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Educator warns of far-right ideas seeping into mainstream

Joan Braun
Joan Braun

By Marijke Fakasiieiki

Joan Braune is concerned about the influence of fascism and far-right groups seeping into the culture in spaces like schools, academia, video games, renaissance fairs, comic books and even faith communities.

Most of her five years in Spokane have been a crash course in the history of fascism in the Pacific Northwest. Joan, who is involved with Gonzaga University's Institute for Hate Studies, spoke at the November International Conference on Hate Studies.

"Given that fascism is a social movement seeking power, we need to know that we only defeat it with other social movements that promote what we want, like economic and racial justice," said Joan.

She encourages teachers to educate themselves and converse with students on how to respond to issues that arise, so they are not intimidated by anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups in their community. Students want to learn about fascism, she added, because some of their friends are being drawn into it.

Conversations, interactions and connections can strengthen interfaith ties and awareness of one's faith to counteract hate as such groups want to take over layers of culture to seem to be a normal option in conservative politics.

She also encourages Christians to be attuned to how anti-Semitism may show up unconsciously in their faith.

Even though Vatican II Council encouraged the Catholic Church to engage in dialogue with the Jewish community, Joan hears generalizations, such as, "the Old Testament is about the law, and we are about love," or "Don't be like the Pharisees."

"We need to be aware of how we may contribute to anti-Semitism or Islamophobia as we teach and study our faith," said Joan, who earned a bachelor's in philosophy and mathematics in 2006 at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. She also earned a master's in philosophy in 2008 and a doctorate in 2013 at the University of Kentucky, before becoming a lecturer in philosophy at Gonzaga University.

Joan grew up in an interfaith household. She attended Catholic parish education classes and Mass with her Jewish mother, going on to a Catholic University.

"Being Jewish is part of my identity," she said. "It's why I do interfaith work.

Joan helped start Bridges Not Walls for dialogue between Christians and Muslims in Spokane.

At a 2018 rally for immigrant rights, someone learning that Joan, as a Catholic, was interested in fighting Islamophobia, connected her with members of the Muslim community, including Muslims for Community Action in Spokane (MCAS).

In discussions, they realized that Catholic involvement in Islamophobia and hate groups was national, not local, but they wanted to educate Catholics and bring them into community with Muslims.

In December 2020, they drew nearly 75 people to a forum at Gonzaga on Mary/Miriam in Catholicism and Islam. This December, they held a "Welcoming Afghan Refugees" event with MCAS, Refugee Connections Spokane, the Islamic Center and World Relief Spokane, attended by about 250.

That group has also held an Iftar dinner at the Saranac, hosts online forums and has a reading group.

Education and connections help overcome misunderstandings from people who promote hate and seek to divide people, she said, noting that such ideas seep into academia through research, activities, theories, platforms and organizations.

People are not shouting racial slurs, making Nazi salutes or waving swastika flags, so the spaces look from the outside to be scholars engaging in ordinary academic activities, rather than being connected to violent movements, she said.

"The attack on critical race theory was started by the far right," Joan added, warning that some think tanks whip up fear, using white nationalist or fascist talking points as they campaign to shut public education and create more private schools.

"Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) follows attacks on universities and K-12 education locally," said Joan.

Fear is spread about critical race theory to threaten those who teach the U.S. history of racism, she said.

Hate groups want to keep children and youth, who lack a sense of belonging or community, afraid, angry and vulnerable. Then they use misinformation to recruit them, such as with online memes and jokes, she explained.

Joan urges parents and educators to talk with their children—not to ban them from internet but to help them grow to be responsible citizens.

While some in K-12 say it's free speech until it becomes disruptive, Joan wants parents, teachers and students to be in conversation. "Schools need to educate on hate group recruitment, so they understand what students are being exposed to and how to counter it."

Schools may say, "Hate has no home here, this is not who we are," but Joan knows teachers and students of color, or who are LGBTQ, Muslim or Jewish, experience racism, exclusion and micro-aggression. By acknowledging what is happening, teachers and parents can ask what they can do so they are not a place hospitable to this hate.

Joan realizes that for this generation of 18-year-olds, political categories of "normal" are different, given the political climate of most of their years.

Conversations may not always bring resolutions, she said, noting it's important to decide who it's possible to debate and have dialogue with, because the far right has manipulated "free speech" as a tactic.

"It does not help to debate overt fascists, but we can have good debates and conversations with sincere conservatives," she said.

Joan calls for reclaiming spaces.

If someone running for office uses openly white nationalist speech, she said it's important to call them out.

"De-platforming, such as shouting down a speaker, may silence someone," Joan said, "but education is needed to build alternative spaces for discussions, where students find meaning and belonging, and treasure diversity. If we don't build those spaces, angry, alienated people looking for meaning may move to the right.

Joan said appropriate responses include community education, protests, cultural events, outreach and mutual aid or direct aid to people. In addition, schools can collaborate with community centers and arts organizations. Activist groups, nonprofits and charities can collaborate.

"For safety, we need to know when hate happens so the whole community, including conservatives in coalitions, can mobilize," she said.

Since the 1980s, many have called for leaving hate for cops to address, not giving it more media attention to avoid increasing its influence.

Joan encourages people to reach out to local organizations doing anti-hate work, including the Gonzaga Institute for Hate Studies.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2022