Debbie Almontaser: The Story of Khalil Gibran International Academy
In 2005, I was immersed in working with the Mayor's Office on the inauguration of Arab Heritage week. In the midst of this, New Visions for Public Schools, a school reform organization, decided to begin the development of an Arabic/Hebrew-language high school with a co-existence theme. After months of searching for an Arab-American educator to work on such a school, Adam Rubin contacted me after the recommendations from the Department of Education (DOE), the Mayor's office of Immigrant Affairs, and lastly, even from an Arab-American woman at a Brooklyn falafel stand.
Days later, I met with Adam Rubin from New Visions, and weeks later, I met with the president of New Visions. I then immersed myself in the school development process by attending DOE and the New Visions workshops where school themes and models were described. They led us to decide to teach only Arabic. Therefore, the school would become an Arabic Dual Language Program. I also initiated an informal feasibility study with educators, academics, politicians, community and civic leaders within the Arab-American community, multi-faith leaders, parents, students, and 9/11 families. For such a school to succeed, it was critical to show that there was both a dire need, and that there was also strong support among community groups.
New Visions required all of their schools to have a lead partner agency for the $400,000 Gates Foundation grant. Various academic institutions and non-profit groups were explored. It was also imperative to identify an institution the stakeholder communities felt comfortable with.
Months later, New Visions hosted a gathering for the Arab-American community to introduce the first Arabic dual-language school in New York City—joining eighty dual-language schools of various languages. The Arab-American community was charged to start the process! We ventured to identify a lead agency and a highly qualified educator to lead the school.
A lead agency was selected from two organizations that were nominated: the Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC), and the Brooklyn Cultural Center, which is responsible for opening the Alnoor Islamic School. After an arduous process, the committee determined that the AAFSC best met the lead agency application criteria. Shortly after, a principal selection committee was formed by the community, consisting of community organization heads and academics. I was encouraged to apply as well. Weeks later, I engaged in one of the most important interviews of my life. Days after the interview, the final candidate was announced and I was selected.
As the project director and principal, I was charged with assembling a school design team to write the proposal for submission to New Visions and DOE. The design team was ethnically and religiously diverse, comprised of educators, former principals, assistant principals, prospective parents, community members, and professionals. There were members of the team who spoke Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Chinese. The design team and I worked for the next six months developing the proposal and getting endorsement letters from the Arab-American community and the larger community to accompany the proposal. Incredibly, we had over eleven partnering groups such as the Tanenbaum Center for Inter-religious Understanding, the Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Conservatory for Music, Alwan for the Arts, and several others. We met weekends and weeknights and worked through the wee hours of the night to meet the New Visions and DOE deadlines. And finally, on December 1, 2006, we submitted the final proposal to the DOE.
Our objective was to establish a school that emphasized critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills through inquiry project-based learning. The Arabic language program was a critical component of the curriculum as well. Weeks later, the DOE approved Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA). Its creation was publicly announced along with eighty other schools being approved for the 2007–08 school year. KGIA made its national debut on February 12, 2007, in the New York Times. But only days later, right-wing bloggers began to create a negative narrative about the school. New Visions and the AAFSC had been responsible for preparing a school website and hiring a communications person, but at that point neither had happened. In spite of the steadily increasing attacks, I remained focused on the work ahead.
KGIA faced additional complications due to not having a home. The first location explored was P.S. 282 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, but the DOE, as is typically the case, had made no attempt to engage the community in assessing space feasibility. The parents of P.S. 282 protested against KGIA, landing it on the front page of local papers. The Brooklyn Paper headline was "Holy War! Slope Parents Protest Arabic School Plan," while the New York Sun proclaimed "A Madrassa Grows in Brooklyn" and "Arabic School Idea Is a Monstrosity." After weeks of parent protests, the DOE abandoned P.S. 282 and set its eyes on the Sarah J. Hale Campus in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, where two schools already existed, subjecting KGIA to even more parental opposition. However, after some negotiation, KGIA was accepted.
Our new school was given a fourth-floor wing that was separate from the two existing schools. However, one of the other schools negated these arrangements, which landed KGIA in an isolated space in that building which was not conducive to learning. The DOE decided to split up the cafeteria space into three classrooms and a main office with portable partitions.
In the midst of these challenges, I was ordering furniture and textbooks, recruiting students, dealing with media requests, and interviewing potential staff. Teachers from across the country were applying to teach at KGIA. The staff I finally hired was ethnically and racially diverse. Despite the media hype, they were very excited to be part of the founding staff. We began our journey with weeks of professional development in all subject areas, including Arabic language and cultural studies.
