A Portland Public Schools affinity group for staff members of color kept a low profile for several years until it became entangled this month in the national culture war over the direction of public education.

The district’s BIPOC Community Circle is an informal space for Portland staff of color to connect, chat and support one another, said Barret Wilkinson, the district’s director of diversity, equity and inclusion. It doesn’t have a strict meeting schedule, but members usually gather at least monthly. Participation varies. Sometimes two people show up, sometimes 20. There are no funds or resources specifically allocated to the group or its members, Wilkinson said.

BIPOC Community Circle meetings are “like any other gathering among staff, an opportunity to form connections with people across schools or departments,” Wilkinson said. BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and people of color.

On Jan. 3, the conservative group Parents Defending Education filed a complaint against the school district with the United States Department of Education alleging that it violated the U.S. Constitution, broke federal law and discriminated against staff by maintaining the affinity group for BIPOC staff. The complaint highlighted the online description of the group, which says that the community circle “welcomes all Black, Indigenous, Asian, Middle-Eastern, and mixed race staff members,” and a link on the school district’s website to an article titled “Why People of Color Need Spaces Without White People.”

It is illegal under federal law for any entity that receives federal funds or other federal assistance to discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.

Parents Defending Education has made similar civil rights complaints against school districts across the country, a move some experts say could be a politically motivated attempt to use hot-button culture issues to divide communities and retaliate against efforts to increase equity and inclusion, and support students of color. It is unclear if the complaint will lead to a DOE investigation, but the group has been successful in forcing policy changes in the past.


The Portland school district has not received any internal complaints about the BIPOC Community Circle, which has been around since 2017. No staff member who was not a person of color has ever asked to join, Wilkinson said, noting that staff are usually thrilled to find out about the district’s affinity groups, regardless of whether they identify with any of them.

“People see (affinity groups) as a thing that is welcoming and helps create belonging,” Wilkinson said.

Although 50 percent of the district’s students identify as people of color, only 14 percent of the staff do. Wilkinson said the affinity group can help employees who might feel marginalized find support in the 86 percent white staff.


The Portland Press Herald could not identify or directly reach out to members of the group. Wilkinson said he would contact members of the group for the newspaper but none reached out to talk with a reporter.

When asked what would happen should a white staff member try to join the group, Wilkinson said that the question fed into a “problematic narrative,” and he asked why a white person would want to join a group that is for a marginalized group of people. “Our affinity groups are about building community, belonging and inclusion,” Wilkinson said. 


Kelsey Blackwell, a California-based writer who has written about the value of such groups and whose work is referenced on Portland’s affinity group web page, said spaces for people of color without white people allow those who may have a shared experience of being marginalized for their outward appearance to support each other and share their stories openly.

Wilkinson said it’s frustrating to have this complaint filed against a school district for a program that is largely popular in the district and is created to support teachers.

The national teacher shortage makes it even more important for the district to do anything it can to encourage teacher retention, Wilkinson said. Having affinity groups is one tactic. “If staff feel included and supported they’re more likely to stay,” Wilkinson said, adding later that “teacher retention builds experience and that positively impacts students.”


Parents Defending Education, which is based in Virginia, has filed civil rights complaints similar to the one filed against Portland all across the country. It identifies itself as a grassroots group 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.

It’s not clear how many members it has in how many states or how it is funded. PDE did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. The president of the group, Nicole Neily, has worked for conservative and libertarian organizations and is known to be associated with influential far right conservative leaders. She was paid $192,500 for her work at Parents Defending Education in 2021, tax records show.


The group’s complaint against Portland schools alleges the district violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin and the Equal Protection Act of the U.S. Constitution, which gives equal protection to all people.

“As the Department of Education is no doubt aware, segregation on the basis of race raises concerns that Portland Public Schools has received federal funds in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Neily said in the complaint.

Once the DOE’s Office of Civil Right’s receives a complaint it evaluates the complaint and decides whether it should be 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.

Xavier Botana, Portland’s outgoing superintendent, said this week that the district had not heard from the DOE regarding the complaint but that if it does it will cooperate fully.


A DOE spokesperson said the agency could not speak to the Press Herald regarding the complaint because its civil rights division does not acknowledge complaints until it has decided if it should be further investigated.


If the DOE investigates and determines that a law it enforces was broken, it can be resolved through either a voluntary resolution with the recipient, the DOE can enforce a resolution or it can refer the issue to the U.S. Department of Justice for litigation and enforcement.

It’s not clear how many of Parents Defending Education’s complaints have been successful in changing policy or practice, and experts have mixed opinions on whether the complaint filed against Portland schools will go anywhere. However, in at least a few instances the group’s complaints about affinity groups or events specifically for BIPOC community members have led to investigations. The group also has been successful in multiple lawsuits.

Experts say actions by groups like Parents Defending Education may be part of a larger conservative movement to sow disruption in local communities and as a backlash against equity and inclusion initiatives.

“It’s worth looking into the idea that this is part of an entrepreneurial effort by culture warriors on the right to contrive wedge issues that will divide centrists and folks on the left from one another,” said Jeffrey Selinger, an associate professor of government at Bowdoin College.

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