The Belmont University professor who lectured Brentwood High students on Monday about privilege said in an email exchange on Tuesday that she believed The Tennessee Star story about that event portrayed her unfairly.
As reported, Professor Mona Ivey-Soto introduced herself to students at Brentwood High on Monday as someone who is “very passionate about public education and what it means to transform the world.”
“I pray there is a level of discomfort you might feel [because of what I say]. Why am I feeling uncomfortable and why is this pushing my buttons a certain way and what do I need to do to lean into that?” Soto told students. She also said she sees public schools as an instrument of social change.
On Tuesday The Star offered Soto the opportunity to provide a complete response to our story published on Monday. In addition, we posed several follow up questions to her.
Soto responded to some of our questions, and declined to respond to several others.
Specifically, we asked her to clarify whether we misquoted her words. We also asked her to provide more specifics about an incident at Williamson County where she alleged that Vacation Bible School students chanted “Build the Wall” over and over again to antagonize her children. The Star also wanted to know if members of the Williamson County School System paid Soto to speak at Brentwood High.
Soto emailed the following response:
I am honestly hesitant to provide information you requested since I don’t know the context for which you are requesting the information. As a result of your story, I have received hurtful and hateful social media responses directed at me which is why I turned off all social media. This is not responsible journalism and has caused undue stress. I will respond directly to two points in your story which are untrue.
A Belmont University professor who specializes in social justice causes lectured Brentwood High School students Monday about how privileged and closed-minded they are and said it’s time they corrected themselves.
The above statement you included to start the article off felt inflammatory because there wasn’t a balanced context. I never said that the students were closed minded and I spoke about privilege in a general sense. I would hope that any objective person can acknowledge that there are benefits to living here in Williamson county since we’re THE RICHEST COUNTY IN THE STATE. I acknowledge my own privileges and benefits living here and teaching in an institution of higher ed.
Also, the tags included in the article were not words/statements used in my talk and again it feels like they were included to incite anger and division. I didn’t say or talk about critical race theory or white privilege. Those tags need to be removed. That is not responsible journalism.
Additionally, why wasn’t any of my talk that focused on peacemaking and helping students gain skills for a successful future in college and the workplace included in your commentary? Wouldn’t this have provided a more balanced write up?
I received NO pay or financial compensation from anyone for this talk.
Again, you need to let me know why you are asking for the other information (my degrees and institutions etc.) before I will respond with that information.
I do hope that there is no intent on your part or the Tennessee Star to slander or harm myself or my family. I am saddened that as someone who is a strong Christian and has a ministry for single moms (which I discussed clearly in the presentation) and who has devoted my life to people in need that my work and myself would be cast in a hateful and harmful manner.
In her talk to the Brentwood High School sophomore class on Monday, Soto suggested that failure to “seek the perspective of people coming from different places” and “resist stereotypes and biases about people who go to school down the street” means that a person is “not actively working to open my heart and mind to other things.”:
What do I do with the benefits that have been given to me? To seek the perspectives of people coming from different places? How do I resist stereotypes and biases about people who go to school down the street? If I am not doing those things then I am not actively working to open my heart and mind to other things,” Soto said.
The Star sent Soto a follow-up email. We asked her to confirm or deny reports from a source who attended one of the four presentations Soto made that day and said Soto, in her presentation to the senior class used the term “white privilege”….but did not speak that term as she presented to the sophomore class.
Soto did not answer that specific question in her response.
“Your question is petty and again doesn’t address the full context and message that I presented at BHS. Nor have you shared to me what you are writing based on the questions you’ve asked me,” Soto said in her emailed response.
WCS officials notified Brentwood High parents via email Sunday evening that Soto would speak.
We are going to have four grade level assemblies Monday morning to begin the discussion of racism in Williamson County Schools and specifically Brentwood High School. Last week’s incident, all the Dearest WCS posts, and the nationwide racial tensions raise the need for more widespread dialogue and discussions around diversity and inclusion within the BHS campus and community. We have many issues that need to be addressed – race sensitivities, bullying, respect, and empathy for people from all backgrounds.