As I agonized about when the furniture was going to arrive and the partitions would go up, those who opposed the school did everything in their power to undermine its opening. The DOE's continued commitment to opening the school infuriated these individuals, and they started attacking me based on my ethnicity and religion. They plastered pictures of me in my headscarf on websites and blogs with unfounded allegations that I was a radical Islamist with an agenda to radicalize youth. They distorted my words in local and national papers to make me seem anti-American. A 2007 New York Sun article cited a 2003 article (about who was responsible for 9/11) which quoted me as saying, "I don't recognize the people who committed the attacks as either Arabs or Muslims"—leaving the false impression that I denied that individuals of this background were responsible. The New York Sun left out the second half of the quote, in which I vehemently condemned those individuals for 9/11. The second part of the quote stated, "Those people who did it have stolen my identity as an Arab and have stolen my religion."
I never thought I would be at the center of such attacks given the number of years I have worked in public education and interfaith work. The charge was led by Daniel Pipes, the head of the Middle East Forum, and Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a Board of Trustees member at the City University of New York. Accompanying them were Pamela Geller, a right-wing blogger, later to be infamous for her attack on the Park51 Muslim community center in lower Manhattan, and a few others who formed a group called "Stop the Madrassa Coalition" (STM Coalition). The DOE tried to counter some of the attacks in various media. However, by July 2007, the STM Coalition were appearing at events where they hurled Islamophobic rhetoric at me. This included accusations that I was a 9/11 denier; a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah; part of the U.S. history revisionist movement (which denies that the Holocaust occurred); and that I was going to teach children Sharia law, and to hate Christians and Jews.
These people seemed to believe that as an observant Muslim woman I should be disqualified from leading KGIA, regardless of the fact that the school is rigorously secular and required to meet the same educational standards that all New York City public schools are. They disregarded that its namesake, Khalil Gibran, was a Lebanese Christian—and an internationally revered poet and philosopher of peaceful coexistence. To further perpetuate anti-Arab prejudice, they continually referenced me by my Arabic name, which I have chosen not to use professionally for many years.
In August 2007, the STM Coalition found the ultimate pretext to ignite a media firestorm. In their quest to shut the school down they made efforts to somehow connect me to "Intifada NYC" t-shirts made by a youth organization called Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM). A New York Post reporter persistently sought my comments. I saw no reason to speak to any media since the t-shirts had nothing to do with KGIA or me. Upon the DOE's insistence, however, a three-way phone interview with the reporter from the New York Post, a DOE press person, and me took place. During the interview, the reporter asked about my affiliation with AWAAM. I explained that there was no affiliation, and that I was a board member of a social service organization that shared office space with AWAAM.
Lastly, the reporter then asked about the origin of the word "intifada." I said that the Arabic root word from which the word intifada originates means "shake off" and that it has evolved over time to have different meanings for different people, but certainly for many, given its association with the Palestinian/Israeli conflict during which thousands have died, it is associated with violence. In response to a further question about the teenage girls of AWAAM, I expressed my belief they were not going to engage in a "Gaza-style uprising" in New York City, as the reporter had claimed. These were inner-city youth in a summer program that gave them the opportunity to engage in an arts and media program.
Sadly, the next day's New York Post distorted my words about the root word of intifada, making it seem that I had minimized the historical context of the Intifada. Friends and allies paid the story no mind. However, others believed it, regardless of my record of extensive interfaith work. The DOE press secretary called and questioned why I had spoken about the t-shirts. I explained that I had, as an educator, discussed the root word of "intifada" to give contextual information of a word that many have limited knowledge about. The press person on the call with me had had no objection to my doing so. She did not interject or interrupt me.
A New York Sun reporter said that in an earlier interview I refused to answer questions about Hezbollah and Hamas. This was because in response to her question I asked if it would be asked of the 1,500 other public school principals. She responded "No," but nevertheless the New York Sun considered my answer an evasion. In any case, after the New York Post interview, the press person who had been on the call with me let me know I did a good job, and she believed that it went well.
Hours later, the phones began ringing. The press secretary informed me that the Chancellor and the senior leadership had decided the "best way" to deal with this matter was to issue a statement. I was pleased to hear this at first. But shockingly, the DOE wanted me to issue an apology, even though I knew that I had neither done nor said anything wrong. I did what I had planned to do with students at KGIA—speak on an issue while making sure to provide all perspectives on it.
