Daring to Speak Up About Race in a Divided School District

The Leelanau Peninsula looks, on a map of Michigan, like a thick pinky with a gnarled tip. In the northern reaches of the state, it lies between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay. It’s a place of cherry and plum orchards, long stretches of road bordered by forests and fields and monumental, surreal sand dunes.

Demographically, the peninsula and adjacent mainland could hardly be more homogeneous; the population is over 90 percent white. But politically, the area is starkly divided. Conservatives worry that their territory is turning “as blue as Ann Arbor,” as one centrist Republican put it, and liberals see Trump 2024 banners draped over the fronts of neighbors’ houses and, on a few houses and trucks, Confederate flags. The peninsula — whose economy spans agriculture, tourism and, lately, an influx of people with the luxury of remote work, and where houses range from grand domains by the water to mobile homes just inland — voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and, by a slight margin, for Joe Biden in 2020, while the surrounding counties went overwhelmingly to Trump in 2016 and a bit less so in the last election. Some members of the Wolverine Watchmen militia will soon stand trial in Traverse City, at the peninsula’s base, on state charges of plotting to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic governor from her summer cottage close by.

A little past halfway up the peninsula is the tiny Leland Public School District, which serves 465 students. Its lone building sits on a hill beside a Lutheran church, above the village center of Leland, on a cable of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau. Stephanie Long is the school superintendent there, and her first day on the job was July 1, 2020, five weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police officers. Haunted by images of the killing, she decided to write to her students and families. “Why be in a position of leadership,” she asked herself, “and not lead?”

“All people of color,” Long typed, “need us to stand with them to clearly state that we condemn acts of systematic and systemic racism and intolerance.” Long, who is 56, is Lebanese American, with olive-toned skin, a cascade of dark hair and the sturdy build of a woman who, a few decades ago, competed in the discus and javelin in college. She does not identify as white, but she wrote as if she did. She passes for white on and near the peninsula, where she has lived and worked as a teacher and school administrator since the 1990s. She keeps her ethnicity mostly to herself.

Inside Leland Public School, where teaching about race and diversity is part of the curriculum.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

Long implored her readers to consider “the disparity in our experiences and the underlying reasons that have created the privilege we who are white enjoy.” She wrote, “We adults need to and will do better, and we will be better.” And, “Every great social reform movement started with young people.” Then she made suggestions for how to begin shaping a “just world”: “Donate to/and or get involved with the N.A.A.C.P. or A.C.L.U.” Read books like Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist.” “Join a Black Lives Matter chapter.”

Long is married to a former police officer, who is an attorney and a moderate conservative; their politics have always diverged. She wasn’t going to let his views slow her down. She envisioned profound pedagogical changes in her school; she imagined sparking illuminating discussions within classrooms and searching, transformative conversations in the community beyond. She hit send.

A degree of support came in reply. A letter of praise signed by 200 Leland alumni was published in a peninsula newspaper. Rosie Vasquez, a Hispanic mother who settled on the peninsula after arriving, as a child in the ’90s, with one of the migrant families who pick the farmland’s cherries, strawberries and asparagus, sent an email to the Leland school board, applauding Long for confronting the racism that crouched amid the beauty of the area. “Throughout the years,” Vasquez, an administrator who works with people with disabilities, wrote, “both my boys had to endure racial comments on the basketball court, soccer field, in the hallway or out in our community. My husband and I have endured it in our lifetime as well. We love our Leland school and community, but the heartache and pain is real for all of us.”

But angry emails, phone calls and letters poured in from within the district and, because Long’s message made the local news and spread over the internet, from across the country. They labeled her “a disgrace,” “a Marxist,” “a traitor.” They spoke of spitting in her face. “You shouldn’t leave your home,” they warned. “You don’t deserve to live.”

“We are all presumed racists and privileged,” Long read in an email from a local resident received by a board member and forwarded to her. “It is beyond insulting. It is untrue.” The resident went on, “Let’s get together soon and bitch about the New World Order being rolled out right in front of us.”

“She has painted a picture of people unwilling and unable to see anything more than the color of one’s skin,” a mother of a recent Leland graduate and a current high schooler wrote to the board chair. “That could not be farther from the truth.”

