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Seth Andrew, founder of Democracy Builders and a founding team member of its new program, Degrees of Freedom, said that the criticism of him and his approach to race “should not be able to drown out the more than 10,000 families who have had positive experiences.”

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Critics urge opposition to campus sale

The Marlboro Selectboard has asked college trustees to investigate race-based allegations against the leader of the group intending to buy the facility. Meanwhile, the largely-BIPOC staff of Degrees of Freedom is frustrated at the effort to scuttle a venture that would largely serve people of color.

As The Commons went to press on Tuesday, the Brattleboro Reformer reported that after a meeting of the Marlboro College Board of Trustees to discuss the allegations against Andrew, the college has affirmed its commitment to the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders Fund.

MARLBORO—The proposed sale of the Marlboro College campus has received increased scrutiny from members of the community and racial justice advocates who are troubled by allegations of racism against the founder of the organization that seeks to buy the property.

Members of a mostly anonymous grassroots collective, Black N Brown at DP, have raised allegations of abuse and racism at Democracy Prep Charter Schools, a network of schools founded by Seth Andrew, whose Democracy Builders Fund has a signed purchase-and-sale agreement for the 530-acre campus for a new academic nonprofit program, Degrees of Freedom.

The group came together “to give voice to the absolute atrocity that occurred at Democracy Prep Charter School that left hundreds of Black and Brown staff, families, kids traumatized and abused in its wake,” according to one member speaking anonymously at a Selectboard meeting last week.

Personnel at the nascent school have responded to The Commons, saying that the activists’ grievances are not reflective of a successful track record for the secondary schools. They also pushed back at the age of some of the allegations and, in some cases, questioned the veracity of the stories and their relevance to the context of the new project for Potash Hill.

The allegations first surfaced in response to an online essay on Medium by Andrew on race and racism and mistakes that he has made, posted in the aftermath of the racial unrest nationwide following the death by strangulation of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in May.

Andrew’s post was later removed after Black N Brown at DP emerged with an Instagram page of anonymous quotes and a response, also on Medium. Since then, more anecdotal evidence has emerged online, as well as two more Medium posts.

With members of the group widely distributing their concerns via email, the allegations circulating on social media have painted Andrew as a “white savior” whose disciplinary approach in the charter schools has been inherently racist.

Andrew stepped away from Democracy Prep Charter Schools in 2013 to become senior advisor and superintendent-in-residence for then–Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Public tax records show him as a paid consultant in some subsequent years. There is no connection between the Democracy Prep charter schools and Democracy Builders, which Andrew founded in 2005 as an umbrella organization designed to incubate new projects in the public sphere.

The group’s writings contend that even with its founder having moved on, the school operates on a presumption that kids of color must rigorously prepare to meet white society’s expectations in academics, speech, and appearance, and align to white culture — all of which makes the program inherently racist.

The groundswell of criticism has found a home not only with many people who are newly awakened to the issues of racial justice but also with many of the people who already opposed the Marlboro College merger with Boston-based Emerson College and the sale of the campus to Andrew’s new venture to create a two-year college degree program.

The anonymity spilled into the public sphere last week during a July 9 Marlboro Selectboard meeting, where people identifying themselves as members of the group repeated the allegations during the open public comment section of the meeting.

According to the agreement between Marlboro and Emerson, the deal to integrate Marlboro faculty and remaining students into a Marlboro-branded liberal arts program at the Boston-based college is contingent on the sale of the campus by July 31.

Per state statute, Vermont’s Attorney General’s office is reviewing both the sale of the campus and the merger deal with Emerson, as they are so intertwined. The Agency of Education also needs to sign off on the Emerson alliance.

Heightened scrutiny

The allegations have only heightened tensions around the closure of Marlboro College and the sale of its campus.

The college announced last year that the school as the community knew it would come to an end, citing an unsustainable path in the face of declining enrollments.

As a path forward, the college’s leadership sought to merge with another school. After a flirtation with a merger with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut — a deal that went sour in a matter of weeks — Marlboro found that partner in the Emerson College.

Under the merger agreement, set to be finalized in Boston on July 21, Emerson would absorb students and faculty from Vermont and receive Marlboro’s assets, including its $37 million endowment. The ethos of Marlboro College would live on as the Marlboro Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College.

Earlier this spring, people close to the campus sale lauded Andrew’s work and the potential for the new Degrees of Freedom to breathe new life into the campus — unwanted by Emerson College and whose sale is all but an ironclad precondition of the deal.

