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Former St. Louis teacher is helping lead coalition pushing back on book bans

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Mike Fitzgerald
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Heather Fleming, founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, enjoying the views outside the Jewel Box in Forest Park.

Heather Fleming, sitting on a bench in St. Louis’ Forest Park, takes in the view on a warm early afternoon in February.

Behind her is the Jewel Box, the giant glass-paneled greenhouse that’s a park emblem. Before her are rows of tall trees, their branches stripped bare. And further on, on nearby walkways and trails, is a steady single-file flow of joggers, walkers and cyclists — humans of all ages, sizes, shapes and colors.

Fleming has been coming here nearly her whole life, since she was a little girl growing up in one of St. Charles County’s relatively few black families.

One reason she likes this spot is because it offers a vision of the future she’s spent her life imagining.

Fleming, 46, worked 13 years as a high school English teacher, and worked another three years as an equity and diversity consultant.

“That’s why I like Forest Park so much,” she said. “It seems the one place in St. Louis that’s neutral. There’s so much of St. Louis that has been steeped in racism, that it’s almost palpable.”

But here, in this corner of town, Forest Park is “a testament to what I hope all of St. Louis can become,” she said. “It’s a place where you get lots of different types of people and lots of different types of experiences…So why can’t we do that everywhere?”

It is a question that weighs on Fleming these days as her vision of an inclusive America is being challenged like never before in her lifetime.

Fleming is the founder of Missouri Equity Education Partnership, which nearly a year ago started as an informal Facebook group.

It has since grown into the spearhead of a coalition of local groups pushing back against school district book bans, as well as efforts in Jefferson City to pass a deluge of bills to exert greater control over the ways race, gender and history are taught in Missouri classrooms.

And it has had an immediate impact.

Case in point: In a 4-3 decision back in January, the Wentzville School Board banned eight books, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison after some parents complained it is not suitable for kids and contains “graphic sexual violence.”

The Morrison book, published in 1970, is about Pecola, a black girl growing up in rural Ohio during the World War II era. She wants blue eyes because she’s told she’s “ugly” because of her dark skin. The target of many previous attempts to ban it from school libraries nationwide, the novel explores the themes of racism, incest, rape and out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

Fleming partnered with the St. Louis bookstore EyeSeeMe to deliver free copies to anyone who requested it.

Mo. EEP raised more than $3,000 in the first few hours after launching the book program on January 27. Three weeks later, the program had raised more than $19,000 and sent out nearly 600 copies of the “Bluest Eye,” Fleming said.

Ultimately, the Wentzville book ban backfired, said Fleming, who previously taught English at Parkway North High School.

“What is really happening is that it’s alerting people to the underlying malignancy of this whole thing,” she said. “It’s starting to wake more people up.”

In late February the Wentzville Board of Education held a special meeting and voted to rescind their decision to remove the “Bluest Eye.”

‘…nothing around me represented me or included me’

Fleming said she always knew she wanted to be a teacher.

Growing up in St. Charles, Fleming has many good memories of school. But they are tempered by the fact she always felt, at least in the classroom, as an outsider. When she graduated from St. Charles West High School nearly 30 years ago, she was one of only five black students out of a class of almost 400, she said.

“And I think that’s why I’m passionate about this,” she said. “It’s that I know that experience of feeling like nothing around me represented me or included me.”

Fleming has an older sister and a much younger brother. Her parents are solidly middle class: her father worked as a production manager at the Airwick Industries plant in St. Peters, while her mother worked as an office assistant at McDonnell Douglas aircraft company in St. Louis.

In seventh grade, Fleming invited her best friend at the time, a white girl, to come to her house for a sleepover.

“And the day of, she called me and said her dad didn’t want her staying at any black people’s house,” she recalls. “The reality is that as black people we deal with a lot of those things. So we don’t have the luxury of saying it’s all colorblind.”

Married with two grown sons and a 13-year-old daughter in middle school, Fleming began teaching English at Parkway North High School in 2005. Soon, she began teaching salary credit courses for fellow teachers on diversity and inclusion.

“Mostly what I taught is, ‘How do we allow all stories into a room?’ It’s actually giving empathy to anyone who can be other’ed,” she said. “It was allowing each person to feel like they were a valued part of the classroom.”