From another email: “Conversations in school will be skewed with a liberal bias meant to CHANGE student’s minds, not CHALLENGE them. I do not consent to my children being any part of this.”

And another: “Trying to teach us about white privilege and she says to join a B.L.M. chapter. Really a group that’s burning cities down, attacking the police and inciting violence in our country.”

And: “We haven’t met yet, so you know ZERO about me … or my family. I learned (we all did) a lot about you,” Long read. “We will be watching VIGILANTLY.”

That summer, Long grew afraid to go outside and debated carrying a gun. “I lay in bed thinking, What could I have done differently?” she told me. “Where did this go off the rails?” She didn’t regret sending the message — she only wished she hadn’t used the word “join” and instead had said something more like “learn about.” As the 2020-21 school year neared, she decided she would need to lead in a different way, if she was going to take her school and her community where she hoped they would go.

Rosie Vasquez, a mother who praised Leland’s school superintendent, Stephanie Long, for confronting the area’s racism.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, American institutions, from corporations to government agencies to nonprofits, found themselves under tremendous pressure to address racism within their organizations and to publicly speak out against its prevalence throughout society. Their responses — proclamations from chief executives, anti-bias trainings, diversity initiatives, ad campaigns — were sincere and searching or self-serving and performative or some of both. But the overall effect was far more pronounced than what came during the several years before, in reaction to a rash of videotaped deaths at the hands of the police, the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and the rise of Black Lives Matter. The attention to racism was more visible and audible than anything the country had experienced in decades.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

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Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

An ​​expansive academic framework. Critical race theory, or C.R.T, argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions. The theory says that racism is a systemic problem, not only a matter of individual bigotry.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

C.R.T. is not new. Derrick Bell, a pioneering legal scholar who died in 2011, spent decades exploring what it would mean to understand racism as a permanent feature of American life. He is often called the godfather of critical race theory, but the term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

The theory has gained new prominence. After the protests born from the police killing of George Floyd, critical race theory resurfaced as part of a backlash among conservatives — including former President Trump — who began to use the term as a political weapon.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

The current debate. Critics of C.R.T. argue that it accuses all white Americans of being racist and is being used to divide the country. But critical race theorists say they are mainly concerned with understanding the racial disparities that have persisted in institutions and systems.

Understand the Debate Over Critical Race Theory

A hot-button issue in schools. The debate has turned school boards into battlegrounds as some Republicans say the theory is invading classrooms. Education leaders, including the National School Boards Association, say that C.R.T. is not being taught in K-12 schools.

With the new emphasis came an emphatic backlash. In September 2020, Christopher Rufo, a Seattle-area conservative activist and writer, announced on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” that trainings given within the F.B.I. and the Treasury Department were teaching that America is “a fundamentally white supremacist nation” and asserting an oppressive “essence of whiteness.” He labeled this “critical race theory cult indoctrination,” referring to an academic movement with beginnings in the 1970s, a perspective that sees racism embedded at the core of American history, law and society. Rufo called on the Trump White House to “immediately issue an executive order abolishing critical race trainings from the federal government.” Trump was watching the show, and by late October, Rufo was at the White House, helping to draft an executive order.

Rufo soon asked his Twitter followers whether they would be most interested in learning more about the teaching of critical race theory, C.R.T., in corporations, in the military or in K-12 education. They picked education. He set about reporting on this for the right-leaning City Journal, which is published by the Manhattan Institute, and became a regular on Fox, where he raised alarms about progressive pedagogy in public schools on topics of race — and later, increasingly, on gender and sexuality. Teachers in Seattle and San Diego, he reported, were trained by an activist who maintained “that public schools are guilty of ‘the spirit murdering of Black and brown children,’” and teachers in Springfield, Mo., were told to “locate themselves” — by their racial, gender and sexual identities — on an “oppression matrix.” This mind-set, he wrote, was making its way into classrooms. He cited parent accounts of third graders’ being asked to “deconstruct their racial identities, then rank themselves according to their ‘power and privilege.’”

