Koutoulas: What do anti-DEI Kentucky legislators fear?

Published 3:08 pm Thursday, February 1, 2024

This piece was originally published on WinCity Voices.

By Pete Koutoulas

WinCity Voices

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An article appeared in my local paper the Winchester Sun last Saturday, written by Sarah Michaels of BluegrassLive. The article details the attempts by the Kentucky Legislature in its current session to strip the efforts of our public schools and universities from most forms of teaching and practicing concepts related to diversity and inclusion.

(I was unable to find the piece on The Sun’s website or anywhere else on the Web. It was in the print and e‑editions of The Sun on Saturday, January 27.)

I encourage you to read the whole article, but I’ll summarize a few of the key points and add my personal observations.

Three bills (HB‑9, SB‑6, and SB-93) have been introduced in the 2024 legislative session, targeting DEI and trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning. The latter refers to recognizing that students are significantly impacted by the trauma they may have suffered and the need to create safe spaces for learning as a result.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is a complex topic that is difficult to summarize in a brief piece such as this. Suffice it to say that experts in education are virtually unanimous in their support for the principles of DEI in education. A great explainer can be found here: What is diversity, equity, and inclusion? Although the article was written for the workplace, the concepts apply equally to students.

If all three bills were to be enacted, the results would be catastrophic for efforts to move Kentucky forward in preparing all students for a richer, more diverse future — and ensuring that all students have a fair shot at equitable outcomes.

All DEI programs, offices, and training would be halted at our public colleges and universities. Those institutions would be prohibited from efforts to diversify student populations or provide extra supports for members of minority communities.

Public K‑12 school districts would be prohibited from advocating for DEI. It’s unclear whether or not this would shutter existing DEI offices and programs in public school districts. Public schools would also no longer be required to adopt a trauma-informed approach to teaching.

This is now happening not only in Kentucky, but in state governments all over the US. It has been reported that up to half of the states have proposed or are drafting anti-DEI legislation. So, the question naturally arises: what do these legislators have against these ideas? I think I know, but first, I’d like to share my experience with you.

I grew up in an environment where there was essentially no diversity. My K‑12 education exposed me to no acknowledgment of diversity beyond the very basic facts of history, through the lens of the dominant culture, of course. There was very little understanding, acknowledgment, or action that recognized that not all students are equally prepared to learn — whether because of trauma in the home, disabilities, or cultural differences. My college experience wasn’t much better in those regards.

It wasn’t until I started my career working in the Fayette County Public Schools that I was exposed to true diversity. Over the course of my nearly 30-year career there, I observed as both my employers and I learned and grew in our understanding of the importance of these concepts in the workplace and in the classroom.

I worked with people who identified as white, black, and brown. I worked with people from the Middle East, Central and South America, Asia, Europe, and Africa. With men and women, neuro-divergent people, LGBTQ people, Christians, Muslims, and atheists. Through personal experience with these people and through DEI training provided by FCPS, I grew in my awareness and understanding of the challenges of people who aren’t always fully accepted just as they are by members of the dominant, privileged culture.

I am still learning. It is a continual process — a lifelong journey. And the truth is, as a member of the dominant culture, I will never completely understand. That very acknowledgment is something I try to remember every day.

My point in sharing this is that I greatly benefitted from my experiences at FCPS. My personal growth in these areas was not something I intentionally sought; it was thrust upon me. And for that, I am grateful.

I think I know what our state legislators fear: they fear me.

Allow me to clarify. Of course, they don’t fear me personally. But they fear people like me. They fear diversity, change, and the loss of power.

This is the undercurrent that runs through most of what dominates our political and social discourse in America today. From fearmongering over immigration to banning books to efforts to stamp out affirmative action to limiting access to voting and finally to hiding from our young people the reality of how systems and institutions have failed to deliver on the promise of equal opportunity for all. All of this is a reaction to the understanding that America is rapidly diversifying, and they stand to lose their hegemony.

Our very democracy has been and continues to be attacked for this reason.

If you are gay or lesbian, transgender, black or brown, a woman, a non-Christian, an immigrant, or an ally of any of these groups, you are what the rich and powerful people who dominate most public and private institutions fear the most.

If you and I don’t start making our voices heard, we may one day soon wake up in a nation that is no longer controlled by the people and for the people — but by the powerful for the powerful.

Pete Koutoulas is the co-founder and publisher of WinCity Voices. He is a retired IT professional, formerly of Campton, and currently lives in Winchester.