Fleming started her equity training company, In Purpose Educational Services, in 2018, when she approached a crossroad in her life.

After earning a master’s degree in school administration, Fleming said she interviewed for eight school administration jobs — and got turned down for each one.

“I can’t tell you how many times I was told a white male candidate was a better fit,” she said.

So, she said, she prayed on the matter, and realized she needed to make a big change.

“Kind of the question that came to me was, If you could be doing anything, and money wasn’t a consideration, what would it be?” she said. “It was equity work.”

Educational ‘gag orders’

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Heather Fleming
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Heather Fleming with Mo. EEP volunteers following their legislator lobbying day event at the Missouri State Capitol on March 3, 2022.

While Fleming’s advocacy has shown results at the local level, her coalition has also trained its focus on action in Jefferson City — specifically, a spate of bills Fleming views as educational gag orders seeking to undermine public trust and prevent honest discussions of unpleasant topics like America’s history of slavery and the Tulsa Race Massacre.

Supporters of these measures call them overdue reforms that will bolster accountability and transparency in Missouri classrooms. They argue the goal is simply to ensure parental rights are being respected.

State Rep. Doug Richey, chairman of the legislature’s Joint Education Committee and the sponsor of one of the bills, said his goal is to improve public education, not harm it.

“I’m not a grenade thrower,’ said Richey, R-Excelsior Springs. “I’m someone who believes it’s important to do what’s necessary, but I’m not looking to burn down the institution and celebrate that I’ve done something. That doesn’t help anybody.”

Fleming doesn’t buy it.

“The real impact will be that as teachers attempt to discuss these issues, they’re going to be fearful of perhaps saying something that violates one of these laws,” Fleming said. “They’re going either a) avoid it altogether or b) have such a sanitized version that it’s not the truth.”

At a Jan. 11 House Education Committee hearing in Jefferson City centered on the first wave of education bills this legislative session, Fleming showed up with nearly 150 supporters to pack the hearing room. What’s more, the 1,600 emailed testimonies from other witnesses — the vast majority opposed to the bills — set a record for the sheer number of written testimonies submitted.

The two GOP bills that drew Fleming and her supporters were Richey’s House Bill 1995 and House Bill 1474, sponsored by Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon. The bills were combined into a “Parents’ Bill of Rights,” with a section restricting the teaching of critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that focuses on the idea that race and racism permeate America’s institutions and hurt people of color.

Republicans deride CRT as divisive and formulated to make white kids feel ashamed about their forebears’ treatment of minority groups. Educators such as Fleming, however, argue there’s no evidence CRT is being taught in any Missouri classrooms.

In response to the show of public opposition, Richey said language specifically citing CRT was removed from the bill, though it still refers to several topic areas that would be prohibited in the classroom, such as making students feel “collective guilt” for their ancestors’ misdeeds

“The language we’ve landed on now closes the door to that kind of chilling effect,” Richey said.

Pushback

Soon after the Wentzville book ban took effect back in January, the ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in St. Louis on behalf of two Wentzville school district students.

The civil liberties group sought to stop the removal of the books on the grounds “the decisive factor in the decisions to remove the Banned Books was dislike of the ideas or opinions contained in the books by policymakers, school officials, community members, or a combination of those,” according to the lawsuit.

As for rescinding the district ban on “The Bluest Eye,” Anthony Rothert, the ACLU’s director of integrated advocacy, called it “welcome news,” but added the ban remains in effect for the other books, while the district’s “policies make it easy for any community member to force any book from the shelves even when they shamelessly target books by and about communities of color, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups.”

Fleming’s efforts to challenge the book ban and to raise money to purchase the banned books for students who want to read them has led to a flood of abuse on TikTok, Facebook and other social media, she said.

“At this point I’ve been told I’m pro-pornography, pro-molestation and pro-incest,” she said. “And that’s a ridiculous claim. What I am for is the ability to teach kids that there are so many experiences, and not all of them are going to be good.”

In October, a member of Concerned Parents of Rockwood, filed a consumer complaint against Fleming and Mo. EEP with Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt’s office.

The woman alleged that Fleming used Mo. EEP “to disparage, silence and publicly shame parents” in the Rockwood district.

Fleming denies the allegations. Schmitt’s office has not moved on the complaint.