We will be on Power Monday schedule and the assemblies will be in the morning. Our guest speaker will be Dr. Mona Ivey Soto, an Assistant Professor in the Education Department at Belmont University.
Our assemblies are held in the gym so we are able to socially distance the students in the gym bleachers.
Thank you and I hope you are having a nice weekend.
We asked WCS officials Tuesday whether it was appropriate to have such an event on school grounds. We also asked whether some parents were justified in feel as though the school system had usurped their authority as people who instill their own values — and not the school systems — into their children? We also asked whether Soto’s speech is consistent with President Donald Trump’s new directive that federally-funded government entities may no longer permit critical race theory?
WCS officials did not return our request for comment Tuesday.
A man whose email address includes the name “Jermaine Soto” emailed The Star Tuesday. He did not state his relationship with Mona Ivey-Soto.
I am emailing in absolute disappointment and frustration with the reporting of Chris Butler on a recent article pertaining to a talk given at Brentwood HS. First, the tags used, including ‘white privilege’ and ‘Critical Race Theory’ are completely false and are intended to incite a rabid base ready to pounce because of what they assume these words to imply. Nowhere in the presentation (which you posted without consulting the speaker) is there any mention of these terms nor any reference to them. The tone and content of this presentation was one focused on empathy, reconciliation, and perspective taking across all difference, including political. This article is demonizing a person that your paper, especially Chris Butler, did not even reach out to gain her perspective or feedback. A person that is a Christian that embraces reconciliation and is involved in a ministry supporting single mothers in poverty (and I must add representing all races, including white mothers). This article is not ‘fair and balanced’ and was written to fire up a group of people. Considering all that is going on in our country, the potential fallout from this article can be extremely dangerous to Dr. Ivey-Soto and her family. Chris Butler, and whomever leads your ‘paper’ should reach out to Dr. Ivey-Soto for her perspective, they should remove the tags immediately as it is deceiving, and perhaps should listen to the entire recording instead of cherry picking quotes to fire up the base. And by the way, when you receive this recording from a concerned parent, yet mock the story of a concerned parent who share an uncomfortable situation that impacted her young daughter, it is, as the president states, ‘sad’.
I would appreciate a response from you or from someone at your media site. The least y’all can do considering the intentionally demonizing piece you created.
Jermaine Soto then accused The Star of removing comments he had posted under the original article, apparently using the name “Anthony.”
Chris, not sure if I trust the conversation. Just saw that all the responses I made within the Comments section of your article have been taken down. They were there 10 minutes ago. Would love an explanation about this, especially as they were gracious, with no malice.
The Star told Jermaine Soto that we had not removed any of his comments that had been published. All told, six comments from “Anthony” have been published on Monday’s article.
We then asked Jermaine Soto six questions.
Those questions, and Mr. Soto’s responses, are included below:
(1) The Star: There is no Jermaine in the comments section of the story. But there IS an Anthony. Are you the Anthony in the comments section?
Jermaine Soto: May I ask why this is important. I do support the comments that were provided in response to some inaccurate claims. Is the commenter ‘woodworker’ asked this question?
(2) The Star: Were you in the audience at the Brentwood High event, and do you have actual knowledge of what was stated there?
Jermaine Soto: I was not at the event. Also, you posted the audio of the presentation so anyone can have access to the ‘event’.
(3) The Star: Are you married to Dr. Mona Ivey-Soto?
Jermaine Soto: I don’t think this matters in the context of this article. Much as friends, colleagues and family of Amy Coney Barrett will be present in the coming weeks to defend her character and work, and rightfully so, I am just trying to provide support of Dr. Ivey-Soto’s character based on a holistic knowledge of who she is rather than just a soundbite and news tags that instantly rile up folks.
(4) The Star: Are you a Vanderbilt University faculty member?
Jermaine Soto: I am not on faculty at Vanderbilt.