Parent organizations, meanwhile, sprang up to fight progressive trends in schools — one group, Moms for Liberty, has more than 200 chapters in 40 states, with more than 100,000 members — and Rufo advised politicians, in states like Florida, Michigan and Idaho, on writing bills to forestall what he cast as C.R.T.’s spreading infection of young minds. Legislation now pending in Michigan’s Republican-controlled State Senate would forbid teaching any of “the following anti-American and racist theories”: that “the United States is a fundamentally racist country,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race, is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously” and that “individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color or national origin.” Similar legislation passed in the state’s House of Representatives last year after Democrats refused to vote.

By last spring and summer, outrage over pedagogy — mixed with parent frustration over Covid school closings and resistance to mandatory masking — turned public meetings of school boards across the nation into eruptive events of chanting, screaming, threats and an episode of a father being hauled away in handcuffs. In Virginia, in the fall of 2021, the Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, used accusations of C.R.T. in schools to vault himself to a come-from-behind victory, with polling suggesting that the claims played well even in counties that voted heavily for Biden a year earlier. A prominent Republican strategist told me that the party’s candidates would highlight C.R.T. in schools as a way not only to mobilize Republicans but also to win over independents and moderate Democrats in this year’s midterms.

The left countered loudly that the C.R.T. label amounted to political opportunism, a cynical branding, a racist “dog whistle” and a “boogeyman,” that the theory was limited to corners of high-level academia and was a figment of bigoted imaginations when it came to K-12 education. I talked with more than two dozen teachers, administrators, superintendents and education consultants in over a dozen districts in 10 states as I tried to understand what had become, so swiftly, a ferocious debate. Were schools around the country adopting a progressive lens on race? And if so, to what extent? It was a quixotic task. There are some 13,500 school districts in the United States, operating under varying arrangements of local and state governance, and all consist, finally, of individual schools filled with individual classrooms run by individual teachers being guided, to differing degrees, by principals and district superintendents. Yet two things emerged clearly from my conversations: that many schools were inching or lurching toward reform, and that district leaders were leery of letting me observe their classrooms, for fear of the all-consuming rancor that attention could bring.

Philadelphia was one district that did allow me in. In that city, where Biden won 81 percent of the vote in 2020, the political atmosphere posed no impediment to a concerted program to “decolonize curriculum,” in the words of Ismael Jimenez, the district’s social-studies curriculum director. The goal, he said, is to “disrupt narrow normative liberal stances” and “decenter Eurocentric, linear, great-white-man historiography.” In three Philadelphia schools, I saw moments like that of a young white teacher at Central High, Kristen Peeples, drawing a tight connection for her 10th graders — white, Black, Asian, Hispanic — between slave revolts and the need to destroy current white supremacy. The lesson ended with Peeples explaining a line she projected up on the classroom screen. It was a paraphrase of a paragraph by the theologian Richard Shaull in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a book that is seminal to C.R.T. and often invoked by today’s progressive educators: “There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.”

In Long’s school district, the political environment was nothing like Philadelphia’s; the response to her opening message had made that clear. “It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to get fired,” she told me. So, as the 2020-21 school year began, she decided to shift to a subtler strategy. She likened her recalibrated approach to introducing droplets of dye into a glass of water, the liquid being the curriculum inside her school and the culture surrounding it. “At first, it’s going to change the water minimally, maybe undetectably, but add enough drops and the water is going to change color.”

Before Leland bought more diverse books for younger children’s classrooms, “diversity in our books mostly meant they were about characters who are animals,” said the teacher Ashley Suttmann, shown here.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

Stephanie Long was raised in a middle-class suburb of Flint, with grandparents who immigrated from Lebanon speaking no English, and with a father whose “whole goal in life,” she said, “was that his kids do well in America, that they get an education and contribute. It was: Put your head down, shut up, don’t complain, outwork everyone else and it will work out.” She recounted: “I was acutely aware from as early as I can remember of not being white. White meant families that were very civilized in a different way. That’s a strange thing to say. School was white. The teachers were all white. I didn’t know how to name it, but I knew what it felt like.”

