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Speaking directly to the judge and to the historical record on the morning of his conviction under the Sedition Act in 1918, Eugene Debs outlined the stakes of solidarity in the language of his time:
"Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings…I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free."
The promise of America, and the power of all of its acquired economic, social, and political capital, was built with me in mind. Living with that understanding has meant grappling with the tension of my own relative systemic power and privilege. Of the challenges I have faced in my life, none have come from being gay or trans, disabled, racialized, minoritized, Indigenous, unhoused, impoverished, undocumented, or imprisoned. Solidarity means recognizing that my freedom and liberty as a straight white guy is tied to the freedom and liberty of all people: LGBTQ people, disabled people, racialized and minoritized people, Indigenous people, impoverished people, unhoused people, undocumented people, and imprisoned people.
And it’s with rapidly diminishing plausible deniability that our political institutions and elected officials embrace what can be understood as 21st century fascism; choosing to respond to the imminent issues of our time with prejudice and policing, appeals to exclusionary historical mythology and tradition, stifling the notion of education as a public good, and leveraging the vagaries of partisan culture-wars to intimidate and threaten violence against perceived opponents.
This is the context in which I joined friends and allies in Iowa City for the Zinn Education Project’s Teach Truth Day on June 10, 2023. It was an incredible celebration of solidarity and community against fear, division, and ignorance.
My full comments and pictures from the day are featured below:
Huge thanks to the local organizers of this event - Greg, Gabriella, & Mandi, Annie, Nicko - to the national organizers Zinn Ed Project, Black Lives Matter At School, & African-American Policy Forum. To all of the sponsors, and of course to you all attending, standing in solidarity with each other, with educators, with young people, with the future.
My name is Nick Covington. I taught social studies for 10 years at Ankeny High School, from 2012 to 2022, and I’m the co-founder and director of the Human Restoration Project, an Iowa progressive education nonprofit and a national co-sponsor for Teach the Truth Day of Action.
In my time at Ankeny I was a local union president. I was also briefly a state level organizer for ISEA, and was involved in the NEA Leaders for Just Schools program. Huge shout out to the Iowa City Education Association, AFSCME, SEIU, COGS/UE, U of I AAUP, all of our allies in labor, and specifically to Starbucks workers here in Iowa City who are the first store of their kind in the state of Iowa to unionize.
Solidarity and collective action are the only ways to make sustainable, democratic change in the face of anti-democratic institutions and the galloping authoritarianism embraced by our political leaders. And it’s why we’re here today.
A quick note, the incredible young people and student activists at Iowa WTF are here today too. They'll be keynoting my organization's virtual summer Conference to Restore Humanity alongside Antonia Darder, Cornelius Minor, and Jose Luis Vilson. If you want to get involved and join us for that just check out our website @ humanrestorationproject.org
The events that caused me to leave classroom teaching in Iowa began on January 6th, 2021. On that day and in the days that followed I watched and processed the unprecedented events at the nation’s capitol alongside my students and the rest of the world.
I recall pausing one video clip we were watching when I noticed a man with an unkempt graying beard wearing a black hoodie - perhaps you remember this too - that read in bold white letters, Camp Auschwitz, above the Nazi death’s head logo, below it, the words Work Brings Freedom, a take on the genocidal Arbeit Macht Frei slogan that still stands over the gates of the deathcamp museum in Poland today. A sign I have marched under alongside descendents of Holocaust survivors in the March of the Living, so we know what the stakes are.
I asked my AP European History students why that guy would choose to wear that shirt to perpetuate this act at our nation’s capital, why he would do it alongside so many other people waving American flags and wearing hats that read Make America Great Again? What could that mean?
Weeks later, I was pulled into a meeting based on one anonymous call from a parent concerned that I had called all Trump supporters Nazis. Something I never did. This was…a first for me, having discussed historical and current events, hot-button issues, and campaigns and elections fairly and objectively with students for years without issue up to that point. But this was just the beginning.
Later that spring, I taught my usual AP European History unit on nationalism, which includes issues in modern nationalism, where we ask “What does it mean to be French in France today?” Do you have to be a white, French-speaking Catholic? What does it mean to be British in Britain, Polish in Poland…What does it mean to be an American, in the United States of America?
Answering that question means understanding definitions of ethnic and civic nationalism and confronting the history of white supremacy and white nationalism in the US and around the world, which is as salient and vital of an issue as it has ever been. My students read and listened to what French nationalists like had to say about the perceived fear of globalization & immigration as it threatened their narrow vision of French identity. They listened to impassioned Brexiteers talk about “taking their country back”, and saw how virulent Islamophobia erupted in Poland as Eastern Europe dealt with the human consequences of the Syrian Civil War. We asked, is nationalism always a positive or negative force? Where, under what conditions, and for whom can nationalism be unifying or dividing?
Our sources also came from 2017's Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the most prominent display of white nationalism in recent American memory, as men in polo shirts, and Make America Great Again hats marched with tiki torches chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us,” and clashed with counter-protesters at the base of a statue commemorating Confederate General Robert E Lee.
After that, I was called into another meeting when another anonymous phone call was again concerned that the sources I used in class, which were again, Nazis and white supremacists speaking in their own words, “seemed to portray President Trump in an unfavorable light.”
