This is the third installment of Attack on Academia, a series of interviews with academics who have endured sustained campaigns of threats and harassment from the alt-right. The first installment, an interview with Heidi Czerwiec, can be found here. The second piece in the series, an interview with Dana Cloud, can be found here. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Lisa Durden is a journalist, speaker and educator, and recipient of numerous honors and awards for her work in media and her community. Because of her experience as a political commentator, Durden was invited to speak on Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s program regarding a private party hosted by Black Lives Matter on Memorial Day. After her appearance on the program, during which she was compared to a Nazi and called “demented” by Carlson, Durden was abruptly fired by Essex County College, where she worked as an adjunct professor. In response to her comments regarding the party, Durden received a flood of hateful messages condemning her support of Black Lives Matter and their decision to have an exclusive gathering.
While the decision to fire Durden was supported in the media by outlets including Campus Reform, Durden’s side of the story, revealing the lack of due process and communication from the college, indicates deeper problems faced by adjuncts, people of color and women that regularly contribute to similar incidents to her firing, which she described as a “public lynching.”
Despite the outpouring of bigoted and threatening messages Durden received, her supporters have been equally vocal. Students and community members at Essex County College created a Facebook group and started a petition calling for Durden’s reinstatement and equal treatment of adjunct faculty, which can be found on Change.Org. On July 20, Durden spoke at a press conference and rally in support of her reinstatement, which was held by members of the local community.
After her employment at Essex County College was terminated, Weave News reporter Sarita Farnelli spoke with Durden about the lack of rights adjuncts experience, the repression of free speech by her former employer, and the reality of white privilege.
Weave News: Essex County College President Anthony Munroe told the Mercury News that the school has been “inundated with feedback from students, prospective students, and their families. So those are the people expressing frustration, concern, and even fear that the views expressed by a College employee (with influence over students) would negatively impact their experience on the campus.” Was there anything other than that given to justify your termination? Or was it just that abrupt? I mean, you are an adjunct, so...
Lisa Durden: I was never given any reason why I was suspended. Only the suspension letter. Nor was I given any reason why I was subsequently fired in the Vice President’s letter that was emailed to me. The day after the email President Monroe’s release that statement to the media. That statement was never shared with me prior. I became aware of Dr. Monroe’s statement when all of you found out, when he released it to the media.
I find it very suspicious that nearly three weeks after my appearance, he released that statement, saying that faculty, parents, students and prospective students were concerned? Where are these people? Why aren't they making a public statement? Where were those people at the Essex County College Board of Trustees meeting, which was held on the 20th of June, and open to the public to come and share their concerns and issues. I find it very curious that these so called individuals remain a mystery. They're nowhere to be found. However, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of supporters from Essex County College faculty, students, the New Jersey community, the country and the Nation who are coming out demanding that the college Reinstate me. Some who know me, and most who do not. They're from various parts of the United States, Canada and the UK. I've been on radio shows-- where they've called in expressing their support. Thousands have signed the petition! Many have written letters of support that they mailed to Essex County President Dr. Monroe and Vice President Dr. Lee. People who are in support of my right to free speech are not invisible! They are not hiding! They have been everywhere; online and offline!! Everyone is speaking out that Essex County College wrongfully fired me because I have the right to free speech. Many of the supporters are from diverse backgrounds who feel, “Lisa Durden did the right thing and she should be applauded for it and not fired for it.”
Thousands of people signed the petition that was started and created by Educators & Students United to Reinstate Professor Lisa Durden. So I find it curious that these mysterious people [ed: who complained about Durden’s appearance] are still a mystery. They're nowhere to be found. However, my supporters are coming out in droves by the thousands on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram), Educators, students, editorials, bloggers.
Although I was hired by Essex County College as a working professional, I never once spoke about controversial issues in any of my classes. I was asked to appear on Fox News as a political commentator to share my expert opinion on why Black Lives Matter had the right to assemble in a private celebration in a safe Black space. However, I did not ever mention Essex County College nor did I ever identify myself as a professor. That was a conversation that Fox News decided to have. That was their topic, not mine.
I decided to appear and participate in that discussion because it's about discourse, right? And I wanted to bring a historical perspective to the topic so that people can understand the issue of safe spaces and also to humanize [Black Lives Matter] and the event. Discourse does not mean you must agree -- but to understand!! What BLM did was about safe spaces, not segregation. It has zero to do with racism because racism has to have oppression as a part of it, and when did the event oppress the white community? Where was the oppression?
