Certain members of the community, dissatisfied with the school’s new anti-racism and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives, created the Instagram account @wokeathw on Sept. 7 to highlight what they claim are pitfalls of allegedly biased and damaging curriculum changes. The anonymous owners of the account described the school’s anti-racism work as “a fashionable but destructive agenda.”
In an email exchange with The Chronicle, the account’s founders said the “Woke at Harvard-Westlake Project” is run by many members of the community, including students, faculty and parents from a variety of backgrounds.
“We are united in our respect for Harvard-Westlake as an institution and in our opposition to political activism, indoctrination and intolerance masquerading as progress or education,” the founders said. “We have received a significant number of submissions, and an even larger number of private messages of encouragement, from all corners of the Harvard-Westlake community.”
Though the account has received criticism from some students, the founders said their mission has garnered widespread support from those too fearful to speak up, drawing comparisons between the school’s implementation of its anti-racism policies and the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union.
“We’ve received encouragement from several members of the school, both faculty and admin, who are afraid they will lose their jobs if they do not pretend to be enthusiastic about HW’s new mission,” they said. “The situation is grimly analogous to the story about Stalin’s speeches; everyone is afraid to be the first person to stop clapping.”
The account was first active Sept. 7 and posted 11 testimonials before going silent for over two weeks. However, two news sites, The Daily Wire and Red State, each ran articles discussing the account Sept. 21, though the creators said they knew nothing about them until their publication.
As the account continued to grow, current students found it and began to comment, some to argue the claims made by the posts or original commenters. This was when the account turned off comments on their posts, though the creators said they did not take this measure to prevent conversation but rather to stop people who were merely attempting to create controversy.
“It absolutely wasn’t because students were commenting,” the founders said. “It was because as the page gained attention, it drew in people with no connection to the school who were there to troll and fight. This also resulted in so many comments being posted that we were unable to effectively monitor them.”
Emery Genga ’21, one of the most prolific commenters, said she engaged with the account because she felt someone had to stand up to what she considered to be degrading posts and comments.
“I was not okay with the things that were being said, and I was not comfortable with just sitting there and letting their negativity go unchallenged,” Genga said. “I also felt like the account was drastically misrepresenting Harvard-Westlake, and I care about my school too much to let that happen.”
Ben Davidoff ’20, one of the account’s followers from the school community, said he supports both the founder’s message and the fight for racial and social equality.
“I think to a certain extent, the measures that [the administration] put in place start to hit the academic integrity of [the school],” Davidoff said. “And they start to compromise certain things in favor of more representation, I guess, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that’s the trade-off that they’re making. They’re giving some here and taking some there.”
President Rick Commons said the school remains open-minded and flexible to finding the best approach to its anti-racism work. However, he said he was discouraged that the account misrepresented and criticized the school anonymously, as that prevented the opportunity for growth.
“As important as the DEI and anti-racism work is, it’s also important for us to hear concerns and questions and different perspectives that are offered in good faith,” Commons said. “We’re going to find that, in this really difficult progress that we’re trying to make, that we don’t get it 100% right. And so we need to have the conversations with people who have questions and concerns and can offer those questions and concerns in good faith. I was disappointed in the wokeathw [account] because it didn’t seem to be contributing to the kind of good faith that enables the work to be done together.”
Some of the account’s posts were factually incorrect or misleading. One post claimed that the school has “refused to have any conservative speakers” despite the fact that the school hosted President Trump’s original Secretary of Labor nominee, Andrew Puzder, in 2018 and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in the 2017-2018 school year. Unlike some of the other posts, this one does not include any clarification on what year this student testimonial came from. Another post from a member of the class of 2018 said they had never seen a conservative speaker at the school, despite the assembly featuring Hewitt occurring during their senior year.
Another post claims Associate Head of School Laura Ross “appears to endorse” the 1619 Project, when, in the video the account posted, she made no mention of the project. In the video, she said racism was a “pandemic” that had been in the country since the year 1619. Ross herself later confirmed she was not referring to the 1619 project.
