FORT WORTH, Texas — Blanca Martinez stepped up to the podium at a recent meeting of the Fort Worth School Board. She and dozens of others were at the meeting to speak out against critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that explores how racism is embedded in U.S. policies and systems. CRT wasn’t on the agenda, and isn’t taught in schools or a part of any staff training.

What You Need To Know

  • The same names continue to appear during the public comment periods of school board meetings all over North Texas, and they almost exclusively repeat the same conservative talking points

  • A movement to train activists has amped up grassroots parental organizing around the country, as seasoned conservative operatives are seizing on the issue to gain political momentum

  • Some organizations are creating training "toolkits" for activists

  • Activists and parents have launched 50 recall efforts this year aimed at unseating 126 school board members

“I’m a grandmother of three in Fort Worth who are about to start school, but I’d rather homeschool them because I’m terrified about what’s happening — not only with the CRT — but more importantly with the vaccines,” she said. “CRT is a poison. It’s a poison to the mind. It corrupts. Vaccines is [sic] a poison to your body, and it kills."

“Fort Worth has been doing both,” she screamed into the microphone to applause.

Just before the trustees met, Martinez and a smattering of others participated in The March Against Critical Race Theory, a protest organized by former student Carlos E Turcios — who was appointed to the district’s Racial Equity Committee by long-tenured board member Tobi Jackson. The trustee was unanimously voted board president later at that meeting.

Roughly a month before Martinez’s impassioned speech, she spoke at a meeting of the Frisco school board and delivered a similar message. CRT is not a part of Frisco ISD’s curriculum, nor is it a part of any staff training. Weeks before that appearance, she spoke at a school board meeting in Arlington to discuss vaccinations. When she’s not commenting at school board meetings, Martinez sets up shop — megaphone in hand — at local craft mall Trader's Village to warn people about vaccines.

Martinez wasn’t the only anti-critical race theory activist who has been traveling to various school board meetings. The same names continue to appear during the public comment periods of meetings all over North Texas, and they almost exclusively repeat the same conservative talking points.

A movement to train activists has amped up grassroots parental organizing around the country, bringing the lens and stakes of national politics — along with the playbook of seasoned GOP activists — to school boards.

While some among the local political cognoscenti have dismissed this trend as just passionate activists rallying to a cause, many others insist there is something more nefarious at work.

Critics of these traveling activists allege they are a part of a well-coordinated effort to foment mistrust and create chaos. While the end result of their efforts is often unclear, the tactics are similar.

Organizations like Citizens Renewing America, a nonprofit seeking to “renew an American consensus of a nation under God,” have published toolkits for combating critical race theory. The toolkit includes tips for identifying CRT, for growing a grassroots network and for “winning back your school board.” The toolkit describes CRT as a form of identity politics aimed at destroying any institution deemed to be oppressive — including Christianity, free markets and traditional marriage — and painting “straight white people” as oppressors.

Once people see CRT for what it really is, the guide claims, they will rebel against it.

The organization is led by Russ Vought, a former Trump administration official who became involved in anti-CRT efforts during the Trump administration. While he was director of the Office of Management and Budget, part of his role was to implement the president’s executive order banning funding for CRT and other diversity training.

“The days of taxpayer-funded indoctrination trainings that sow division and racism are over,” Vought tweeted in September 2020.

Vought’s nonprofit has become the behind-the-scenes leader in the battle over CRT being fought in churches and school boards around the country. Observers worry that this recent spate of school board interruptions by a few zealots will change the discussion about race and racial justice — any mention of either will now become labeled as CRT, and any policies for addressing racial inequities will be rejected because of that label.

Activists are swarming school boards all over the country

Conflicts like the ones in North Texas are playing out in cities and towns across the country, amid the rise of at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender, according to an NBC News analysis of media reports and organizations’ promotional materials. Reinforced by conservative think tanks, law firms and activist parents, these groups have found allies in families frustrated over COVID-19 restrictions in schools and have weaponized the right’s opposition to critical race theory, turning it into a political rallying point.

While the efforts vary, they share strategies of disruption, publicity and mobilization. The groups swarm school board meetings, inundate districts with time-consuming public records requests and file lawsuits and federal complaints alleging discrimination against white students. They have become media darlings in conservative circles and made the debate over critical race theory a national issue.

