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Orange County parent leads effort to banish racist symbols
Published Friday, December 29, 2017
by Maria Magher, Correspondent

HILLSBOROUGH – Maya Angelou said, “I think a hero is any person really intent on making this a better place for all people.”

Through that definition and others, Latarndra Strong (yellow coat) is a hero – though she probably wouldn’t think of herself that way.

“She’ll do anything for you. She will break her neck to help someone. She will sacrifice to the ‘nth’ degree to do for others,” said her longtime friend, Ali Braswell.

Strong has been a foster parent to 17 teenagers over the past decade. She has helped people in her church, including inviting a single mother and her children to live with her while she got back on her feet. Braswell says Strong helps others “often to the detriment of herself.”

It wasn’t until Strong was sitting in the car line to pick up her daughter from school one day that the wheels started turning that put her in the public spotlight. The day that she saw a confederate flag on the back of a pickup truck in front of her set off a chain of events that led her to form the Hate Free Schools Coalition, to getting the confederate flag and other racist symbols banned from Orange County Schools, and to becoming The Triangle Tribune’s 2017 Newsmaker of the Year.

“I was just a mom who wrote a letter,” Strong said of how her journey got started. She said that she had actually been so afraid of public speaking that she joined Toastmasters, so “I was the most unlikely person to do this. I didn’t even anticipate that we would still be an organization today, but I feel like our community is calling for it.”

The HSFC started that day in the pickup line in December 2016, though Strong didn’t know it then. She saw that confederate flag and talked to the principal, who talked to the driver about removing the flag.

But she still noticed the emblem in other places around school, such as on shirts or belt buckles, and her daughter reported seeing the flag also. Strong then wrote a letter to the principal, the school board, and others about banning the flag and other racist symbols from the schools.

She said the letter “went viral” with people sharing it with others, and she started getting calls from people who wanted to get involved or who just wanted to chat about the issue. Strong said that during one of those meetings, she didn’t feel safe because the person clearly didn’t agree with her and gave her a bad feeling. After that, her friends told her that she shouldn’t be using her personal email or other contact information to correspond with people, so she started HFSC to create a more formal outlet for the work she was doing.

She and two other friends put out a call to meet, and 12 people showed up for the first meeting. “At that time, we really thought we would go to the school board, and they would get it and it would be over,” Strong said. “I was really naïve.”

Small Steps Lead to Big Action

Over the next nine months, Strong led the fight to get the confederate flag banned. Members of the HFSC showed up at almost every school board meeting. At one point, supporters of the flag also attended, making the atmosphere tense and unsafe.

Strong said she would walk HFSC supporters to and from their cars when they attended school board meetings. “It was only my faith in God in keeping me safe and Him calling me to this work that kept me putting one foot in front of the other,” she said. “With every step, I was relying on God to get me through.”

Because of her deep faith, Strong said she has “a hard time understanding how Christians can turn their back on this very important issue…”It saddens me that those who have the biggest tool chest to do this work won’t rely on the God that they have to get us through these tough conversations.”

Violent action ended up being the turning point for Strong’s group. After the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, board members who seemed to have been apathetic or even opposed to the ban suddenly were in support.

“The truth is they didn’t ban that flag until that white woman was killed in Charlottesville,” Braswell said. “That Friday before she died, they had come out and said emphatically that they weren’t going to ban it, that they were never going to ban it.”

But even the victory was bittersweet. “It’s interesting that they talk about this now like it was their great idea,” Strong said of the school board. “It’s textbook racism. They are going to resist this idea, and then they’re going to claim credit for this great idea.”

A Vision for the Future

Strong and the HFSC may have succeeded in getting the flag banned, but they say a lot more work needs to be done. “I started to realize how polarized around race not only our schools were but also how our town is,” Strong said. “We feel like we are in some ways the watchdog, not just to our school system but to our community.”

The HFSC has organized a monthly speaker series about race issues, is working on a documentary series, and is focused on getting the confederate flag ban passed in schools across the state. Right now, only four school districts have passed the ban. The group is also working to make the HFSC a formal nonprofit organization and is seeking donations to make that happen.

“When I’m dreaming with no limits, I would love for there to be a school that would be the racial equity school,” Strong said. She compares the school to other magnets that focus on international languages, the arts or STEM topics.

Members of the HFSC agree that the focus has to be much larger.

“Certainly, it’s not just about symbols; it’s about this whole idea that our whole society is founded on exploitation and racism, and that it manifests in ways that permeate the school – like hiring practices or disproportionate discipline or issues around implicit bias from teachers and things like that,” said Stacey Sewall, who was introduced to Strong while she was working on the idea of a racial equity-focused summer camp for high school students. “From our perspective, issues are very broad. It’s not just about symbols. It’s about the experiences of students in the school.”

Strong is just focused on the future. She said that schools are one of the few places now that we have true community, so it’s important that they capitalize on that opportunity.

The school system has created an equity task force of its own; more local groups are more active, such as the NAACP and the Black Voter Alliance; and more people seem to be talking about racial equity.

“I see this work as a way to really elevate our town,” Strong said.

For more information on the HFSC, visit www.facebook.com/HateFreeSchoolsOC/.



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