I ask the white community, where did this the one-day event to assemble in a private party oppressed you? Anybody white, tell me when the oppression took place? How were white people oppressed by the BLM Safe Space celebration?? Did any whites lose housing because of the BLM party? Were white people not given a fair shake in education because of the BLM party? Were white people turned down for a job because of the BLM party? How was that one-day celebration that Black Lives Matter had “racist”? Again, BLM had the party to celebrate those who were ignored for standing up for what they believed in, to remember those people of color who were forgotten, and those who were murdered senselessly; there is zero oppression in that.
So unless there is power to oppress a people based on race, there is no racism: PERIOD! I'm simply not going to debate the fact that "Black folks can't be racist." I'm not going to debate that fact because racists don’t want to hear the truth. But if you are a person, and luckily most people aren't racists, we don't have to explain to them that Black people are not able to be racists because they are aware that we don’t possess the power to oppress a people. We don't hold the power to impart that upon the white majority.
I am pleasantly surprised that many people on other platforms are still debating my issue. I'm waking up to notifications and seeing people of all races battling against racists trolls who dared to call me a racist. "There is white supremacy. There is racism against African-Americans still today, and everyone knows this! Although we had one Black President in almost 200 years, we don't live in a post-racial society. YES, here is such a thing as “white privilege." White people all over this country, all over social media are admitting, "We can tell the truth, it was a tough truth to swallow, but we know it's true and stop playing games.”
As the smoke begins to clear, I'm a bit happy about not that Essex County College fired me, but that it opened up this major dialogue that really needs to be had in a very direct, tough love way. And that's what it's done. So if you look on my platforms-- just go on my Twitter page, @LisaRDurden-- and you'll see the discussion happening still now without me. Not just with people of color but also with white people saying to white people, "Stop repeating your false narrative!" Lots of white people got sick of these racist white people calling me a racist so they started hitting them hard with statistics about racism and racists acts against people of color historically and currently. I started cracking up!! It made me smile to see that most people get it!! Most people applauded my appearance on Fox News. Most people cheered me on for speaking truth to power.
It was refreshing to see that they weren't name-calling while addressing the racist trolls. They were hitting them hard with historical facts. They were hitting them hard with data. They were hitting them hard with current issues. They are still talking about the issue on social media and it’s been nearly a month ago that I made my appearance on Fox News. What is very clear to me is people are sick of ignoring the ills of white supremacy. People of all races! It brings me pleasure to see that many white people stand up as allies who don’t tolerate racist bullies. That speaks volumes for character and integrity!
After my appearance I got thousands and thousands of people praising me and supporting me for speaking up for BLM. And when the racist trolls called me racial epithets like, “n*****,” to "nappy headed hoe," to "monkey," "n***** b****." Some sick man told me to suck his dick. He actually sent a picture, of his genitals and said the words, "Suck my white dick!" Despite hand-full of negativity from racists because I spoke truth, it was very nice to see that many-- white people-- are saying, "No more, white people. Those of you who are racist, we're not letting that happen. We're speaking up, even though we're part of this group. We're taking a stance because we don't want to stand for bullying." This kind of positive outpouring has been the most amazing thing. It tells me I did the right thing. It reinforces that did nothing wrong. It confirms that I have no reason to apologize. It tells me that the majority of the people that we interact with every day are not racists. Hate is not louder than love.
WN: So, the biggest issue has just been the failure to see that from the administration of the institution? They made the call to fire you in spite of all of this support for you. Has this just been protecting financial interests, do you think?
LD: Let me just say this -- I'm going to say it's very curious that Dr. Monroe had this outpouring of individuals from the school, not from the community, but from the school-- faculty, students, and parents-- that never materialized. There was no due process-- there was zero due process. I was never allowed to face my “accuser.” There was never any jury of my peers, if you will. There was never any of that, and that's why I call it a “modern day lynching.” Historically, a black person was lynched purely based on an accusation; no due process, no jury of their peers. The black person was simply hanged in the public from a tree in front of everyone on a Sunday afternoon. Lynchings were rogue justice. And they made sure to lynch you in public to send a strong message to others,"You get out of place, it'll be you next."
