Life & Culture

Culture wars reach Hilton Head as leaders debate arts plan

The culture wars have reached Hilton Head Island.

A mundane city council vote in September and a diverse training held for arts and culture leaders on the island last spring sparked fierce debate about racial equality and critical race theory at Hilton Head, even though the city council does not create or enforce policies in public schools and usually spends its time In discussing taxes, utilities, construction projects and zoning.

Deep personal conflict spilled over into several city meetings, with broad discourse reflecting national conversations about racism and the history of slavery and discrimination in America.

The conflict will likely come to a head next week when the city council discusses the matter during its meeting on Tuesday.

Mayor John McCann has publicly called on residents and fellow council members to “moderate the rhetoric.” Dozens of people spoke about the controversy in emotional testimonies before the city council.

“I’ve struggled with racism my whole life — sometimes subtle, sometimes scandalous,” Luana Graves Cellars, founder of the nonprofit Lowcountry Gullah, said during a board meeting on November 16. “Ignoring racism or wanting to get rid of it allows it to grow and exacerbate and come back in the same shape or greater.

“I thought Hilton Head was better than this – it’s a place where divisive behavior and polarization are issues in other areas of the country where there is ignorance.”

What’s going on?

The council voted in September 6-0-1 in favor of a new strategic plan for the city’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, but in a highly unusual move it overturned that prior approval in a 5-2 vote on October 5. A general guide to the town’s relationship with artistic and cultural organizations.

Ward 5 representative Tom Lennox said in a previous interview that Ward 4 Council member Tamara Baker had requested and did not receive additional information about the plan, “so we thought the best way to deal with it would be to (bring) the plan back to the board, get the information, and review it.” discuss, and then reconsider the plan.

At a subsequent meeting of the committee on October 25, Baker said she had received a videotape of a three-hour Bureau of Cultural Affairs training that “was nothing more than a critical race theory.”

The video shows a training on equality, diversity and inclusion that the bureau held for arts and culture professionals in Hilton Head in March. (The strategic plan for the Office of Cultural Affairs says that it will offer to host various training sessions for artistic and cultural organizations.)

Baker said the March training included a discussion about systemic racism and white supremacy, during which people used “appalling language to suggest that the white population of this city and across the country…doesn’t deserve and should be divided.”

Arts and culture leaders who signed the October 17 letter had a different view.

“Varied training is often difficult and uncomfortable,” the message says. “It is purposeful and intended to increase understanding of your bias and how it serves your employees, your people, and your organization.”

The letter was signed by Jeffrey Reeves, president and CEO of the Coastal Carolina Arts Center. Jane Joseph, President of the Island Arts Council. Ahmed Ward, Executive Director of Mitchellville Freedom Park; and Alan Jordan, president and CEO of the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Leaders wrote that they were disappointed in the city council’s October 5 vote to rescind pre-approval of the strategic plan until the document’s “educational curriculum” is defined and fully reviewed by the council. The letter says that many funding organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts require scholarship applicants to submit a Statement on Equity, Training in Transfer and Inclusion, or EDI.

“Art and cultural organizations on our island (formerly) have requested EDI training to help us build our own EDI plans and thus be candidates for grants that are critical to our continuity,” the letter reads.

“We believe that removing EDI’s mission actions from the (Bureau of Cultural Affairs) strategic plan would put our arts and cultural institutions as well as our community at a disadvantage.”

Conservative group HHI Patriots later encouraged its supporters to email city council members about EDI training and Critical Race Theory, or CRT, a “set of ideas about bias and systemic privilege” enjoyed by Republican lawmakers in many states, including South Carolina has acted to ban schools, according to PolitiFact and The Brookings Institution.

(A provision in the South Carolina budget passed earlier this year that prohibits K-12 school districts from using funds intended to teach children that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or gender, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”)

“Are you familiar with equity, diversity, and inclusion training? I think it’s divisive, devastating and toxic,” read a November 15 email from HHI Patriots, signed by Cherry Norris, who created the “No Mask Required HHI” website after meeting with Other people have opposed COVID-19 mask mandates. “If you are white, you are superior and should be ashamed of a past that you cannot control. If you are black, you are a victim and should have pity.”

The debate came to a head during a council meeting on November 16, with residents criticizing Baker and calling on elected officials to re-approval of the strategic plan. Baker did not return a phone message on Thursday.

“Drags from splits, whistling dogs, and throwing grenades are not good for the economy,” said Rozelle Wilson of the Native Island Business & Community Affairs Association.

However, a few speakers stood by Baker, including Lisa Lacking, who said she watched the video recording of the variety training held in March.

“This is about indoctrination,” Lacking said. “In the end, they concluded that they can do nothing to us adults, but they can go after children.”

What is actually in the Variety Training Video?

The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette recently obtained a three-hour video clip via a public records request.

The training session was held virtually, and at least 40 people were on call, including cultural affairs director Jennifer McQueen.

Jorge Zeballos, a self-employed equity and merger advisor, according to LinkedIn, was the training coordinator. A spokeswoman for Carolyn Grant confirmed Friday that the city government has spent $3,000 to hire Zeballos for training.

(Zeballos was previously the chief equity and inclusion officer at Kellogg Community College in Michigan. His position was phased out in early 2020, according to the Battle Creek Enquirer. Zeballos has been criticized by conservative media for a Facebook post that showed him holding a banner a newspaper reported Battle Creek Enquirer reported “expletive words” at a protest against Donald Trump in December 2019. A college spokesperson told the newspaper that the decision to rescind Zeballos’ position had nothing to do with the label).

During borough training, Zeballos discussed slavery and racial Jim Crow laws, made data on the lack of diversity among arts directors and encouraged people to see how they could better promote inclusion.

At one point, a participant challenged Zeballos’ characterization of slavery as “legalized apartheid,” arguing that it was worse than that and was in fact a “legal dehumanization.”

“You are all pushing me to bring my ‘radical self’ into the process, agreeing that ‘those were white supremacist systems,’” Zeballos said in response.

(This 90-second exchange appears to be part of what Baker referred to at the October 25 committee meeting.)

Meanwhile, much of the variety training focused on separate groups, during which people talked about their ideas about racism.

In one group discussing white privilege, McQueen said, “I honestly think we should start teaching institutional racism in an honest way starting in elementary school.” Another participant said, “There is a lot of indifference in the world with my generation.” (This appears to be what Leking indicated at the November 16 board meeting.)

Participants also discussed how to better support and preserve the island’s Gola culture. Loss of native land is a major issue at Hilton Head.

“Government policies and ignorance of the economic dynamics of what is going on at Hilton Head Island will destroy the Jolla community if people are not aggressive and positive,” said Mildon Hollis, a member of the Jolla Museum Board of Directors. “At one point, the Jolla people owned 90% of Hilton Head Island. At this point, 70% of (the island) is behind gated communities.”

The data shows that the US Census Bureau has estimated that at least 80% of the island’s current population is white. Roughly 6% of the population is black, according to federal estimates.

McQueen said in July that Zeballos’ training was “a huge welcome”.

What then?

McCann confirmed in a phone call that the strategic plan will be discussed during the city council meeting at 3 pm on Tuesday.

Mayor added that he and City Manager Mark Orlando met with other council members individually to get their thoughts on the plan.

A revised version of the plan is expected to be presented on Tuesday.

This story was originally published December 3, 2021 11:00 am.

Sam Ogozalek is a reporter for The Island Packet covering COVID-19 recovery efforts. It is also a report on a member of the Legion of America. He recently graduated from Syracuse University and has written for the Tampa Bay Times, Buffalo News and Naples Daily News.


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