Virtually all school districts insist they are not teaching critical race theory, but many activists and parents have begun using it as a catch-all term to refer to what schools often call equity programs, teaching about racism or LGBTQ-inclusive policies.

Now, conservative activists are setting their sights on ousting as many school board members as they can, and local Republicans have vowed to help, viewing the revolt against critical race theory as akin to the Tea Party wave from a decade ago.

Activists and parents have launched 50 recall efforts this year aimed at unseating 126 school board members, according to a new report from Ballotpedia, a website that tracks U.S. politics and elections. Most of those recalls — which already surpass the record for a single year — started as objections to COVID-19 restrictions, but five of the most recently launched campaigns, including a particularly contentious fight in Loudoun County, Va., include concerns about critical race theory.

Prominent Republican political figures are rushing in to support the parent activists, hoping that these local battles will mobilize conservative voters in next year’s midterms and beyond. The push comes as President Joe Biden and Democrats have benefited from popular economic legislation, but show some vulnerability on culturally divisive issues. As former Trump adviser Steve Bannon put it on his podcast in May: “The path to save the nation is very simple — it’s going to go through the school boards.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, said this month that he would get the “political apparatus involved so we can make sure there’s not a single school board member who supports critical race theory.” Political action committees have been set up dedicated to the cause.

The growth of school board-focused groups has coincided with a broader conservative effort to make critical race theory a national referendum on the discussion of race in America.

Throughout the winter, organizations like the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which produces model bills on Republican causes, held webinars that warned about the threat of teaching critical race theory.

Though the political action committees and nonprofit groups will eventually disclose financial information, in most cases, this hasn’t happened yet, so it’s unclear how much money this fight has drawn. Southlake Families PAC, organized around a school board battle in a wealthy Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, raised more than $215,000 as of April 21, according to finance reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. That doesn't include more than $100,000 raised by two PAC-backed school board candidates, who successfully ran on a platform of stopping the district's Cultural Competence Action Plan.

Conservative school board activism is attracting extremists

One of the more outspoken, well-known local anti-CRT critics to appear at various school board meetings is Kevin Whitt, who was recently fired from his position as an organizer for the Republican Party for posting videos of himself on social media at the Capitol building during the Jan. 6 riot.

Whitt was hired Nov. 30, 2020, as a field organizer. He is best known as an activist who talks about his experience leaving behind his life as a drag queen to become deeply religious and advocate on social conservative issues.

Whitt was front and center at Fort Worth’s recent White Lives Matter rally, and he’s known for fighting against gay/trans issues. Whitt was forcibly removed by police from the Frisco school board meeting in which CRT was the topic of public discussion. He attended the Fort Worth meeting but did not speak publicly.

Another video on Whitt's social media accounts, dated mid-December, shows him confronting a woman inside the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington, D.C., which has been at the center of the debunked Pizzagate conspiracy theory. The claim emerged ahead of the 2016 election, suggesting that Democratic elites were running a child sex-trafficking ring out of the pizzeria. The restaurant and its employees have been repeatedly harassed and threatened by people who believe the conspiracy theory. In 2017, a man was sentenced to four years in prison after firing an AR-15 rifle while searching inside the restaurant.

In the video, Whitt asks the woman how she feels about working "in a restaurant that is known for pedophilia." The woman asks Whitt to leave, and he says she can call the cops and that he will not leave.

Whitt then shouts into the restaurant: “Y’all are abusing children. You are pedophiles. Do not eat here. All of y’all should leave. They are serving up dead kids. This place is known ... for a restaurant that is sex trafficking children."

Whitt created The Whitt Project whose mission is “saving our country from being destroyed by the Marxist agenda,” according to its website. The project is not listed among Texas’ 501c3 nonprofits. In a recent social post, Whitt said he now lives exclusively off donations — though did contemplate returning to work as a hairdresser.

Ajua Yvette Mason, Kelly Joel and others also spoke at both the Fort Worth and Frisco meetings against CRT and have made comments at other school board meetings around the area.

This week, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law that bans the teaching of CRT, but observers don’t think that will slow the momentum of the anti-CRT movement or the growing trend of school board-focused activism.

As a result of this movement, school boards are now facing an influx of lawsuits and records requests that can cost money and time that are in short supply, as well as public meetings that have become a sounding board for a variety of far-right causes.

Neither Citizens Renewing America nor Kevin Whitt returned emails and messages requesting an interview for this story.