So I akin how Essex County College suspended me to a modern day lynching because I got ZERO due process. When I was told to dismiss my class that day I never made mention the them that I was going to HR but when I left the conference room after receiving the suspension letter the receptionist informed me that my students we waiting for me in another conference room.
So my students didn't even know I was going to Human Resources, and then when I walked out of Human Resources, they were there. I was mortified! I became physically ill!! I was thinking, “how did they know I was in human resources?? Isn’t my suspension supposed to be confidential??” I ran into a student in the community who informed me that they asked around the building to find out where I was that day and they were told that I was on the fifth floor in HR. So it tells me that there was ZERO confidentiality; everyone at the school knew about my suspension before I even stepped into the building. I didn’t even know I was being suspended!
Because I proved to be a stellar professor, a month prior to my suspension, I was already scheduled to teach three courses in September 2017 and students were already registering to take my classes. So, of course, the firing caused me financial harm, and more importantly, tarnished my reputation as an educator.
WN: I wanted to ask about the motives of the institution for firing you without any due process.
LD: I don't know the motive. I was never told why I was fired. The letter that I received from Dr. Lee made no mention of the reason. When I was suspended, I was not offered any reason in the suspension letter either.
WN: I don't even know what to say.
LD: Since this is a series where I’m the first African-American Adjunct that Weave News has interviewed, this piece could be a comparison. From what I understand from many people, black female professors are being targeted….
WN: The difference is very clear.
LD: I don't think that any person, no matter where you come from, thinks that people don't all suffer problems and pain. I think every person, no matter whether you're rich or poor, if you live long enough, you're going to get your feelings hurt. If you live long enough, you're going to be mistreated. If you live long enough, you're going to be disrespected. I think no one escapes that, right? No one escapes that no matter their gender. No one escapes that no matter their sexual orientation. No one escapes that no matter their race. Everyone knows what pain feels like. But matters of race goes a bit deeper than pain. Institutionalized racism is real and deadly. In order for this to change mind-sets have to change. In my perception, once mind-sets change, positive actions will follow. When people outside a particular group stand up for the marginalized group, that’s how change happens. We're taught from birth before the age of five, to "Be kind. Share. Be nice." It starts with those simple ideals. It starts with acceptances, respect and compassion. Everybody teaches their children that. So how do some people harm others based on race continues to saddens me? Ignoring the fact that white privilege exists is counterproductive. The only way to overcome any issue is to attack it with honesty and transparency.
WN: If I didn't, it's obvious by now. It's pretty telling that even though anyone could potentially go through what you went through, you are the first woman of color I've spoken to for this series, and completed an interview with, and you are the first person who has been fired. And you are the first person who has just been, like you said, publicly lynched by your employer. That says something. There are privileges that white people in your field have.
LD: Wow! I didn’t know that. But I am not surprised. What has happened to me as an adjunct professor of color should be concerning to all because if it happened to me, then who’s next? But here's the interesting thing-- even though you only interviewed white people for your series thus far, some of them spoke out against racism and they were not fired, they were reprimanded, but not fired; there is clearly a disparity. However, I applaud them for fighting. I'm very glad that they did it.
Here's my thing-- if everyone got fired, we'd all be screwed, wouldn't we? So if people who have white privilege use it for good people of color would not half as disadvantaged. The word privilege can be good. Let's be real clear-- White privilege-- or any kind of privilege-- is not a bad word unless you misuse your privilege. Power isn't a bad word unless you're misusing the power.
I'm into Gary Zukav's book, Authentic Power. Let's not misunderstand and demonize the words "privilege" and "power." I can't speak for all African-Americans, but I think people of color who call out white privilege, do so to expose its misuse! We applaud those who use power for good!
We can’t help the race we are born in. But we are all taught those very values-- be kind, be respectful-- be accepting; those words have no color. So anyone can choose to treat people accordingly.
What has happened to me, and the broader picture that this conversation has sparked is about the ravages of white supremacy and racism. I have gotten an outpouring of messages from many many white people, who are saying, "We're not accepting these racists, we're not accepting white supremacists, we're rejecting you." Reading those messages was music to my eyes.
I don't run around thinking about the power of my height. I'm tall. I don't run around thinking, "I'm tall!" Because I'm myself. But certainly when I'm in the supermarket and some short lady says, "Can you reach the top of the shelf and get something?" Then I realize I'm tall. So when I'm in a supermarket and somebody is trying to reach something, I don't have to help them, but I choose to use my height for good? So that same thing holds true for people in power. Instead of using it to harm, it could be used to help. There's nothing wrong with access. So people have to stop thinking that that's some kind of bad thing.