There were other racial realities. As a child, she sensed the low status of a woman who went by Johnnie, who was Black and lived in her family’s home, working as a housekeeper and parenting the children. She felt this much more sharply after Johnnie was abruptly dismissed by her mother, because, it seemed to Long, her younger sister called Johnnie “Mommy.” The dismissal was carried out while the children were at school; there were no goodbyes. When Long was 16 and got her driver’s license, she did some sleuthing, and she and her sister found Johnnie living in Flint in a low-income housing complex. They planned to express their love, but in the intervening years, Johnnie had been overtaken by dementia. She had no memory of the girls at all.

In Long’s first year as superintendent in Leland, a district with barely a handful of Black students, she retreated from public pronouncements. Yet her internal measures weren’t as minute as droplets. She hired a Black former principal from Chicago, Cheryl Watkins of Monarch Education Consultants, to give a faculty training. The presentation moved from a projected photo of a placard reading “racism is the real pandemic” to an exercise scoring the racial and gender-based privilege of each participant. An image of George Floyd, painted in bold hatched strokes, glowed on the screen. There was a section on how to actively combat racism, followed by an approving slide of a smiling young white man saying: “I lost my aunt today. … She’s not dead, just racist.”

Long also started a voluntary faculty book group whose first selection was Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” published in 2018, which claims an all-but-universal white denial of systemic racism. Kim Fowler, a Leland special-education teacher since 2000 and the faculty’s only Black member, said she had joined the group and sat silently, “almost in tears, choked up, to hear that people were wanting to learn, to see teachers really get it.”

Fowler credited Long for “putting a toe in,” for stirring conversations. Over the past couple of years, she said this summer, “I’ve spoken to a few people about what has happened to me or to my children” at the school. “But I keep a lot to myself. Some kids would call me the N-word under their breath or behind my back. I never said anything. That’s pretty much the way many Black people deal; we feel like it’s uncomfortable for other people, like people don’t care, that they’ll think you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. So you move on. It’s hard to explain to anyone who isn’t Black, that it’s how you live your life in this country. You still go through your life with joy, but you ask: Can I trust people? Do they hate me behind my back?”

One of Long’s early measures was to approve the purchase of books featuring diverse characters for classrooms in the younger grades. Until then, Ashley Suttmann, who teaches a blended first-and-second-grade class, said, “diversity in our books mostly meant they were about characters who are animals.” One day during Long’s first year, as she looked into Suttmann’s class on her regular rounds, Suttmann asked if she would like to read to the students. Picture books lined the lip of the whiteboard, and Long’s eyes stopped on a book titled “Salam Alaikum.” “Before that, I’d never seen a book in a classroom that had an Arab character,” she remembered. Having grown up with Arabic-speaking parents and grandparents, she identifies as Arab. She chose the book. “Never, during my own schooling, never until college, did I see a representation of an Arab person in a book, never in a poem; it felt stunning.”

She read aloud, pausing to tell the kids, who sat on the carpet at her feet, that the phrase “salam alaikum,” meaning “peace be with you,” was something she heard growing up. “I’m Lebanese,” she said. “Lebanon is a country in the Middle East. You might have heard of other Middle Eastern countries like Iraq or Saudi Arabia. Those are also countries that speak the Arab language.”

That was all. “I doubt it lasted 15 minutes,” she said to me. “But when I walked out, I was sweating” — sweating because she had exposed herself, and because she worried that if word got back to parents and spread in the community, her efforts at reform would be seen as the crusade of “an angry Arab woman.”

Ashley Suttmann with her students.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

In the fall of 2021, I watched Suttmann, who has long blond hair and was wearing a loose, ankle-length black dress, read aloud the picture book “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race.” It was another of the new books the school had purchased. Around 20 white children, one Hispanic boy and one Asian girl, ages 6 to 8, in Covid masks with all sorts of motifs — a Batman logo, a smiley face — sat on a purple rug. The book was by Megan Madison, a Black author who was a student of Long’s when she was an English teacher in Traverse City. The book began by celebrating the wide array of human skin tones. Then Suttmann read: “ ‘A long time ago, way before you were born, a group of white people made up an idea called race. They sorted people by skin color and said that white people were better, smarter, prettier, and that they deserve more than everybody else.’” Suttmann lifted her eyes from the page. “Raise your hand if that makes you sad.”

