Nancy Petty is the senior pastor at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. She was arrested earlier this week for disrupting a Wake County School Board meeting. Petty sat down with Raleigh Public Record’s Chrystal Bartlett to talk about why she decided to participate in civil disobedience.
After the fall elections, Wake County School changed its student assignment policy from favoring diversity to emphasizing community schools. Controversy, protests and a few arrests have been made in the wake of this decision. On Tuesday, June 16, Petty was arrested for trespassing at a Wake County School Board meeting when she and four others refused to leave the podium. State NAACP leader, the Rev. William Barber; activist and Wake schools parent Mary D. Williams and Duke University professor and author Tim Tyson were also arrested. She has pledged to continue protesting until the Wake County school board reinstates the diversity policy.
Why do you feel this issue is so important?
For me, our nation was founded on a principle that all are created equal and have certain rights and I think that abandoning a nationally recognized diversity policy that seeks to uphold our nation’s and state’s constitution, to go back and reverse over a century of work to treat people equally, to abandon these principles in favor of this new policy, is to turn our backs on the progress that we have made as a nation.
Personally, there are great implications in terms of what it means for our larger community, in terms of nurturing our children to be tolerant, respectful and responsible citizens in our communities. If we can’t teach our kids how to love, learn and work together regardless of race, religion or family structure, it means that we are creating children who will not be able to cope with these realities in the real world. The impact on our community is great, because we are raising children who will not have the qualities or the skills they will need.
If we create these high poverty pockets in our community, that is going to affect the community’s stability in terms of crime rates and how we function as a community. And we’ll see these numbers go up. High poverty schools have higher drop out rates. More kids will be on the streets and, as we saw in Charlotte – whose school board has done the same thing- look at the crime rates that have happened since then. You may think that if you live in an exclusive neighborhood you won’t be touched, but crime doesn’t respect neighborhoods. If we can’t teach our children at a young age to learn to act respectfully, they are not going to develop into responsible adults. We know from research and hard data that children learn better when they are put in diverse situations.
Why choose civil disobedience as your method of protest?
I personally have written letters and lobbied, but I choose civil disobedience because those methods did not work and did not further the dialogue in a way that was effective. When those methods are not working, when they are not getting you anywhere, you have to ask, “What is the next step?” I did not start out thinking that my action would be civil disobedience, but when the others methods do not work, for me, my next option was to practice civil disobedience.
Would you do it again?
Yes, I would.
If so, would you do anything differently?
I can’t think of anything that I would do differently. When I went to that board meeting on Tuesday, I knew there was the potential that I would practice civil disobedience. I did not know, but I was prepared to. But in any movement, things are fluid and you have to be in that moment, respect that moment and discern what you need to do in that moment. If we had gotten our request, that the school board rescind the diversity policy, if the board had engaged with us meaningfully, the outcome would be different. But that is not what happened and for me, there was just not another option at that point. I practiced civil disobedience in a way that was respectful and with love. I did not holler, scream or resist the consequences of my civil disobedience, so no, there is not anything that I would have changed.
What impact do you think your arrest made, if any?
I think that this board had tried to isolate themselves, to do things in a way that is not public, to make decision not based on public interest. They have limited access to the public in being a part of this conversation and it is like they are isolating themselves and saying, “We don’t care what anyone else thinks. We have the power. We have the authority to act in our personal interests without any accountability.”
I think the impact is that it brought the issue into the light nationally and within Wake County. I think the impact was that it shows this community and shows the larger community that people are watching, are paying attention and people will not just sit back quietly and let the board dismantle something that was working quite well in our school system. That does not mean that our school system did not have problems – there are other issues like teacher performance, student performance, high dropout rates in minority groups – those are issues that need to be dealt with in our school system. To abandon our diversity policy only makes those issues worse. I think it was easy that once the board abandoned this policy to feel defeated and feel there is nothing else we can do. But the arrest showed that we are not just going to sit back quietly and watch this unfold in a way that some of us feel is very destructive. I have had a little bit of push-back in terms of a small number of people saying they disagree with what I did because they think it might hurt what we are trying to do, but I don’t think that is accurate. Unless there are people willing to keep this issue in front of the community, it is easy for people to lose sight of the need to keep the pressure on. Some may say what we did, getting arrested, this will hurt our cause. To those critics, I say, “This is not accurate.” This action shows the issue is serious and nothing will change if we remain silent.
The last two these school board meetings have been poorly attended compared to previous meetings. Here is what was on the agenda for that that school board meeting: one agenda item was who the board would hire for the new search for a superintendent. Their proposal is to pay a Chicago-based firm $82,500 plus expenses. Now, that firm has helped with two school system searches for school superintendents. There is national organization that will help school systems with searches that has helped with many more searches and they cost $16,000.
Another decision on that agenda was the qualifications for the next superintendent. They recommended that the next super does not have to have a doctorate, so they are lowering the qualifications for our school board superintendent in order to find someone that will advance their agenda. They said they want to be able to look at CEOs who have run businesses and military people, and that many of those people don’t have doctorates.
Another agenda item was to withdraw membership from the North Carolina School Boards Association, National School Boards Association, and Council of Urban Boards of Education, organizations that Wake County Public School leaders have been involved in for a number of years. These are organizations that give support to school systems and let them know what is happening in other school systems, and they chose to pull out. Again, they are isolating themselves. They don’t care what others are doing and how we can collaborate with other leaders and experts who advocate for quality education, which I find pretty significant. Those items were on that agenda and no one, or very few people would have paid attention, but because of our civil disobedience, now the public is aware of those actions because they were reported in connection with our arrests. The larger point is that is that the impact of our arrest was to keep the spotlight on what this school board is doing.
Would you encourage others to join you in other civil disobedience exercises regarding this issue?
I would encourage others to join in civil disobedience. I think that I now have made that statement and what we need now are for other people who feel strongly about this issue to be willing to go to this school board and be willing to do the same thing. To say, “We are not going to sit quietly and watch the dismantling of what was the positive aspect of our school system.” I would encourage others, if they can find a way that feels authentic to them, to practice civil disobedience.