Two separate posts criticized Middle School Dean Jon Carroll for praising two female activists with a history of anti-Semitism. While factually accurate, the posts omit that Carroll apologized on two separate occasions. The creators confirmed they had seen these apologies, yet they did not take action to acknowledge such in the posts.
Hayley Rothbart ’21, who leads the HW Jewish club, said she agreed Carroll did make an error, though she feels he didn’t mean harm and believes the account should have posted his apology.
“I will admit there was a misstep on Dr. Carroll’s part during his community flex time,” Rothbart said. “As a Jewish student, it was crazy to me how he’d never heard about Tamika Mallory’s involvement with Nation of Islam, but knowing Dr. Carroll, I truly don’t think he meant any harm. The account is only telling one side of the story. Of course people will be outraged if they only hear [his comments]. The account should tell the full story. Presenting so many statements without any context is dangerous and unfair.”
Additionally, many of the posts are simply screenshots of emails or assignments without commentary or explanation of how they damage the curriculum in the way the account claims they do. One post shows a homework assignment tasking students with annotating specific words, and another shares the account’s problems with a class titled “Racism, Antiracism, and You” teaching students about historical racism.
Some students said they took issue with a post that said “my teacher has a Black Lives Matter picture and a We Are On Native Land picture on our home page.” Genga said she had multiple concerns about this post, specifically the implications that go along with it.
“They’re framing this like it’s a bad thing, which is just so ridiculous to me,” Genga said. “First of all, saying we’re on native land is like saying that the sky is blue. It’s just a fact. One common concern in a bunch of these posts is that teachers are bringing politics into the classroom. But these two things are not political.”
The creators said they posted this because they feel it is inappropriate for teachers to share “political slogans,” comparing the two statements to a Trump sign. Asked if they considered “Black Lives Matter” to be political, they called the question a “gotcha” question and did not respond to further requests for clarification.
The account also criticized what it considered to be over-politicization with these new changes, though Commons said the administration specifically designed them not to be so.
“It is by no means our intention for our DEI and anti-racism work to be political,” Commons said. “It is our stated intention for it not to be political, for it to be educational and not political. That’s hard for us to accomplish, and it’s hard for people to feel that way because of the politicized environment. In terms of solutions, I do have hope, and it really rests with students. I really believe that the concerns that people have, that I’ve been responding to, have mostly come from parents, mostly from parents who are worried that the school is indoctrinating students in a particular point of view. And I think students themselves, especially our older students, can reassure the broader parent, alumni, faculty and staff and administrative community that we’re engaged in this work in ways that are about community and about education and about improving our world and [that are not] divisive and political.”
Additionally, in the account’s mission statement, the creators said they believe the school did not follow the proper method for instituting these changes.
“Over the summer, the Harvard-Westlake administration enacted sweeping changes in a matter of weeks for which it solicited no input from the HW community – not from its students, parents, faculty, alumni or donors,” they said. “We expect more from a school that is known for conducting methodical reviews, weighing options and building a consensus before implementing changes far less significant than these.”
Commons denied these claims, saying the administration made an informed decision after meeting with members of multiple groups from the school and followed their usual procedure.
“There was a really thorough process that involved the school leadership team, the board of trustees and some consultation with students and listening to parents when we created the DEI commitments, which headline the document that we sent out in July,” Commons said. “So I feel strongly that the work that led to the DEI commitments was done with a process that was typical of the way we approach changes at the school and statements about our values.”
Genga said she thinks the school is moving in the right direction by implementing these changes and is optimistic they can help make a difference.
“With everything going on in the world, I think it was super important for the school to implement this anti-racist education,” Genga said. “I think if more schools around the country were to implement this education into their curriculum, even in a small way, the world could be a lot better for future generations.”
*Note: This is a longer, more in-depth edit than the one that appeared in the print edition of the second issue of The Chronicle. Check here for the original.