“I’ve heard about this,” a student volunteered. “It was on TV. It was brown people getting on the bus.”

“Harriet Tubman!” a child yelled.

The next child Suttmann called on said: “They had a big war a long time ago. The whites got the big school, and the Blacks got the little school. But they had a big war, and the Blacks got to go to the big school.”

Suttmann returned to the book, reading its examples of racism and reaching its final page: “ ‘All the time, even right now, people are working for racial justice, by telling the truth and sharing feelings.’” The illustration showed children of varied colors clutching signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “Protests Are Progress.” She read: “ ‘By bravely saying THAT’S NOT RIGHT! By marching in protest, by singing songs that bring us together, by changing unfair rules, by teaching, helping, learning and listening. We can do it, too.’”

Suttmann has spent her 12-year career in Leland’s school. It is where she went to school and where she and her husband were middle-school sweethearts, and where they now send their two children. Besides teaching, she is the lead organizer of Leland’s Fourth of July parade. “It’s patriotic and pretty awesome,” she told me, naming 2022’s theme: “Red, White and Leland Blue,” the tint of a local stone. But she lamented the area’s lack of diversity, that Leland’s students could grow up “not even recognizing that it’s harder to be Black or brown in America.” She was upset about a county-road commissioner’s tirades about Black Lives Matter at a 2020 commission meeting and on local public radio: He “used the N-word repeatedly, and afterward there were signs all over supporting him.”

The man was forced to resign, but for Suttmann, he embodied the overt racism that seemed unleashed on the peninsula by Trump’s presidency. Some of her first and second graders, she said, “with their beautiful hearts and brains, are going home and hearing hateful things from the people they love.” Her sense of what lurked in parts of the community, combined with the inspiring stance she felt Long had taken, influenced her teaching. She was also affected by her participation in the “White Fragility” book group and by her own reading from a website called Diverse Spines. It all led her to “deliberately deliver this type of teaching to my students,” teaching encapsulated in “Our Skin” or another picture book called “The Youngest Marcher.” So far, she has received only scattered complaints from parents, but, she said, “I’ve had multiple people ask, ‘How’s that Black Lives Matter superintendent doing?’ I’m scared to have this article come out and to have families not want their kids in my class anymore. If I hurt our school, that would hurt me.”

Her husband, Logan Suttmann, is a school board member and talked about his upcoming volunteer work constructing, entirely by hand, a replica of the district’s original building, a one-room schoolhouse on an island in Lake Michigan, where loggers settled with their families in the 19th century. He radiates an exuberant loyalty to Leland, past and present. “I agree with every single thing,” he said about Long’s opening message. “But we lost families that were big supporters of our school because of it. I’m much more middle of the road. I try to make everyone happy.” He is the board member in charge of getting school-funding levies passed by community vote, for things like fixing a faulty heating system, a leaky roof, a drainage problem that sends water up through a hallway floor. Since Long’s arrival, two votes on maintenance financing have gone against the school, which is unprecedented in his memory, and when funding was at last approved, on a third try this May, it was by the slenderest of margins.

Chris Butz with his wife, Angie, three of their four adopted children and one grandchild. He feared that talk of systemic racism in the district could cause “a tinderbox at home” for mixed-race families like theirs.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

Chris Butz, a hunting and fishing guide, and his wife, Angie, are among the parents who moved their children out of Long’s school soon after her post-Floyd pronouncement. The couple have one older biological white child and four adopted children who are Black. Three of their adopted children are now enrolled in a private Christian school in Traverse City; the oldest of the four is in cosmetology school. “I believe Long’s intentions were good,” Butz said, “but ‘systemic racism’ is too strong. By definition it means it’s pervasive in an institution or in society, and I just don’t see that as being true. I don’t see society as being that way toward my children. It’s a term used to pit people against each other instead of saying realistically that there are some racial issues, how do we come together and work on them?” And, he added, “For families like ours, you’re potentially causing huge issues on top of the wounds of adoption — you’re potentially causing a tinderbox at home.”