When I appeared on the Tucker Carlson show to discuss BLM Memorial Day Private Safe Space Party and I said, "You white people are angry because you can't use your white privilege card to get in," be real clear-- I was only referring to those white people who were angered by the event and who tried to wrongfully label BLM as a racist organization. That small minority who were trying to create the false narrative that BLM is like the KKK, was who I was speaking to. The Black Lives Matter organization is not a hate group. BLM has never killed anyone. BLM has never hanged anyone. BLM has never burned a cross in front of anyone’s home. BLM has never tied anyone to a truck and dragged them to their death but we all know that the KKK is guilty of all of the above. Black Lives Matter is about inspiring Black pride and black people standing up for our rights. That's their mission.
I have talked to many many many people about the BLM Safe Space Memorial day party and all of the said that they understood why that was needed and didn’t see it as racist at all. Nobody who isn't a racist would have given a crap about a private party being given by Black Lives Matter. Most of the audience that watches Fox did not care. The majority of the audience did not have an issue with it. Only the racist faction who watches that show, which is why they made a segment out of it. Which is why I made the decision to appear on the show to contextualize it.
Stripping away race, we've all experienced some sort of marginalization. We all on some level know what that feels like. You didn't get picked for the cheerleading squad, or the mean girls did something to you in school, or getting bullied by these football players when you are a little scrawny kid and maybe you're not the tough guy. Or whatever the case may be. Except that when you are a person of color, it's a little bit deeper, longer, and stronger, because we don’t live in a post racial society. We've all experienced it on that human level. That's why most people around the nation objected to me getting fired for exercising my right to free speech and being punished for it; evidenced by the thousands of supporters who signed the petition created by the group “Educators and Faculty United To Reinstate Professor Lisa Durden. Even the small minority of them who did not agree with everything I said expressed, "I don't agree with everything Professor Durden said because I don't have the same exact views as Professor Durden. However, her right to free speech was violated. She has a right to speak, and if you are a person who is open to dialogue, you're not afraid of this dialogue." It's not about us all agreeing, discourse it what makes us grow.
Discourse is what America is about. It means we may not agree, but what is the right thing? We may also agree. It's no different than a family. We have a family of moms, dads, kids, whomever. We fight with our siblings all the time, but you love them, right? You might fight with your mom, or you might fight with your dad, but we still love them. It doesn't make them or you a bad person. It means in this particular time and moment, we don’t agree. As the old saying goes, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
I was very disappointed when Essex County College fired me because I was looking very forward to teaching the three classes in the fall of 2017 that I was scheduled for. Although I had only been a professor at Essex County College since the spring of 2017, I taught two classes and because I was excellent they gave me a summer class. If I had been a disaster, they wouldn't have given me a summer class. I earned the opportunity from sheer merit. And then I was doing so well by the middle of the summer session one, they scheduled me to teach three classes in the fall of 2017. So by the middle of May 2017, I was already scheduled for the fall, and students were registering for my classes. I kept proving myself and they gave me more. My work ethic was my tenure!
Now, I would have loved to have gotten tenure, it wasn't available to me since I was a new professor. However, Lisa killed class that she was assigned. She was the bomb dot com, and they gave me more. No school is going to embarrass themselves by giving an unprofessional professor three classes because they're doing her a favor. Why would they be doing me a favor? There was no favor. I earned those opportunities. As most media professionals like myself, I enjoyed teaching in my field of my expertise. Content creators teach as college professors; Filmmaker Spike Lee, journalist Melissa Harris Perry, novelist Karen Hunter to name a few. I had plans on doing more teaching at other colleges as well, which is what many adjuncts do. Now I fear my stellar reputation as an educator has been soiled by this injustice.