On May 28, Andrew and the Marlboro College Board of Trustees announced that Democracy Builders was in the process of buying the campus. Degrees of Freedom, as proposed will be a two-year program that combines low-residency time on campus, online learning, and apprenticeships.

Degrees of Freedom was the recommendation of a Marlboro College working group charged with finding a buyer that would be most compatible with the longtime academic use of the land and the values and heritage of the college, which was founded in 1946.

Almost immediately, the choice of Andrew — who worked in the Department of Education under the Obama administration and who had founded the Democracy Prep network of charter schools — drew heightened scrutiny from many of the same people who had vocally, and often bitterly, criticized Marlboro’s plans to close in the first place.

Details about the program’s viability and the organization’s finances have been minimal. Andrew has said that he is reticent to discuss particulars until the property sale is complete.

Several members of the working group declined to describe the nature and viability of the Degrees of Freedom proposal, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Three members speak at Selectboard meeting

In a meeting held by videoconference last week, the Marlboro Selectboard passed a motion calling on the Marlboro College Board of Trustees to investigate allegations of racism and abuse at Democracy Prep Charter Schools — specifically, complaints about Andrew.

“The Selectboard has no say in whether or not the sale of Marlboro College will or should move forward,” cautioned Selectboard Chair Jesse Kreitzer. “However, we are responding to the community’s concerns, and the troubling testimonies and allegations made by Black N Brown at Democracy Prep.”

Two people from the group, with the respective screen handles “Black N Brown @ DP” and “Telling Truth,” spoke anonymously, allowed under the town’s adopted Rules of Procedure.

A third was Zenzile Keith, who described herself as a former superintendent at Democracy Prep. A LinkedIn profile for Keith does not list her tenure at the school in her resume.

The participants alleged that Andrew had created a toxic environment at the schools. Telling Truth said that as a student at Democracy Prep, she had witnessed Andrew categorizing students as either “trophy students” or “trouble students.” She said Andrew lauded trophy students — those who achieved good grades and participated in the clubs and activities that had his imprimatur of approval — while pushing out the trouble students.

She said that as a trophy student, she was shielded from Andrew’s negative behavior that she witnessed in his interaction with other students. But when she wanted to leave the debate club, she said, Andrew’s attitude towards her changed dramatically.

She described Andrew as a “narcissist,” “manipulator,” and “monster.”

“I realized the full extent of what a white savior actually is and what systematic racism is truly within education,” she said. “I hope that Seth is never around an environment where he is leading Black and Brown bodies ever again.”

She added, “We thought it particularly important to be present today to bring voice to the voiceless and to dispel any rumors or Seth’s specific charge that there were only a few stories, or that there was exaggeration.”

According to this caller, Andrew lacked integrity and treated the people of color at DP with disrespect.

The caller said Andrew needed to “atone” for his behavior, “and quite frankly his heart because the way he spoke to people — adults, children — the way that he ran his organization is not something that you want to have in your community.”

Keith said she witnessed a number of “racist and white supremacist acts not only committed against students but against myself as an African American woman who worked at the superintendent level.”

“The way that you show that Black lives matter, the way that you show that Brown lives matter, is that you don’t allow someone like this to come into your community and to spread this type of hate and disdain of Black and Brown bodies like he does in Harlem,” she said.

Several Marlboro residents also spoke supporting the collective’s concerns about Democracy Prep’s founder Andrew and his alleged toxic and racist behavior towards people of color connected to his charter schools. Rachel Siegel, executive director of the Burlington-based Peace and Justice Center, read a statement urging the board to address the allegations against Andrew.

Representatives from the Windham County NAACP also called in, seeking more information about the issues surrounding Andrew and Democracy Builders as a whole.

The Commons did not receive replies to emails seeking to authenticate the identities or verify the allegations of Black N Brown at DP, whether on the record or under condition of anonymity or on background, which the newspaper would consider in the context of reporting on victims of trauma or abuse.

‘Anonymous, ill-intentioned attacks’

The Degrees of Freedom team members have another point of view.

Andrew, who arrived on campus in June, has assembled a design team to create the new program. Several are alumni of Democracy Prep and passionate supporters of the charter school’s pedagogy.

Central to their discussion is a commitment to serve a community of BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, people of color. Degrees of Freedom has a BIPOC-led team and a BIPOC-led board and intends to serve a BIPOC-majority student body with a curriculum they describe as anti-racist.

“I’m honestly extremely frustrated about being distracted by these anonymous, and ill-intentioned attacks, and the local opposition they’ve generated,” said Jamie McCoy, an alumna of founding class at Democracy Prep who is now a middle school teacher and has a forthcoming book, College Ain’t No Joke.