Brenda Clark, a landscape painter who sells her work in a lakefront gallery she and her husband own 10 miles from Leland, described herself and her husband as “more liberal than a lot of people.” One of their two daughters graduated from Leland just before Long became superintendent, and the other will be a senior there this fall. Clark said that since Long took over, the couple have pulled back from their engagement with the school. “I feel compelled not to be involved with school fund-raising anymore,” she said. “Stephanie’s first letter — it sounded like an order. I don’t need you to tell me to do that. We know a lot of people here, and it divided so many. It was sad to see. You don’t need that in a small town, a small school system.”

Lesson plans and questions for classroom discussions in social studies at Leland Public School.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

One afternoon this past February, Emily Piro, a first-year social-studies teacher in her mid-20s, wearing a sweater jacket and bell-bottoms, was on the brink of anxious sweating as she taught eighth-grade U.S. history. “What is an archetype?” she asked her students, who sat at rectangular tables.

“A one-dimensional character,” a boy said.

“Could it be biased?”

“It could. With a president, it might not include his mistakes.”

Before class, the students read a handout Piro created: “In recent times, it has become popular to talk about all parts of a historical figure’s life rather than simply their archetype.” Then: “This includes negative parts of someone’s life who has typically been portrayed as a hero. (Thomas Jefferson.) Examples being that they may have owned slaves, they may have killed Indigenous people, etc., despite contributing a lot to the U.S. government.”

“Does being a bad person diminish your accomplishments?” she asked now.

“I would say so.”

“You have to be your own judge,” another student said. “You have to look into all the aspects. Laws are always changing.”

“Yes,” a third said. “The law influences the internal compass of people.”

“I want you to consider another level,” Piro said. “If we know the good and the bad of people and the country, does it make us stronger or weaker?”

Her anxiety, it turned out, was largely due to my presence at the back of the room. “My grandparents and great-grandparents are from here,” she told me afterward by Zoom, from her grandparents’ house eight miles from the school, where she lives. “Right now, I’m wondering how loud I’m talking. My people are really important to me. But my people are not always right about everything, and I’m not always right about everything. Communities don’t always agree, but I love this community. I love the beautiful landscape here, the natural history here — I want to make a life here.” She said: “For me, teaching history is about having a conversation. But there’s an all-or-nothing feeling on either side.”

On one side, “the ideal of being apolitical as a teacher has changed recently — it’s seen as important to be political in a social-justice way; you’re either all-in or you’re racist.” On the other side, “if you talk about the founding fathers’ owning slaves, about all that Thomas Jefferson did for our country but that some people say he’s a total ding-dong, and if you provide a good combination of sources, you might be swaying students toward thinking that Jefferson was imperfect, and this could be seen as critical race theory. I’m not trying to indoctrinate our kids. I just want to be a good teacher. But I feel like there’s an imaginary pitchfork army that’s going to come for you.”

It was hard to tell exactly how much Long’s leadership influenced the complexity Piro brought into the classroom. Piro shaped a good deal of her own material and described drawing from a range of perspectives, from her education-school courses to a podcast about the archetype of Daniel Boone. Long, she said, established “a supportive space.”

Karen Kirt, a social-studies teacher at Leland Public School.Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

Karen Kirt, a veteran social-studies teacher, was more definitive about Long’s effect. “There has been a regression” in how the faculty teaches, she said, since Long’s initial rhetoric. “We’ve had to be more careful about how we talk about race, because so many families were upset. ‘60 Minutes’ did an episode a few years ago about how African Americans are watched more when they go into stores, and in the past, I’ve played clips of that in my classroom, showing that there’s still racism in America. I’m not sure I would do that now.” She clarified that she wasn’t afraid for her job. “The prudence is so I don’t offend families. We’ve got the full spectrum here in Leelanau County. Some people I grew up with have polar opposite views from mine, but they would do anything for me.”