After some back and forth about why an apology might be the best strategy, the press secretary stated, "It is in your best interest to do as we advise you if you want to see the school open." He knew there was nothing more important to me than to see this historical school open. I was deeply troubled; the last thing I wanted to do was condemn an organization serving young Arab women and girls of color, or send a negative message about freedom of expression. Soon I realized that the DOE was caving into pressure. To ensure the school's opening, I put my pride aside and compromised my views; but as I had feared, matters continued to get worse. The members of STM Coalition seized the moment to attack me. Randi Weingarten, at the time the New York City United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president, immediately attacked me in the New York Post without inquiring about what actually happened. She stated that the word "intifada" should have been condemned, rather than defined.
DOE officials missed the opportunity to stand against bigotry. They should have simply said that it was clear that neither KGIA nor I had any connection to the t-shirts. They should have pointed out that I had devoted my entire adult life to the peaceful resolution of conflict and to building bridges between ethnic and religious communities. In other words, they should have said that the attacks were utterly baseless. Instead, the DOE changed course and decided I should have condemned the word, not explained it, and that I also should have condemned the motives of the young Arab women's group that made the t-shirt.
By the end of the week, I was forced to resign by the Mayor and DOE. The people whom I had worked closely with and trusted unconditionally literally reduced me to a word—ignoring my qualifications. Shortly after, the DOE and New Visions replaced me with Danielle Salzberg, a New Visions employee and former assistant principal, who had no Arabic language or cultural expertise, nor any connection to New York City's Arab communities.
In the weeks following my forced resignation, I secluded myself to ensure that the school opened. However, activists, educators, local and civic leaders, and community groups did not believe I simply resigned. They wanted answers from Mayor Bloomberg and the DOE. These individuals and groups recognized that Daniel Pipes and other right-wing groups were launching a campaign much wider than KGIA to cast doubts and suspicion on Arab and Muslim Americans who were seeking to expand their positions in the United States.
On August 20, 2007, these individuals and groups who supported me organized a rally in front of the DOE on Chambers Street demanding answers. I was deeply touched by the outpouring of support. This rally spurred the formation of a group called Communities in Support of KGIA, a coalition of organizations seeking to challenge the blatant racism that had occurred and to fight for a just and equitable public education system.
Simultaneously, Alan Levine offered his legal services, which I was thrilled about. He is a long-time and noted civil rights attorney and a social justice activist going back to the Civil Rights Movement, and he quickly assembled a legal team and led the charge. Our first step was filing a claim in federal court against the DOE and City for infringing on my First Amendment rights in November 2007.
In February 2008, we appeared at the Court of Appeals. The judges, after hearing the argument, sharply criticized the City for its mishandling of the controversy surrounding the school and me. One of the judges said, "I can't believe the city really wants to take that position, that if there is a disruptive response to a misleading article that unfairly quotes a city employee, then they get disciplined. That's a very unattractive position for a city to take." It was very gratifying to finally hear a judge state I was unjustly treated. However, my lawyers also filed a discrimination complaint with the Federal Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC). In March 2010, when we least expected it, the EEOC determination was released. It found that my forced resignation was discriminatory on account of my "race, religion and national origin," and that the DOE had "succumbed to the very bias that the creation of the school was intended to dispel." The EEOC declared that I "had no connection whatsoever" with the t-shirts and that "a small segment of the public succeeded in imposing its prejudices on the DOE as an employer." The DOE called the ruling baseless. I cannot describe the tremendous relief I felt being vindicated in that way—a vindication not only for me, but for all those facing discrimination and bigotry.
As months went by after the school's opening, teachers I had hired reported that the new administration compromised the school's mission and vision. The Arabic-language program suffered immensely. Teachers who spoke out felt badly treated and were finally driven out of the school by the third principal, Holly Anne Reichert, who had quickly replaced Salzberg. In its first year, the school also experienced a high rate of violent incidents, leading many families to pull their children out.
KGIA's second school year, 2008–2009, was also turbulent. The DOE relocated KGIA to another P.S. 287, where it again faced some initial opposition from the host school community. The new location was far from the Arab-American community that KGIA had set out to serve, and was difficult to access by public transportation. KGIA staff and families did not learn of this move until they read about it in the paper. Additionally, prior to the move the DOE had informed the P.S. 287 families that KGIA would only function as a middle school, rather than a 6–12 grade school, as it had been envisioned.