McCoy defended Democracy Builders and Andrew, “Seth and the teams he builds are incredibly consistent about the high-expectations they have for all students and staff. As a teacher today, and an alumna from the founding class, I can say with certainty that DP is at its core committed to empowering Black and Brown students. On the whole, students and staff like me have risen to the challenge time and time again. To me these high expectations are part of what defines an anti-racist institution, and I’m proud to be a part of it.”

Jazel Smith echoed McCoy, citing a commitment to “innovation and creating positive opportunities for first-generation college students like me.”

“To attempt to cancel our work based on largely anonymous allegations would be a much more disturbing act of racial injustice,” she said.

“We hope to bring more than 1,000 students, mostly of color, to a town of approximately 900 people,” said Chandell Stone, who believes that some of what is driving the conflict is “fear of change” of Marlboro College alumni who are grieving the loss of a beloved school and who are opposed to new ownership.

Stone, the chief growth officer of Democracy Builders Fund, is a design team member. She is a former Democracy Prep teacher. She pointed out that by largely serving young people of color, Degrees of Freedom will represent a demographic shift compared to Marlboro College’s student body throughout the years.

“What we’ve heard from elected officials and regular Vermonters alike is that the state desperately needs three things: young people, diversity, and technology driven job engines,” said Basil Smikle, another design team member and part of the Democracy Builders Fund’s communications team.

“DBF has a plan to bring all three to Southern Vermont. Those who have opposed all change at Marlboro College even before our program arrived are now attempting to block an institution from opening that would have a positive impact on the entire state,” he said.

Marcellina Blow-Cummings, a design team member, a board member for the Democracy Builders Fund, and parent of four Democracy Prep students, said that the charter schools and Degrees of Freedom are based on a philosophy and structure of change that Andrew brought to the table.

Policies evolve and are constantly updated to better meet students’ needs over time, she said.

“It’s a feature, not a bug. There have been many changes from when my son first attended in 2008 to when my fourth child graduated in 2020, and this change is all for the better,” she said.

She noted that Andrew left Democracy Prep in 2013 to join the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama and was replaced by Natasha Trivers, “an amazing Black woman, which makes so many of these critiques feel especially hollow.”

For his part, in his comments, Andrew walks a tightrope between being open to criticism and expressing that a great deal of that criticism has been rendered unfairly.

“As a leader, I welcome being asked hard, even skeptical questions,” he said, acknowledging that the group is “listening to anyone who didn’t have a positive experience at any DBF-launched project in the past.”

Citing surveys and other studies of what he characterized as objective measurements for the Democracy Prep program and its stakeholders, Andrew hoped to replace the anecdotal nature of the conversation with a numerical perspective.

He said that in the final analysis, the Black N Brown group, which describes itself as approximately 200 former students and staff, is “a small number of folks” who “should not be able to drown out the more than 10,000 families who have had positive experiences.”

‘Collective grief, confusion, anger’

During the July 9 Selectboard meeting, Kreitzer made a motion to call on the Marlboro College Board of Trustees to fully investigate the Black N Brown at DP’s allegations and to maintain transparency around the issue. Board members Aaron Betts and Julia Von Ranson voted in favor.

Betts expressed gratitude to the callers.

He said when he first heard Andrew speak, he thought the plans for the campus would be a good thing.

“Seth was very articulate; he talked a really good story; I left that meeting feeling really good about it,” Betts said. “Since then, my feelings have changed dramatically, and I’ve got my own concerns. I don’t as a resident of this town want something like what this sounds like.”

Kreitzer said he consulted with an attorney to evaluate how much power the town would have to intervene in the sale of the campus to Democracy Builders. The answer: a public entity has little control over a private land sale.

Absent direct power, Kreitzer offered the motion as a way to clarify that the board stands against an organization accused of harming people of color.

Later in the meeting, the Selectboard called upon the Marlboro Alliance, a local nonprofit committee that addresses civic issues and the community’s well-being, “to organize a professionally mediated forum,” Kritezer later told The Commons in an email.

Its purpose: “to begin to address the collective grief, confusion, and anger related to the closure of the Marlboro College campus and allegations surrounding the prospective new owner,” he said.

And on Tuesday, Marlboro’s Board of Trustees issued a terse statement.

The board “has received materials shared by the ‘Black N Brown at DP’ organization regarding the Democracy Prep schools,” the statement said. “We take these matters seriously and are looking into them further.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #570 (Wednesday, July 15, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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