The polar opposites Kirt described clashed fiercely during the previous spring and summer in Traverse City, 30 miles down the road from Leland. In April 2021, a group of young people, including Traverse City high school students, posted racist and anti-Semitic messages on Snapchat, and conducted a slave auction, displaying a photo of a Traverse City 10th grader, who is biracial, and putting her up for sale. In response, the Traverse City school board considered an antiracism resolution and held public hearings that stretched on for months. At packed board meetings, the few Black citizens who stepped to the lectern — Traverse City’s population is 1 percent Black — testified about the racism they and their children faced. White defenders of the resolution stood with their hands over their hearts, reciting the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Denouncers cited King, too, arguing that the resolution — with its pledge to provide “ongoing opportunities for student learning about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging issues” — assumed white racism and reduced people to the color of their skin instead of recognizing the content of their character. “Wake up!” a white woman exclaimed. “This is the opposite of what M.L.K. lived and died for.” A parent group fighting against the resolution received a number of emails with invective such as “racist scumbags” and “your children are piece of [expletive] racists because YOU ARE PIECE OF [EXPLETIVE] RACISTS.” At the hearings, Covid policy crept into the outcry. One white mother, a real estate agent, who told me that she had cleaned homes, “scrubbing other people’s toilets,” for a year and a half after a divorce left her and her children nearly destitute, assailed the board both for compulsory masking and for trying to impose C.R.T.’s “woke ideology.” For her, it was all an assault on freedom — bodily, intellectually. At the lectern, she quoted the war cry of the American Revolution: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

In Leland, another veteran teacher, Paula Kelly, incorporated the Snapchat auction into a lesson for her contemporary-issues class one day in February 2022. Kelly talked to her 10th-to-12th-graders about a “This American Life” episode on the incident, along with discussing Reconstruction-era lynch mobs and modern anti-gay violence. She introduced the concept of hate crimes. “What does justice look like?” she asked, and, “What is our responsibility to right the wrongs of the past?” The students were tentative in their replies, but Kelly worried that such conversations would soon be altogether impossible. She noted Long’s support but said, “She is not the only master in that classroom.” There were the parents, the community, the so-called anti-C.R.T. bill pending in the Legislature. The bill didn’t seem at the forefront of many teachers’ minds, maybe because its fate remained uncertain, but it weighed on Kelly’s. “Think about a silent classroom after the legislation passes,” she said. “That’s what I fear. That I won’t be able to encourage a discussion.” In June, after 20 years as a teacher and a school librarian, she retired, because, she told me, of “the outside pressures.”

“I have no doubt that people wanted to create a loving environment for me, but what I was actually experiencing was very, very painful,” said Megan Madison, an author who grew up in Leland. Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

During the 2021-22 year, Long stuck with what she called incrementalism, but that fall she took a chance when she invited Ruby Bridges to speak to Leland’s elementary schoolers. Bridges’s 2009 picture book, “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” about the author’s ordeal, at age 6 in 1960, as the lone Black child integrating a New Orleans elementary school, has ignited parents’ ire in Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Though the book proceeds with jarring speed to a happy page about Bridges’s making white friends, it has been criticized as too harsh about white people and insufficiently “redemptive.” In December, in a virtual presentation, Bridges told Leland’s children about things not in the book, like the fact that the white mob outside the school carried an open wooden box, a symbolic coffin, with a Black doll inside. After Bridges’s talk, the community voiced no public objection.

Then, in the spring, Long invited Megan Madison, Long’s former student and the author of “Our Skin,” to be the graduation speaker. In late May, under the gym’s vaulted ceiling, with purple and white banners from decades of Leland’s victorious sports teams adorning the walls, the school’s rising seniors ushered the graduates to their seats behind one baseline. Families packed the bleachers above one length of the court, faculty and staff sat opposite the grads and Madison stood smiling on a portable stage, feeling “terrified” and wondering, she said later, “will they still love me?” after this speech. At the lectern, she introduced herself and her pronouns. “I’m proud to be from here,” she declared. “People told me all the time when I was growing up that this is a special place. And I didn’t understand. It took leaving” — she now lives in Harlem — “to truly understand what makes us lucky to call this place home.”

