2018 school year, Shelby County Schools issued almost 2,500 expulsions, according to district data. That’s about 300 more than in the previous year — when, according to federal data, the district already had one of the highest expulsion numbers in the country.

“I care about all 110,000 students in Shelby County Schools,” said superintendent Joris Ray in a speech ahead of Robinson’s presentation. “But this priority group [of black male students] needs us the most.” Black boys, who make up about 38 percent of the district’s more than 100,000 students, accounted for 67 percent of expulsions in the 2017-18 school year.

“Relationships are the key determinant in changing student behaviors,” Ray said after the event. “For students to succeed in school, someone has to show interest in them, and set high expectations.”

Hiring more black male teachers, who make up 9.5 percent of the district’s workforce, is critical to making that happen, Ray said. He is about to start his first full year as superintendent and said next week he will give more specifics addressing the systemic barriers that have impeded the academic achievement of black male students.

Although the problem of black male students facing suspensions and expulsions at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers is especially prominent in Memphis, it has pervaded nearly every district, city, and state in the country for decades.

But Robinson’s story had a better outcome than those statistics suggested it would, which he attributes to having a strong, relatable mentor. The assistant principal, Wayne Lewis, was one of a handful of black authority figures working at Robinson’s school.

“I sat down in front of Dr. Lewis and he asked me ‘where are you thinking about going to [college]?’” Robinson said.

The comment surprised Robinson. He was bracing for a harsh punishment, but instead, Lewis told him about Virginia State University, where Robinson received his bachelor’s degree in history several years later.

Then, the conversation circled back to the reason Robinson was in Lewis’ office. He said he wasn’t going to suspend Robinson because “he knew I was going to go home and do something stupid. But he told me I couldn’t curse at teachers and flip over desks — no matter how upset I was — so he gave me in-school suspension instead.”

And when Robinson showed up for his in-school punishment, Lewis did, too, carrying college application materials.

“He took time to get to know every student on a personal level — black and white,” Robinson said. “He took me from a confused teenager to a confident young man. He showed me what a black man should be,” Robinson said.

Now in his 40s, Robinson said all students, especially black boys, need more culturally responsive, empathetic teachers. “Our kids are coming into our schools dealing with problems we can’t even imagine,” he said.

Although his students are already incarcerated, he suggests a four-pronged teaching approach that can be applied to teachers in any classroom, regardless of the demographic of students they serve:

  • Don’t put students in a box — get to know them as people.
  • Make learning relevant.
  • Create new experiences.
  • Be a mentor.

District leaders are already working to putting those practices into action to prevent students from ending up in a juvenile detention center like the one where Robinson works.

“Kids don’t wake up one day and end up in a situation like that,” said Angela Hargrave, director of the district’s Office of Student Equity, Enrollment and Discipline, which organized the teacher workshop.

“It starts with addressing some of the minor behaviors first,” Hargrave said. “We want to make sure our first response is about support not punishment.”

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.