CHAMPAIGN — High school English teacher Nora Flanagan is aware that being a “Nazi expert” is a “weird thing to be an expert on.”
But that’s what will bring her to Champaign’s Sinai Temple on Thursday evening, where she’s slated to lead a workshop titled “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools.”
It’s the second in a series of local Bend the Arc events aimed at fostering “safety through solidarity, meaning an attack on a targeted group is an attack on all of us,” said the organization’s Terry Maher.
“As we were doing our research on the problem of white nationalism nationally, we realized students as young as 11 were being targeted,” she said. “We thought that before Champaign-Urbana becomes the next in line, we ought to do something about white nationalism in the schools.”
They invited Flanagan to come down from Chicago to lead the workshop, aimed at helping school staff, family members and community members identify and respond to signs of white nationalism or white supremacist recruitment or support in young adults.
Flanagan grew up in a part of Chicago that had “a lot of intense race issues in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” when she observed hate-group recruitment efforts early on.
She also grew up in “the Chicago punk scene,” where she observed and echoed anti-racist politics in action, then carried those principles into her teaching education at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
But it wasn’t until she began work with an organization “researching how hate groups use music to recruit young people” that her work went to another level.
“I spent a lot of time in the ugliest parts of the internet,” she said. “That was when I saw there were suggestions for kids on how to bring their politics to school — there were literally articles like ‘Here are five ways to be visible as white nationalist at your school.’”
Eventually, she would co-author a guide to preventing such recruitment — the same one being presented Thursday — but at first, she was quiet about the knowledge she’d been accumulating.
When things happened in her school, she observed administrators choose one of two options: “They either underreacted or overreacted,” she said. “They would either dismiss it as an issue, or when it was irrefutable, become excessively punitive. Neither addresses what is going on.”
The toolkit she’ll discuss Thursday is designed to prevent either option and help users engage everyone involved — not just a child or student.
“Everybody needs to be talking to everybody else because it’s a community issue,” she said. “One of the most dangerous things right now is these seemingly minor incidents — like throwing up the sieg heil sign in the cafeteria and then dealing with the student who did it — but unless every kid who saw it knows that it was handled thoughtfully, then it wasn’t handled.
“The goal is to help people respond more holistically in a way that’s going to help not just the community, but the kid in question.”
After mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif., and El Paso, Texas — in which both gunmen espoused white-supremacist ideology — Flanagan said she’s received more calls from people hoping to book speeches.
“I keep forgetting school is in three weeks,” she said. “This could be my full-time job now: There is enough of a need for people to have these conversations that I could do this full-time.”
Local members of Bend the Arc weren’t necessarily planning to have Flanagan be the featured speaker for their second series, but they, too, were motivated by the most recent string of mass shootings and the racist ideology behind them.
“It’s domestic terrorism,” Maher said. “It’s horrifying. That is why we want to educate people: so they recognize the signs. We don’t want Champaign-Urbana to be next on the list. We can arm ourselves with knowledge and this is the way to do it.”