Sen. Tony Exum (D-CO Springs) and Rep. Regina English (D-CO Springs) moderated a panel discussion on the importance of Black history and offered constituents a legislative update during a town hall event at the Chinook Center in Colorado Springs on Saturday.

“There’s been a lot of conversations in your communities and schools, all over the neighborhoods, about, is Black history relevant? Is it important?” said Exum. “Curriculums are being challenged. So we thought we’d put together a panel and have a community discussion about why it is important, and why it is relevant.”

Last month, Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE) rejected the College Board’s Advanced Placement African American studies course, an optional college-level course for high school students that is being piloted by the College Board.

“As submitted, the course is a vehicle for a political agenda and leaves large, ambiguous gaps that can be filled with additional ideological material, which we will not allow,” Bryan Griffin, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, told NPR.

The College Board has issued a response to the actions taken by the FDOE, noting, “We deeply regret not immediately denouncing the FDOE’s slander, magnified by the DeSantis administration’s subsequent comments, that African American Studies ‘lacks educational value.’ Our failure to raise our voice betrayed Black scholars everywhere and those who have long toiled to build this remarkable field.”

The College Board was criticized by outlets like Rolling Stone for seeming to modify the course after FDOE’s rejection. However, the College Board insists those actions were misrepresented by FDOE as part of a political media campaign.

“In Florida’s effort to engineer a political win, they have claimed credit for the specific changes we made to the official framework,” reads the College Board’s statement. “In their February 7, 2023, letter to us, which they leaked to the media within hours of sending, Florida expresses gratitude for the removal of 19 topics, none of which they ever asked us to remove, and most of which remain in the official framework. They also claimed that we removed terms like ‘systemic marginalization’ and ‘intersectionality’ at their behest. This is not true. The notion that we needed Florida to enlighten us that these terms are politicized in several states is ridiculous. We took a hard look at these terms because they often are misunderstood, misrepresented, and co-opted as political weapons. Instead, we focused throughout the framework on providing concrete examples of these important concepts. Florida is attempting to claim a political victory by taking credit retroactively for changes we ourselves made but that they never suggested to us.”

In Colorado Springs, local school boards, pressured by a gamut of right-wing activist groups like the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR), FEC United, Advocates for D20 Kids, and others have campaigned against critical race theory, equity initiatives, and books that address the racial divide in the U.S. Colorado Springs’ District 49 was the first district to ban critical race theory, and Colorado Springs School District 11 dissolved its Department of Equity and Inclusion after a new conservative board majority was elected.

“Unfortunately, in our schools, we try to cram all of our black history into February,” said panelist Birdie Miller, a former elementary school principal. “I’ve always been resistant to the idea, because you cannot talk about Martin Luther King in the same breath with Sojourner Truth. You need to talk about all of our Black contributors to the American story within the context of when they lived, what their struggles were. Were they abolitionists or were they during the civil rights movement? Just getting ready for today, I read so many articles that I said, ‘My God, I never heard of her. I never heard of him.’ How come I don’t know these things? Well, we don’t know these things about our own Black people because our history has been suppressed, misrepresented, and stolen.”

 Panelists expressed frustration over the way Black history has been politicized.

“I think you have to understand that we’ve been doing this as a collective for over 400 years,” said panelist George Houston, a retired educator and former chairman of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. “In 1968, in the Kerner Commission, they said one of the biggest issues we had in eliminating some of the things we’re talking about is the racist institutions that we have in this country. This is a report by Congress themselves. So they’ve already said we’ve got racism in this country. What are we going to do about it?”

From left: George Houston, Birdie Miller, Keyshon Cooks, Micaela Parker.

Houston laments the way conservative activists — fueled by talking points from groups like the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation — have been able to dominate the conversation. “If we allow people who have an agenda, only them to set the stage, then you get what we’ve got now — a lot of fear, a lot of wasted time and money for students who should be trained to be the best that they can,” he said. “It’s our young people. We’ve got to teach them how to be open-minded, how to process information, and not just delve into soundbites from TikTok or Twitter or Facebook or any of these other social media outlets. That’s not education, and we’re missing the point. I hope educators who have been trained will step up and take the lead away from some of these folks who have a political agenda that they’re pouring into our education systems across the state and across the country.”

Following the panel discussion, Exum and English provided a legislative update. “I’m running a bill with Representative Jennifer Bacon [D-Denver] on opportunity zones, making sure those grant dollars, there’s some oversight to what’s happening,” said English. “So the money is just not like a revolving door, but the people in the underserved zip codes that are actually doing the work will have an opportunity to receive some of that funding.”

Exum, a longtime proponent of criminal justice reform, is working on a bill to redact the names of minors in criminal justice records that are released to the public, citing incidents like the Aurora Central High School shooting in 2021 and the 2022 murder of 17 year-old Riley Whitelaw. “The way the press gets that information is the police do an affidavit and that affidavit goes to court, and is an open record,” explained Exum. “They can still do the reporting, we just want the names redacted for safety reasons and other reasons.”

Exum also discussed efforts to help consumers. “One of the other things I’m working on is to remove medical debt from your consumer report,” he said. “It doesn’t mean your medical debt goes away, but it’s not going to be on your consumer reports, so it doesn’t keep you from getting a job, keep you from applying for a home.”

Exum was questioned by constituents about his support for Senate Bill 23-113, which provides an additional $20.3 million to the Colorado Department of Corrections. “I voted yes on that bill,” said Exum. “I’ll tell you the reason why I did that. The prison system takes care of people that are sent to them. Where we have to deal with the problem is these overzealous DAs that are slapping on these long sentences that force people to compromise or to plea bargain. They’re tapping on 20-year sentences, 24-year sentences, so they plea bargain for a shorter time, five or six years, so that’s where we’ve got to fix the problem. The other end of that — and I hear what you what you’re saying and I’ll stand by my vote — but I made this statement before I voted that if you continue to build more prisons, you continue to build more beds, there’s going to be people to fill them. We’ve got to do a better job as a state and as legislators of investing more money into education and other programs to help people before they get in the criminal justice system.”

The El Paso County Criminal Justice Center has seen a marked increase in inmate deaths in recent years, with nine deaths in 2022, and the most recent death on Jan. 20.

English, who sits on the Business and Labor Committee, was asked about her stance on the Fair Workweek Employment Standards bill, which would require certain types of employers to pay employees: Predictability pay when an employer makes certain changes to an employee’s work schedule; Rest shortfall pay when an employee is required to work hours without a minimum period of rest after a prior shift; Retention pay when an employer provides work hours to a new employee without first offering the work hours to existing employees; and Minimum weekly pay in an amount that corresponds to 15% of the average weekly hours indicated on the employee’s anticipated work plan, paid at the greater of the employee’s regular rate of pay or the minimum wage, regardless of whether the employee works such hours. The bill has received significant pushback from restaurant and retail business owners.

“I can’t speak to it in its entirety because I’m not the sponsor of that bill,” said English. “However, it has come into my committee and we’re having so many different conversations around it. There are some things in that particular bill that need to be amended for me to even say yes or no right now, so I don’t even have a position at this time. It will come to our committee on Thursday and there’s some work that still needs to be done on the bill, and I will say that the sponsors are open to doing this work and we’re still having conversations around it.”