One of the many defining moments during this whole thing was when I attended the Essex County College Board of Trustees meeting as a private citizen on June 20, 2017. At that point I had already been suspended. About fifteen people including Faculty, Students, past students, Union reps and the community at large, one by one, got on the microphone to demand my reinstatement because they all felt that I had the right to free speech. One professor in particular, Dr. DeFreece, got on the microphone and said something very eye opening, “One of the reasons why I am demanding Professor Durden’s reinstatement, not only is Professor Durden phenomenal, I was sending students to take her class over the summer because I saw her speak on many occasions and she is amazing!! In fact, she's so good, that on two occasions, our Vice President who also witnessed Lisa’s speeches and how the students reacted, loved her so much he was telling me how we should hire her full-time. Many of my students also heard wonderful things from other students who took the classes that she taught in the Spring. So I enthusiastically encouraged my students to take her effective speech class." I had no clue that Dr. DeFreece was aware of my work because we didn’t speak often and I had no idea that she was at the various panels and workshops that Essex County College invited me to speak on and was impressed. And I had no clue that the Vice President Dr. Lee was singing my praises until I heard Dr. DeFreece tell the room of over 100 people at the Board of Trustees meeting. After learning that, I became crystal clear that my suspension was very questionable. I was truly baffled that Dr. Lee signed both my suspension and fire letter after hearing that he said all of these wonderful things about me-- wow! Dr. Lee is an educated man who wasn’t running singing my praises because as Dr. DeFreece said, he was impressed with my work and my impact with students. I was for sure on what you would call a “fast track.” And strangely I’m suspended immediately after appearing on The Tucker Carlson Show? Hmmm? Some say, “The administrators who fired me don't care about students because if they did, they would have continued to allow her to teach and her impact her students.”
WN: And there's a difference between supporting a party being a private party, and being exclusive in the classroom, or any professional capacity. Nothing that you said on Tucker Carlson's show suggested anything about your behavior as a professor or as a member of the media or in any of the roles that you play.
LD: Right. They hired me and they were excited about me because I'm also a working professional in the field that I teach. They were well aware for many years before I taught there what I did for a living because they’ve invited me to speak on panels, facilitate workshops and speak in media classrooms to students many times over 13 years. For free!
As a producer of factual content, I've also hired many students for coveted internships, that turned into paid positions. So yes, Essex County College was well aware that I was a TV Personality and producer, which is what they loved about me. They also received my ten-page curriculum vitae during the vetting process which lists all of my experience including links to clips of some of my Fox News and other major media outlets. Everything I do as a media professional lives in my curriculum vitae so Essex County College was not blind sided. In fact, as recent as March 2017 they invited me to speak on a panel that they hosted called, “Radical Women In Media.”
Additionally, all of my social media platforms are available for public consumption. Everything I do is very transparent. Do you think that they didn't do their due diligence and vet me for a year and not look at my social media platform? Of course they did. So it begs the question, all of that was okay until “somebody complained” about what I said outside of the classroom and made no mention of my affiliation with the college? Now I’m fired? Again, Hmmmm?
My curiosity is, I'm thinking it's not “professors, and parents, and students from Essex County College who complained” as the President Dr. Monroe said. I'll just leave it there. Because it was Professors, educators and students who in fact created a petition demanding my reinstatement. Where [the complaining] faculty and students are, I don't know. That remains a mystery. So it begs the question, who are these complainants?? Because Karen Bridgett HR said something very different at my suspension. She said that I was being suspended because I made mention of my affiliation with the college on the Tucker Carlson show, which in fact I did not.
Then it went from that explanation to her saying, “we're going to see if there's a conflict of interest. Then a whopping three weeks later, [Essex County College President] Munroe released a statement and I am fired via email from Dr. Lee. So I've got to wonder how curious that looks.
WN: It's definitely worth getting that out there, just so that people can see it written down, you know, see for themselves that this story doesn't quite line up.
LD: Right. It doesn't line up mathematically. Let me rephrase it-- it does line up mathematically. But they're trying to make it not line up. I asked people, "Don't ask me why I got fired. We all have critical thinking. I was a stellar professor. They were aware that I was a working professional in my field. They knew that I made appearances on Fox News and various major networks as a subject matter expert in the areas of pop culture, politics and social issues. They celebrated my work by inviting me to sit on panels, facilitate workshops and speak in classrooms to students for over 13 years prior to hiring me as a professor at the college. I was a wonderful contribution to the students at Essex County College for well over a decade. And I was summarily suspended and subsequently fired after I spoke up for the right for BLM to assemble at a private party as a safe space and speaking truth to power about the “white privilege??” So my question to you all is, “Why do y’all think I got fired from Essex County College after my appearance on Fox News?” I'm not asking racists to answer because we clearly know what they're going to say. I’m asking the millions of you who are not racists and believe in the right to free speech to share your opinion.