In March 2010, the school received its fourth principal after the EEOC Determination unearthed that there had been three Arab Americans apply for the position when I did, but that the DOE selectively decided to pass them up. Shortly thereafter, the DOE abruptly removed Reichert as principal, and replaced her with Bashir Abdellatif, one of the Arab-American candidates who applied back in 2007, and who had become a principal at another high school.
Now in its fourth year, KGIA survives but is significantly under-enrolled. It has only 109 students when it should have close to 200. Among those enrolled, the number of Arabic-speaking students remains very low. For the most part, many Arab-American families have pulled their children out the school for safety and transportation reasons. It is no longer functioning as an Arabic dual-language school; it just offers Arabic as a foreign language. For the 2009–2010 school year, KGIA received a C on the NYC Progress Report, for poor student performance and progress in ELA (English Language Arts) and Math. The DOE recently announced it intends to relocate KGIA to another building in September 2011, phase out the middle school, and turn it into a high school. This completely undermines the possibility of it ever becoming an Arabic dual-language school.
In the last four years, I have gone through a lot, both professionally and personally. I have learned a great deal about myself, my family, working for a bureaucratic institution, the politics of my city, and New Yorkers. I persevered because of the love and support of my family and of complete strangers who saw my struggle as their own, and gave me the will to battle an institution that many feared to challenge. Shortly after the EEOC Determination, I asked my lawyers to refrain from initiating additional litigation on the EEOC Discrimination claim. I decided that it was time for me to move on with my professional and personal life. Additional litigation of the discrimination claim would mean reliving the unfortunate and painful events of August 6–10, 2007, when news stories daily distorted my words and attacked my work, my integrity, and my reputation—and when I was publicly betrayed by people to whom I had given loyal service, including the Mayor, the Chancellor, and longtime colleagues in the interfaith community.
While I have endured a great injustice at the hands of people I trusted, the far larger offense has been to the Arab and Muslim communities of the United States. In the years since 9/11, these communities have been at the center of the most vile and hateful attacks. The attacks on me are part of a larger campaign to intimidate and silence marginalized communities. In response to these attacks I wholeheartedly continue to work with various groups locally and nationally to challenge Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia.
The Campaign of Resistance
I did not know Debbie Almontaser and did not know anything about the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), but when I learned that a Muslim and Arab principal of an Arabic Dual Language school was the victim of a racist smear campaign orchestrated mostly by Jewish bigots—it hit me in my gut. A second hit in the gut was reading UFT President Randy Weingarten's letter, which further fueled the flames of bigotry. It said, "While the city's teacher's union initially took an open-minded approach to this school, both parents and teachers have every right to be concerned about children attending a school run by someone who doesn't instinctively denounce campaigns or ideas tied to violence." Members of the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF), of which I am part, felt as I did and did not want Weingarten to go unchallenged. CIF immediately wrote a letter to her that included the following: "Aside from everything else that points to the racist nature of this whole incident, do you not know that in most parts of the world, the word intifada connotes resistance to an unethical and illegal and brutal occupation? It is not the word intifada that promotes violence or that should be denounced; rather, what should be denounced is an occupation that promotes violence and that made the intifada necessary."
Within a day of sending out CIF's letter on listservs, we heard from Mona Eldahry of Arab Women in the Arts and Media (AWAAM) who asked if we wanted to help plan and participate in a rally, being quickly organized, in support of Debbie and the school. CIF joined individuals and groups that gathered from across the city to denounce anti-Arab racism and anti-Muslim bigotry and to demand that the DOE re-instate Debbie to her position as KGIA's principal.
After that spirited rally, several organizations came together to create Communities in Support of KGIA (CISKGIA). The steering committee groups included AWAAM, CIF, Brooklyn for Peace, Muslim Consultative Network, Greater New York Labor-Religion Coalition, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. The steering committee representatives were Mona Eldahry, Carol Horowitz, Erica Waples, Fatin Jarara, Elly Bulkin, Adem Carroll, Michael Feinberg, Ayla Schoenwald, Ray Wofsy, and myself.
We spoke out in opposition to those who were responsible for the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim attacks on Debbie, on AWAAM, and on the school, but we were particularly committed to holding the DOE accountable for its actions and for the consequences of those actions. We always looked at what happened from a broader lens. This was part of a larger struggle for justice and for self-determination of communities being assaulted and demonized. And, with tremendous implications for the integrity of a public education system, the demonization had been sanctioned by a government institution responsible for the education of our children.
