Watershed Opportunities: Combating Hatred for the Soul of America

Type: Article
Topics: Communications & Public Relations, Leadership Development, School Administrator Magazine

November 01, 2023

The author’s application of situational leadership that moves accordingly ‘above’ and ‘below the line’

The battle for the soul of America has moved from the January 6th U.S. Capitol steps to the foundation of our democracy: public education. School board meetings across the country witness angry confrontations over LGBTQ/transgender rights, book bannings, diversity/equity initiatives and critical race theory.

Boards and superintendents often are caught off guard when confronted by angry citizens. This frequently can lead to confusion and legal fights rather than watershed moments that create the future. For this reason, the way things played out in one suburban district is rather remarkable.

First Alarms

The June 14, 2021, board of education meeting in the Tredyffrin/Easttown School District in southeastern Pennsylvania was expected to be routine. But protestors objecting to what they called critical race theory had other plans. That evening, the district’s diversity/equity initiatives were challenged publicly.

Alarmed by social media messages posted in advance that advocated attacks on the initiatives, nearly 100 individuals filled the board meeting room that evening. Most of them spoke during the public comment section, which ran for nearly three hours. Strident comments claimed the district’s policy on diversity/equity and the related curriculum was, according to the news outlet Patch, “divisive and harmful because it labels white students oppressors and students of color as victims.”

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Creating Community Amidst a Crisis

I learned many lessons during my 22 years as a superintendent. One of the most valuable occurred in the mid-1990s when I was a superintendent in the Owen J. Roberts school district in suburban Philadelphia. A neo-Nazi hate group tried to organize high school students to boycott schools in honor of the despicable SS leader Heinrich Himmler.

At the time of the crisis, most of the high school teachers participated in yearlong professional development to design an interdisciplinary Holocaust curriculum. In response to the threatened boycott, these teachers took the lead in building community unity coalitions and developing hate-group curricula for the entire district. As a result, the boycott failed. We then established a foundation to combat hatred. It raised more than $20,000 during the first year and exists to this day.

This crisis exemplifies key leadership concepts such as “above and below line” activities, the differences between being an administrator or a leader, and the importance of creating communities of learners. Learning about and developing these concepts, which are based primarily on democratic leadership principles, enabled me to become a more effective leader.

Applying Principles

As a superintendent, I wrestled with applying transformational leadership principles that recognized the importance of creating democratic communities of learners. After many missteps, I recognized that not all of my decisions could be democratic ones. This led me to develop the above- and below-the-line concept. Throughout these years, I also recognized that effective communications are a necessary prelude to the creation of communities of learners.

Perhaps the most important lesson I have learned as an educator is that crises, such as the neo-Nazi boycott attempt or partisan critical racial theory attacks, can be seen as intense crucibles where ordinary administrators can become transformational leaders.

— Terry Furin