And I will always remember the moment in that meeting where my principal told me with a straight face, “Current events do not belong in history class.”
I was also told that parents had gone to the school board and superintendent to try and get my license sanctioned, and I was forbidden from mentioning the word “Charlottesville” in class or referencing any of the content from the sources I had used. Our nationalism unit was cut short, and I was told I could not use any curricular material with students unless it was pre-approved by my principal.
In a follow-up meeting with HR, I was subjected to parent complaints which mentioned that I post about “left wing” topics on social media including my “affiliation with the Human Restoration Project”, and that I was “spending an exorbitant amount of time” covering US current events and electoral politics. This, of course, was in the context of the 2020 presidential election that had occurred the previous November amidst the ongoing COVID pandemic. I was teaching my European History course to sophomores who would not have another opportunity to directly experience a presidential election, in Iowa, during their time in high school. I had objectively and fairly taught every presidential cycle with every high school class since 2012, including the election of President Trump in 2016. Yet again, I was instructed by my building principal that “current events”, US campaigns and elections in this case, do not belong in a history class.
That summer I was made the target of right-wing organizations like the Iowa Young Republicans when I publicly opposed a bill mandating the Pledge of Allegiance be recited in schools. And when I signed the Zinn Ed Pledge to Teach Truth, a headline on the Iowa Standard, the largest right-wing online newspaper in the state, read “Ankeny teacher who pledged to teach CRT despite new state law decries ‘bullying.'" I was then targeted by Kimberly Reicks, the so-called Ankeny Mama Bear who was most recently arrested and pled guilty to making false reports of criminal acts, when she attached my Ankeny teacher page, email, and photo to a Facebook post demanding “Ankeny Community School District, what do you plan on doing with this teacher?’. Among the dozens of comments on her post read, “Tell him he will have to give up his job to a black person, who is superior to him in all ways.” and, referring to me, “this criminal needs to be fired.”
When that was not enough, in the fall of 2021, an anonymous “community member” started sending my building principal a regular annotated bibliography of my social media activity.
That December, I attended a school board meeting in solidarity with students protesting plans to remove challenged books from school libraries. When I quietly confronted a man seated in the audience who kept calling the student speakers “Satanists.” He made a scene of it and threatened to “take me outside.”
And in the spring of 2022, I was disciplined and made to take an unpaid day of leave when I spoke to a reporter on the record about the impact of Iowa’s so-called divisive concepts law on teaching Black History Month. I went home from that morning meeting and wrote up my resignation letter, effective June 1 of last year. It seems teachers are the only people who are not allowed to go on the record and talk about what is actually happening in classrooms.
This is not an exhaustive list of the complex motivations that caused me to leave teaching in Iowa, some factors — burnout, stagnant pay, incompetent governance, etc — are too universal an experience to go into much detail. However, the conditions for teaching in Iowa, and in the community of Ankeny in particular, have become politically toxic and unsustainable for conscientious teachers who aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations in the classroom, to teach the truth, speak openly in the face of intimidation, and stand up publicly for marginalized students. If this all happened while I was teaching at the #1 ranked public high school in the Des Moines metro area, you’d better believe it’s going on elsewhere.
Nationally, the culture war has become a dangerous theater for suppressing marginalized groups, enforcing anti-democratic political ideologies, and creating comfortable spaces for conspiracism and white supremacy to grow unchallenged.
In fact, on May 14th, 2022, just days before I walked out of my classroom for the final time, an 18-year old with access to guns and steeped in white supremacist conspiracy theories — like those that fueled the white rage on display in Charlottesville in 2017 and at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021 — targeted a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of Buffalo, New York and murdered at least 10 people.
As laws targeting so-called “divisive topics” intimidate and threaten teachers for having formal conversations and curriculum on these topics, we have to ask ourselves, if we aren’t talking to kids about the impact of these deadly ideas, who is?
For those of you who are taking a risk by speaking out openly and exercising creative noncompliance in your own context, I thank you. We are all going to need to take risks and leverage our relative power and privilege to build the world in which we want our kids to live.
Henry Giroux, a lifelong educator and author, connects our fading vision of the future to a lack of hope that we can ever actually imagine something radically different from the present, saying:
“At stake here is the courage to take on the challenge of what kind of world we want. What kind of future do we want to build for our children? The great philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted that hope taps into our deepest experiences and that without it reason and justice cannot prevail. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin…adds a call for compassion and social responsibility to this notion of hope, one that is indebted to those who follow us. He writes, ‘Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them. The moment we break with one another, the sea engulfs us and the lights go out.’”
Our solidarity with the future begins with the hope that a better future is possible. But if faith without works is dead, then we break faith with young people when our failure to act makes it less likely that future generations will get to live full and peaceful lives.
“Social justice is an intergenerational project,” writes Toby Rollo, a scholar of childhood and intergenerational justice, “The hardest thing to accept is that you’re not going to be the one who crosses the finish line. It’s not a sprint. It’s not a marathon. It’s a relay.”
We must stand with each other and with young people if we are to sustain the intergenerational project of America; if we are to keep the lights on, and the sea at bay.
In defiance of fear, division, & ignorance. Let today be a celebration of that project, and I’m looking forward to continuing the celebration with all of you. Thank you!