We also reached out to our allies and engaged in outreach within many different communities across the city—low-income and communities of color, immigrant communities, Jewish and Muslim groups, organizations focusing on public education, and other peace and justice groups. Hundreds of groups endorsed this effort, and many participated with us in our organizing.
We held a number of community events with educators, social justice activists, and with Muslim and Jewish leaders from across the country. They all wrote moving statements and letters of support to the Mayor and DOE demanding Debbie's reinstatement. We were able to garner support from academics, educators, community activists, and interfaith leaders from across the country. We also received support from politicians, but we were clear that they would not dictate our direction. A priority for us at all times was our work with parents and teachers at the school. One of our large community events featured teachers who shared information about how the school was falling apart from the inside, a fact that the DOE refused to acknowledge. Parents expressed feeling marginalized and that their voices were being ignored by school officials, and a number of teachers ended up feeling intimidated by the DOE or felt that they were being pushed out for speaking the truth.
We tried to reach inside as many new communities as possible. At one point, a number of people from the Jewish community made clear they would not join the coalition if AWAAM were part of it. We felt they were putting Debbie into the category of the "good" Arab and AWAAM as the "bad" Arab. That is, since AWAAM had put out the intifada t-shirts, they were "tainted" with the anti-Israel brush and were therefore not considered "kosher" partners. We emphatically rejected this proposal, believing it perpetuated the very bias we opposed, and were unanimous in our decision to remain true to who we were, which was a coalition that had AWAAM in its leadership.
In addition to rallies, educational and community programs, ongoing outreach, and letter-writing campaigns, our media strategy was a priority since the media was at the center of the controversy. We worked to reframe the debate, ensuring that the real story was told—by Debbie and by the young women of AWAAM, and not by the media or the racists. We wanted to be sure the voices of those who had been silenced and distorted were out there. We also wanted to be certain that we always framed our comments within the larger context of justice for marginalized communities and of holding our government institutions (in this case, the DOE) accountable.
We held press conferences, put out statements, and "busted" one of the press conferences of our anti-Muslim opponents. In this struggle, we had media on top of us all the time, so we had to be discerning about what types of media we thought were valuable to respond to and pursue. We devoted a lot of time to thinking this through. Fortunately, we benefited from the wisdom of AWAAM members whose work focused on the media, and we also worked together with Riptide Communications, particularly when the media requests became overwhelming.
Several filmmakers also contacted us wanting to do documentaries, but, after much deliberation and meetings with some of them, we only granted interviews to one person who seemed honest and ethical (and who ended up creating a film, Intifada NYC).
We also worked closely with Debbie's legal team, led by civil rights lawyer Alan Levine. We discussed political strategy together, making certain the voices of the community were front and center, which was always honored by the legal team. Since Alan Levine is my husband, rather than offering more of my own views about our relationship with the legal team, I will quote what Mona Eldahry has said:
Working on the campaign to support KGIA, I've learned exactly what a meaningful collaboration between a legal team and community organizers looks like. We at CISKGIA were working to ensure that the DOE would provide the school with the resources it needed to succeed, including the leadership it deserved. Debbie's legal team was set to ensure that her civil rights and her rights as an employee were protected. Our work together ensured that both paths would lead to justice for students and community-members who saw, as the EEOC later determined, that the Mayor and the DOE ousted a school leader because she was Arab.
Our coalition met as much as was humanly possible. Everyone was passionate and deeply committed.
CISKGIA is the most respectful, collaborative coalition I have ever been part of. We all learned with and from one another. Leadership was shared amongst our groups; there was never a struggle over power. We all understood the importance of AWAAM's leadership (and I must add that Mona Eldahry and the other AWAAM representatives were extremely inspiring). We worked in sync with the legal team.
How does one gauge success in such an undertaking? While Debbie did not return to KGIA, as we had all hoped would happen, in fact something powerful did happen. Communities and individuals from every background came together and were relentless in demanding that our institutions be held accountable for promoting racism and bigotry. Most importantly, the story of what had actually happened was told and re-told by those who had lived and experienced it. And with the EEOC Determination, the story was also told in the legal arena, which reflected the truth as we knew it to be. All in all, critical relationships were developed, connections were made amongst our many interrelated struggles, and community power was built that reverberates to this day. We all remain personally and politically connected in deep ways and are working closely together—some of us with groups to challenge Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia; some in groups for justice in Palestine—which I think reflects the power and strength of the community that so many of us built together and the justice of the cause.
The struggle definitely continues.
EEOC Concludes NYC Ed. Dept. Discriminated Against Almontaser