I have a really idiosyncratic area of expertise: I know a lot about white nationalism. This is not a specialization one puts on a teaching resume and it’s not comfortable dinner party chatter, either, but here I am.
After growing up in Chicago’s Beverly neighborhood—very nearly ground zero for America’s neo-Nazi movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s—I have followed and organized against white nationalist groups for decades, especially as their efforts involve youth recruitment and the co-opting of youth subcultures. Historically, I’ve kept my work quiet and mostly anonymous, but a 30 percent increase in hate group activity over the past three years left me unable to deny the urgency of this work.
A little over a year and a half ago, at a fundraising event for Western States Center, educators were comparing notes about what we were seeing and hearing in schools. We were all concerned about hate groups purposefully and systematically encroaching into our school communities, which matched their increasing presence in America’s mainstream political discourse. This was a few months after Charlottesville, and the “alt right” (now we just call them “white nationalists” again, because let’s not amplify their marketing strategies) was manifesting in our classrooms, hallways and online spaces.
A student told me on the first day of school that the Southern Poverty Law Center is a money-laundering scam after he noticed one of their magnets on my whiteboard. I asked him why he thought so, and he rattled off a list of white nationalist podcasters and Twitter personalities. An art teacher confirmed that the “Pepe the Frog” she found painted on a class mural project was, in fact, a hate symbol.
The previous school year, my own son waged low-key graffiti warfare against nameless classmates who kept drawing swastikas and writing slurs on the bathroom wall. Despite my experience organizing against hate groups, I was unsure about how best to handle any of these incidents.
After sharing these stories and hearing numerous others, I and other educators lamented the lack of a concrete resource to help schools navigate the increasing frequency and severity of white nationalist presence in our school communities. Soon after, I was collaborating with another educator, Jessica Acee, and a project manager from Western States Center, Lindsay Schubiner, to get it done.
We knew we wanted our resource to be user-friendly, so we built it around actual scenarios we had collectively encountered in our schools and communities: graffiti, flyering, invocation of white nationalist ideology in class or in schoolwork, iconography on clothing or as online avatars and more.
For each category of examples, we listed several suggestions for each group of stakeholders in a school community: students; teachers/staff; administrators; parents; and community entities, such as libraries, faith groups and community centers.
Suggestions ranged from immediate responses such as documenting the incident and involving wellness staff, to longer-range responses and preventative measures. Those included: establish a culture and climate team, as well as a student voice committee; explore restorative justice; and reach out to anti-racist nonprofit organizations.
We also wrote supplementary sections to help schools respond to common defenses of white nationalism, recognize signs and symbols, draw on success stories, and establish best practices and proactive measures to strengthen schools. We made the information accessible, cited our sources, and assembled it all in a format that could be physically handed to an administrator to support the concerns of a student, teacher, parent or community member.
In January 2019, we released Confronting White Nationalism in Schools: A Toolkit and we have been busy supporting it ever since. The response has been massive, which both validates our work and breaks our hearts that it has proven to be such a vital, necessary resource. The toolkit has been featured on NPR, PBS NewsHour, in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, American Libraries Magazine and more.
We have traveled and presented at conferences from one coast to the other, visited a wide range of schools, and spoken to communities specifically targeted by hate groups, including the Arab-American communities in Dearborn, Michigan; neighboring synagogues to The Tree of Life in Pittsburgh; and right here in Chicago.
Chicago’s history of segregation and racial isolation played a role in what we saw develop in the late 1980s, and we’re seeing it again now. A group of school and community leaders in the 19th Ward bravely has called for conversation around this issue, and I’ve been proud to facilitate. Some of our most integrated schools often see higher rates of white nationalist ideology manifesting because students find themselves in a diverse environment for the first time, and they don’t always adjust smoothly.
While some of our predominantly African-American or Latinx schools may not face a white nationalist presence, they often encounter hostility at inter-school events. Everywhere we have spoken about the toolkit, educators and community members have shared similar experiences and high levels of concern for the safety of their school communities.
As teachers, this is our fight. CPS isn’t waging it. One reporter covering the toolkit asked CPS for data around incidents of racial hostility and was told no such data exists. There isn’t an organized program or even an approach to addressing white nationalism in CPS that I can find. It is also our fight because our demands on the picket line included many of the most vital resources needed to respond to hate in our schools: counselors, social workers, librarians and smaller class sizes, for starters.
If there’s a bigger takeaway here not directly related to the issue of white nationalism, it’s this: We are often our own best resource and our students’ strongest advocates. We know what’s going on in our schools better than anyone in an office downtown. If CPS isn’t starting the conversation, we will start it without them.
Nora Flanagan is a CTU delegate and English teacher at Northside College Prep High School. The toolkit, Confronting White Nationalism in Schools, is available as a free PDF or hard copy (for a small fee) from the Western States Center. If you need any support around this issue, do not hesitate to reach out to the organization or to Nora personally. If you see her at a Union meeting, she usually has a few copies of the toolkit in her bag and is happy to share.