Critical Race Theory

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Mike Fitzgerald
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Heather Fleming at University City High School

What’s happening in Jefferson City is being echoed nationwide.

Since Jan. 2021, nearly 160 “educational gag order” bills have been introduced or prefiled in 39 states, according to PEN America, a group that represents authors.

The measures span a wide gamut, from Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which would prohibit public K-12 teachers from “encourag[ing] classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity” in primary grade levels,” to efforts working through the Indiana and Iowa legislatures to place cameras in classrooms so that parents can view livestreams of their children and keep teachers under constant surveillance.

To Fleming, the engine behind these efforts is fueled by shifting demographics.

America is on its way to becoming a majority-minority nation at the same time its white population is shrinking. After centuries of dominance, white people will become a numerical minority over the course of the next generation. A lot of Americans are unhappy with that prospect, she said.

“When you can suddenly activate that fear in the majority that one day, because they might be a minority, they might be treated like minorities,” she said.

Critical Race Theory is an academic framework that few people outside law schools and graduate programs had heard of before mid-2020.

But since then it has become a rallying cry for conservatives who believe CRT is inherently divisive. In their minds, CRT has infiltrated classrooms with the aim of making white kids feel ashamed about unpleasant chapters in the American story.

Fleming denies that CRT is being taught in Missouri K-12 classrooms. They say attacks on it are part of an effort to turn CRT into an umbrella term that covers any serious attempt to teach about race, gender and racism in America.

Johnnie Calloway, a spokesman for the nonprofit Missouri Prosper, said schools should refrain from teaching about systemic or institutional racism.

His organization, according to its website, consists of a “group of parents dedicated to creating strong communities where families and individuals can have the opportunity to prosper and self-govern.”

“It has nothing to do with race at this point,” said Calloway, who is Black. “Much respect to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, but it’s disingenuous to say in 2022 that race is stopping anybody from being successful.”

During public testimony before the legislature’s Joint Committee on Education last August, witnesses noted a survey by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to determine how many schools were teaching critical race theory.

Of the 425 Missouri schools that responded to the DESE survey, only one indicated it includes lessons about critical race theory.

Richey, based on his discussions with parents and school officials around the state, said he’s not surprised only one school district acknowledged teaching some aspect of CRT.

“When you ask the question that is more fitting for a K-12 school district, that number increases significantly because now you’re talking about using the assumptions of critical race theory,” he said.

He declined to cite specific evidence during an interview to support his assertions that CRT is being taught in Missouri classrooms, instead pointing to the goals of his bill.

“This is a bill that is responding to the fact that we do have public school districts supported by public tax dollars that are utilizing some of these concepts,” he said, “and that needs to stop.”

‘A different future for America’

On a Saturday morning in late February more than 70 people gather outside the entrance to University City High School, located just outside of St. Louis. They have shown up for a “Rally for Truth in Education,” sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United, a close Mo. EEP ally.

The mood is upbeat and energized. A series of speakers, including some high school students, read sections from an open letter to the Missouri General Assembly that call for the repudiation of the Richey bill.

A young woman, reading off a copy of the letter, tells her audience that a culturally “responsive education is student-centered and reflects students’ experiences. A public school should be where every student sees their identity included, represented, respected and honored.”

Lisa Thompson, a member of MCU’s education task force, tells the crowd the message has gotten out that most people will support equity and inclusion “and they will rise up and defend it.”

So the sponsors of HB 1995 changed the focus, she said.

“Now it’s called parents’ rights,” she said. “Who can oppose that? Parents should have rights, right? This language is a sneaky smokescreen for giving parents rights they already had, which also encourages a feeling of mistrust between parents and teachers.”

After an hour the rally ends and most of the crowd disperses. Fleming hangs back to talk to fellow Mo. EEP members. They climb a few steps to pose for a group photo, then break up.

Fleming acknowledges it’s possible HB 1995 could be passed into law, but if that happens she and the movement she leads won’t give up, she said.

“We’re going to be successful in the end because we have enough people that care, that are passionate about this” she said. “Because as we can tell by that rally, there are so many people that imagine a different future for America.”

Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. 

Mike Fitzgerald is a freelance writer who lives in the St. Louis area. Reach him at msfitzgerald2006@gmail.com.

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