According to this 2019 Nashville Post article, a man named Jermaine Soto was appointed director of faculty development in the Vanderbilt University Office of Faculty Affairs. The Star then emailed Jermaine Soto and asked if he is the man who serves as director of faculty development in the Vanderbilt University Office of Faculty Affairs, but received no response.
(5) The Star: Is there anything in the context of The Tennessee Star story that is factually incorrect?
Jermaine Soto: Yes.
The VBS was not at the church Dr. Ivey Soto attended. The way you word it insinuates that it is part of the same church.
Also, she does not have a Doctorate in Philosophy. Her PhD is in Special Education. Also, you and I know that context matters.
By placing the news tags as you did (knowing that the presentation was not on Critical Race Theory nor was it on ‘white privilege’) you have to know what type of response it will incite.
Also, you did not provide a full picture of who the person is. You left it for the imagination of the audience and they are going to attack especially considering the rhetoric in our society. Fair and balanced approach would have been reaching out to the presenter to let he know you were releasing this audio and ask for her perspective, reasoning for presenting. Can you say you motivation was to provide facts or rile up your audience? Aren’t you technically doing the exact same thing you accuse ‘mainstream media’ of doing?
(6) The Star: Will you agree to appear on The Tennessee Star Report radio show on WLAC to discuss your complaints?
Jermaine Soto: At this moment, I would not like to appear on the show. However, if you want to grab a cup of coffee and actually have a dialogue across political and philosophical differences, I would not mind that at all. Off the record, of course. I would love to learn the process you take part in as an investigative journalist and perhaps have a conversation on the immense divide in this country and what can be done to make it better. Perhaps we can model what true dialogue can look like.
In a subsequent email, Jermaine Soto wrote the following:
“I am not a faculty member at Vanderbilt. And you have to forgive me but all this feels very cryptic. You are asking me for info and keep mentioning a story you are writing but are not offering any context. Please step in my shoes for a minute – I do not know you, my only knowledge of you comes from a story you wrote that didn’t seem like a balanced story, and now you are asking me a ton of questions as if I am part of a story that I don’t even know about. What would you do in my shoes? Seriously, I ask because this entire process seems odd. I am also not a journalist so what do i know.”
Williamson County Schools mentioned the issues of white privilege and critical race theory in trainings of teachers undertaken a year and a half ago, as The Star reported.
As best The Star can determine, not a single member of the 12 member WCS board had any idea that the in-service teacher training included in the top line budget they approved for academic year 2018-2019 included “white privilege.”
The Star published the first three modules of this WCS Cultural Competency teacher training last month, the third of which emphasized that teachers should monitor their “white privilege.”
At a public meeting at the time, (former superintendent) Mike Looney said Williamson County parents and members of the public were never supposed to see the Cultural Competency videos in the first place. Only teachers, Looney went on to say, were supposed to see them. Taxpayers paid for those videos, and The Star obtained them through an open records request.
Some parents opposed the videos. Other parents supported them. Looney held the meeting at the school system’s Professional Development Center in Franklin.
Looney also told parents his decision to create a Cultural Competency Committee began after some parents complained about the school system’s choice of field trips where slavery was a topic.
Also as reported, people involved in the Williamson County School System’s Cultural Competency Committee and people who support those efforts sent, at the time, emails about the need for social justice and how to handle teachers who resist change.
Emails also reveal Cultural Competency Committee members did not want publicity or for members of the media to attend their meetings.
A March 4 email from WCS Special Projects Manager Erin Caceres reminded Cultural Competency Council members that only select people could attend their next meeting — even though it was a public school-affiliated function.
“I would like to remind everyone that this meeting is for you, our council members/WCS parents, and not for the media or other individuals outside of our WCS community,” Caceres said.
As The Star reported earlier this month, President Trump issued a presidential directive banning critical race theory instruction at all federal agencies on September 5.
On September 22, the president issued an executive order banning critical race theory training in all federal contractors.
It is unclear if that order also applies to public and private universities that receive federal grants, or to any K-12 public school that receives federal funding. Approximately eight percent of all funding for K-12 public schools is provided by the federal government.
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