In the mid-2000s, at her Traverse City high school, she told me, she was, in some ways, very much included. She was a varsity cheerleader and homecoming queen. But at the homecoming dance, she recalled, a group of students refused to go and held an alternative dance in the parking lot, with Confederate flags on their trucks. She was given the lead in the school’s production of Elton John’s musical “Aida” — with the supporting cast of white kids playing Egyptians or Nubians in bronzer or outright blackface. “There was also an incident of someone putting up Buckwheat posters” — of the lone Black child character from the TV show “The Little Rascals” — “all over the high school. They were quickly taken down, but it was not discussed. It all felt confusing. I have no doubt that people wanted to create a loving environment for me, but what I was actually experiencing was very, very painful, and the culture of silence made it impossible for me to speak about the pain I was in. I learned to perform a version of myself that could swim in that environment.” Only when she went away to college and to graduate school in social policy, she said, did she encounter the writing of critical race theorists and other analysts of American racism and feel, “I’m not crazy; there’s words for all this, for being told we love you but not feeling loved.” Now her past and her graduate studies infused her children’s books, her work as an anti-bias trainer for teachers from New York City to Dallas and her speech in Leland.

“How are you doing?” she asked the graduates. And soon: “There’s a lot of bad things happening in the world right now. What are some of those things?”

“Climate change,” a student called out.


“White supremacy.”

“White supremacy,” Madison repeated.

Long sat behind Madison on the stage, with Leland’s board members alongside her, so she couldn’t see their faces. Long scanned the crowd. Some were nodding along; some had “arms crossed,” she recounted, “in stoic patience.” There was an audible grumble. “My reaction,” she said, “was to try to anticipate everyone else’s reactions: the people in the community who would be upset, the people who would be happy, my board members. I was nervous. A freight train of thoughts was running through my mind.”

“Thank you for acknowledging the reality we’re living in,” Madison told the graduates. “White supremacy is killing people.” She roused the grads to “be the biggest monster. Take up space. Ask for what you need. Use your power, your vote, your voice, your freedom.”

And she asked: “Will we manage to avoid another world war? Will we find a way to avoid complete climate catastrophe? Will we figure out how to end white supremacy and write a new story for the United States?”

One mother of a graduate rushed up to Long afterward in the gym, railing and warning that the graduate’s grandfather was threatening violence.

Brenda Clark, the landscape painter, said to me: “We finally have a regular graduation, with no Covid protocol, and I couldn’t focus. She was kind of screaming it: ‘white supremacy.’ It was in your face. I think a lot of people felt that way. It put everyone in a zone of — you’ve been shocked.”

Logan Suttmann, the board member, said he was “squirming” as he sat in the audience. “The number of times she brought up white supremacy. That speech alienated people. It furthered the divide. Just keep it simple. Just say the kids are awesome, that Leland is awesome. Rah, rah.”

“We got in quite an argument about that speech” Ashley Suttmann said of her husband. “Some people were enraged. But we have to stop being afraid. We have to say what’s right. What’s true. But I am afraid.”

When we talked in July in her small office, Long told me she was confident that the speech had “advanced the conversation.”

Two years had passed since she had taken over. Did she still harbor hope for communitywide discussion and change — change radiating outward from her school?

“I still have that hope,” she said. “But sometimes my naïve optimism smacks me in the face.”

She thought back to July 2020. “I came out of the gate, and people saw me as a threat. People who’d known me for years and years drew horrible conclusions. That’s my biggest hurdle, overcoming the perception of me as a threat to the status quo.”

I asked if she isn’t, in fact, a threat to the status quo, in that she sees it as pervaded by systemic racism.

She paused, sighed. “Yes.”

Her answer was quiet, contemplative. But it was as if, on that cable of land between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, a community, dependent on a kind of delicacy to keep its divisions in check, might be in danger of cracking apart.

“At first, it’s going to change the water minimally, maybe undetectably,” said Long, comparing her approach to introducing droplets of dye into a glass of water, “but add enough drops and the water is going to change color.” Credit…Holly Andres for The New York Times

Daniel Bergner is a contributing writer for the magazine and the author of “The Mind and the Moon: My Brother’s Story, the Science of Our Brains, and the Search for Our Psyches.” Holly Andres is a photographer in Portland, Ore. She has photographed numerous subjects for the magazine, including a cross-country train trip, young climate activists and the biochemist Beverly Emerson.

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