Uproar over Angela Davis sparks district's review of Intercultural Speaker Series

Dr. Angela Davis, as seen in 2006. - Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use
Dr. Angela Davis, as seen in 2006.
— image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Fair Use

The Federal Way School Board requested a review of the district's "Intercultural Speaker Series" after some questioned the inclusion of Dr. Angela Davis as this year's first speaker.

Davis gained national fame in the 1960s as an activist with ties to both the Communist Party USA and the Black Panthers. The announcement of Davis' speaking engagement for Oct. 16 in Federal Way attracted both praise and criticism from several community members.

Some residents lauded the presence of an accomplished educator with a unique historical perspective on cultural issues. Others decried Davis' controversial past and labeled her as a "radical" with ties to a terrorist organization.

On hand at the Oct. 29 school board meeting were Wanda Billingsly, Director of Title I/LAP programs for the district, and Erin Jones, Director of Equity and Achievement.

Billingsly said the speaker series is an attempt to create a conversation for the district, given the shifting demographics of both the country and Federal Way.

"We have a large shift in our demographics. Right now, over 70 percent of our students represent communities of color. Almost 60 percent of our students live in poverty," she said. "These demographic shifts create opportunities as well as unique challenges for our system. And so the Intercultural Speaker Series provides us opportunities to engage in critical dialogue about race, social justice and equity."

Jones said the purpose of the series is threefold: to promote dialogue and collaboration, to create an opportunity to bring the community together, and to aid in professional development.

"What I love about this opportunity is that it's not only for the teachers, not only for administrators. The community is absolutely invited to hear the same messages that our educators are receiving," Jones said.

Jones said the selection process for speakers is driven by people both inside and outside of the district, and the issues they'd like to hear about. There's an "equity advisory team" Jones indicated, which "determine(s) the appropriateness of people who come to speak in the district." On top of that, Jones said the district provides any speaker with data regarding the district's demographics, "so that they can speak to the unique context in which Federal Way exists."

Billingsly noted that the funding for the speaker series has mostly come from her department of Title 1/LAP. Outside of that, she noted that many of the speakers come to the district for a "nominal" or "no fee at all." Billingsly said that her department is looking to coordinate more closely with Jones' Equity and Achievement Department, in order to spread possible costs moving forward.

Billingsly and Jones reviewed the speakers from last year along with the confirmed and hoped-for speakers for this year. Last year included a number of education experts who spoke on issues ranging from immigration and marginalized populations to the overmedication of children and the possible effects of that practice.

This year's speakers include the aforementioned Davis, along with Dave Irwin, an expert in English Language Learning issues, and Anne Sibley O'Brien, a children's author/illustrator who focuses on children of color in her works.

"We still have a number of months throughout the year that we will be looking to fill with dynamic, iconic speakers," Billingsly said.

School board members responded positively to the report. Board member Danny Peterson said the Intercultural Speaker Series needed this explanation to counter some of the negativity that had been circulating throughout the community.

"I want to thank you for your presentation, for the context. I think a lot of the dialogue that's been going in our community has missed the context of this and the work you guys are doing," Peterson said.

Board president Claire Wilson said she felt comfortable going forward with the speakers series.

"The purpose is clear in my mind, the goal is clear in my mind. It's very intentional," she said. "What's important is that people understand what this series is and where the speakers come from, and how if they're stakeholders in the community, they can be part of the conversation…I think the importance (of the series) is the conversation we're able to have and the understanding the conversation brings."

Reader feedback

The following Facebook comments were posted on the original announcement of Davis' speaking engagement, along with a letter to the editor by Federal Way teacher Steve Edmiston titled "How I learned to stop being afraid of Angela Davis," and a letter titled "Radical woman comes to Federal Way" by Donna Metz.

• Leesea Kenebrew: "Angela Davis is a free woman preaching about her struggles back in the day. Some people are just racist and can't stand an intelligent Black educated woman."

• Martin Metz: "My only criticism is why did the taxpayers pay for this? If she wants to come out and folks want to pay to attend, that's one thing. Paying for it when we can't even maintain the buildings our children go to is another thing."

• David Alsabery: "It is a sad day when we have former or current members of the Nazi party, KKK or Black Panthers speak to our children. When did we decide it is OK to give a voice to former or current members of hate groups?"

• Karen Hedwig Backman: "America is a nation with many voices. I'm glad that the voice of Angela Davis (agree with her or not) was heard in Federal Way."

• Kelly Maloney (city council member): "I am very disappointed that this is the person who was chosen to kick off this series. Let's laud those who represent the positive aspects of intercultural activities, not those who take away from the efforts."


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