Kelsey Blackwell isn’t surprised that a national conservative advocacy group filed a federal complaint against Portland Public Schools over its support group for employees of color.

A California-based writer who has written about the necessity for such groups and whose work is referenced on the Portland group’s webpage, Blackwell says seeing the value of such affinity groups involves accepting the presence of systemic oppression.

“Understanding the need for these spaces (for people of color) requires understanding the existence of systemic oppression,” Blackwell said. “So if you’re going to try to explain the space to the body that is not aware, or does not acknowledge systemic oppression, this space will not make sense.”

The Jan. 3 complaint filed by national conservative group Parents Defending Education with the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights division accuses the district of violating the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Parents Defending Education wrote in its complaint that Portland Public Schools’ description of its BIPOC Community Circle does not make participation “open to all.”

“PDE makes this complaint as an interested third-party organization that opposes racial discrimination and political indoctrination in America’s schools,” Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, stated in her complaint to the DOE.

Parents Defending Education is based in Arlington, Virginia, but has filed civil rights complaints against schools across the country. The group identifies itself as a grassroots organization working to reclaim schools from “activists imposing harmful agendas,” fight indoctrination and promote non-political education. It argues that teaching students about race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and gender is anti-American and anti-child.


Parents Defending Education did not respond to requests for interviews about its complaint this week.

The BIPOC Community Circle was formed in 2017, according to the Portland school district’s website. It provides social gatherings, career and emotional support and does advocacy work.

It’s not clear who its members are, how often it meets, what kind of career and emotional support is provided and whether there is any funding associated with the community circle or any of the district’s affinity groups. School district equity leaders were not able to speak on Wednesday but said they would be available Thursday.

Providing opportunities for people of color to gather is a way to support those who are most affected by oppression, Blackwell said. “What happens in those spaces is an opportunity to recognize and support each other as we navigate the impacts of living in unjust systems.”

Blackwell said that, while sharing certain racial identities does not mean all experiences will be shared, there are likely going to be some shared ordeals that lead to greater understanding.

“There is a certain amount of vulnerability that sharing these experiences requires. If we feel threatened or feel the possibility of being judged, gaslighted or discounted it doesn’t create an environment where healing can occur.”


Blackwell said the easiest way to explain the need for these spaces is to help someone imagine ways in which they’ve been marginalized.

“Say you are in a Muslim-dominated country and you’re Christian,” she said. “Having a space where you can gather with other Christians to discuss your spiritual practices might be a space that you need.”

Parents Defending Education has filed complaints with the DOE against schools from New York to California and many places in between, often regarding affinity groups or other spaces for marginalized groups to gather.

While the involvement of national organizations in local issues that could advance their cause isn’t novel, the focus on legal action as opposed to political action is new, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University.

Henig said that national conservative groups like Parents Defending Education often look for places with more extreme policies they can push against as test cases to see see how it plays out.

The Portland school district has not been contacted by the Department of Education about the complaint, according to a written statement Tuesday from outgoing Superintendent Xavier Botana.

When the U.S. DOE receives a civil rights complaint the Office of Civil Rights evaluates the information in the complaint to decide whether it should be further investigated and if investigating is under the office’s jurisdiction. If it decides it can and should investigate the complaint it will notify the complainant and the recipient of the complaint.

Botana said in his Tuesday statement that if the DOE contacts the district it will cooperate fully.

“We are proud of our efforts to support our marginalized student and staff communities and will be happy to discuss them with the USDOE should they decide to pursue this matter,” he said.

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