As a member of the Facilities Names Committee, I have some observations about the process, and this issue overall, that I would like to share.
First, those of us that support changing the name of Lee High School are not “spoiled children, kicking and screaming” because we did not get our way. Rather, we are individuals who clearly know the difference between cancel culture and progress. When the Facilities Names Committee generated the list of pros and cons, the top cons cited by the opponents of the name change were “loss of power” and “change of tradition.” I find it ironic and almost laughable that these reasons were generated by the name change opposition side because this is exactly what those of us who support the name change are trying to do. We are trying to change the tradition of people of color feeling like second-class citizens, of people of color feeling alienated, of people of color being consistently reminded of a time when they were treated horrifically. This is the culture we are trying to change. As for the “loss of power” the other side cited, I would need some clarification as to what power over who they are concerned about losing. Based on comments made during the meetings, I do have some ideas though.
During the meetings, those of us in support of the name change had to endure listening to the opposing side’s same old tired rhetoric about people being “too PC or too sensitive” or “it’s just a name and people need to get over it.” One member explained that the Confederate flag was not offensive to her but rather “just a part of her costume” when she went to Lee and was in Brig. You can certainly listen to the audio of the meetings for other examples of comments like this. We also had to endure a presentation during our last meeting, in which the opposing side extolled the accomplishments of Robert E. Lee, including that he was a “good Christian” in addition to learning that both Frederick Douglass and Gandhi were flawed individuals, and because of that, we should not change the names of any of our schools. Since we do not have schools named after either Douglass or Gandhi I am still wondering how that part of the presentation was even relevant.
During another meeting, a committee member said we did not have any proof that the names of any schools were hurtful to anyone. At that point I had to speak up. There were people in that very room and others in our community, our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our students and their families, that have told us and continue to tell us, that the name of Lee High School is hurtful. What more evidence or proof do we need? Why is that not enough to consider or at least entertain the thought that perhaps your opinion and your argument, in opposition to the name change, could be flawed?
My entire point of this is that all the time these people spend arguing against changing the name, insulting people, making racist comments, bullying people on their Save Lee Facebook page, and writing letters to the paper calling us “spoiled children” is time they could have spent opening their hearts and minds to the possibility that something is wrong and needs to change.
Many members of the Facilities Names Committee, this community, and sadly people making decisions about the education of children in this district, refuse to acknowledge that the name of Lee High School is detrimental to anyone simply because they are not hurt by it. This was an argument made more than once during our meetings, “It doesn’t hurt me, so what’s the problem.” I appreciate one of the responses made by another committee member: “If you are on fire would you like my help or would you like me to say, ‘I don’t feel a thing. What’s the problem?’”. You cannot use your experience to make sense of someone else’s reality and far too many people on this committee and in this community do just that.
And whether Robert E. Lee was a great man, a great Christian, or “did something for education” (which one committee member claimed although she could not tell us exactly what that was) is irrelevant. The point that no one on the other side has yet to address is that the school was named in 1928, in the Jim Crow South, where historically naming schools to honor individuals such as Lee, was part of a broader effort to maintain racial hierarchy and remind people of color of their place in society. And if that name is allowed to remain on that school, we keep one foot in the past and continue to hold on to that dark part of our history.
I have a few more reflections regarding the committee. As part of the application process to being on the committee we had to state whether we were for or against a name change and to give our reasons. So essentially before we even had our first meeting members of the school board had already selected us knowing where we stood on this issue. And since we were told more than once, during our meetings, that our jobs were not to convince other people or to change other peoples’ minds, I am still unclear as to the point of the committee or certainly the point of the presentations during our last meeting.
Overall, the meetings were stressful and mentally and emotionally exhausting. And no, I am not an overly sensitive snowflake or a “spoiled child”. Rather, I am an author, researcher and professional developer that writes and presents across the country on cultural intelligence and cultural proficiency. One of the cornerstones of a culturally proficient individual or entity is empathy and alliance for groups other than one’s own. As I prepared for each meeting, I felt a sense of dread thinking about how I had to go and subject myself to the dismissive, hurtful, and often hateful and racist comments from individuals on the committee, some who were completely oblivious to their cultural destructiveness. At one point I contemplated resigning from the committee because I was so disgusted by some of the comments. As a white person, I decided to stay, because I could not imagine what those comments must have felt like to the people of color in that room, having to sit there, hearing firsthand from neighbors and fellow citizens, the racist remarks and complete lack of empathy or understanding. And what of having to endure that your entire life, to have to consistently fight for your seat at the table and for your voice to be heard? It must be completely exhausting and defeating!
Some of the most outspoken name change opponents in this community are educators in this district and at Lee High School. This fact breaks my heart. What kind of message are those individuals sending to their students of color, or to any student, for that matter, with such a complete inability to recognize or acknowledge how hurtful this entire situation is to so many people? Our empathy cannot end where our differences begin.
Lastly, this committee should never have existed. The school board should have voted to change the name of Lee High School without pause when they had the chance. Changing the status quo is a challenge, especially when you are dealing with something as systemic as white privilege and racism. We need people on our school board with the courage to do the right thing even if it goes against the majority. Doing what is right is not always the same as doing what is popular. The problem with so many people on the Facilities Names Committee, on our school board, and with so many in this community, is a complete lack of empathy. If more people would take pause, close their mouths, open their hearts and minds, and listen to their neighbors as their neighbors try to explain how and why the name of Lee High School is hurtful, we would not still be having this conversation. Until then, those of us on the right side of history will continue to beat this horse.
Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo is a life-long resident of Baytown and product of Goose Creek schools – Alamo, Cedar bayou and Lee. She is an education consultant who works closely with English language learners and teachers of ELLs in multiple capacities.She is the author of the book, “Pathways to Greatness for ELL Newcomers: A Comprehensive Guide for Schools and Teachers.”