Meet Oregon's Next Education Director: A 'Social Justice Advocate' Who Wants Teachers to 'Own' Their 'Privilege'

Charlene Williams's appointment comes as Oregon students struggle

Tina Kotek / Getty Images
July 8, 2023

The woman who will soon be tasked with turning around Oregon's poor student achievement levels is a longtime "social justice advocate" who has railed against a "colorblind" curriculum and compelled teachers to "own" their "privilege," a Washington Free Beacon review found.

Oregon Democratic governor Tina Kotek on June 27 appointed Charlene Williams to become the state's next education director, lauding Williams in a press release as "exactly the leader our state education system needs at this moment." Williams, a former deputy superintendent who is described in a 2019 bio as a "social justice advocate," has long pushed controversial "equity" policies inspired by prominent critical race theorists.

One district under Williams's purview, for example, in 2018 implemented its first ever "equity" policy, which required teachers to "own" their "privilege" and commit to dismantling "practices and policies that perpetuate oppression." Williams led teacher trainings to advance the policy, one of which entailed a semester-long discussion on Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, which argues that white people are "conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society." One third-grade teacher who went through Williams's training said the district was "trying to get kids to take stock of whiteness and what that means."

Williams's appointment comes as Oregon students struggle to meet academic benchmarks. Its student achievement levels in basic knowledge and skills are "significantly" below national averages, according to the state. Williams will now work to improve those achievement levels by overseeing the Oregon public school system and managing its funding. Oregon Democrats in June funneled a record $10.2 billion into the state's school fund, which is expected to reach $15.3 billion when local tax revenue is included.

"I recognize the significance of my appointment to this role and the immense amount of work we have ahead of us," Williams said following her appointment, adding that she is particularly excited to build "partnerships with students, educators, and families across Oregon that advance equity."

As assistant superintendent of the Portland-area Camas School District between 2016 and 2022, Williams helped usher in the district’s first ever "equity policy," which many district parents went on to blast as overly "woke" during a May 2021 school board meeting. One parent slammed the policy as an effort to push a "hidden agenda" on students, asking if Williams was working to implement "the 1619 Project in disguise," a reference to a piece of work from New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones that "directly challenges the narrative of American exceptionalism."

Williams's equity policy promoted the use of race and sex-based affinity groups and called for an "emphasis on correcting historical mis- and dis-information," according to parents. Kotek specifically praised Williams for establishing the so-called affinity groups, which effectively act to segregate individuals based on immutable characteristics, such as race. In one case, a Massachusetts school district settled a lawsuit over its affinity groups, pledging to ensure that the groups are open to all students, not just those of a certain race or sex.

As deputy superintendent at Washington-based Evergreen Public Schools, Williams similarly helped facilitate a new strategic plan, "every aspect" of which had "equity threaded through it," according to the district's superintendent. District leaders reportedly said the plan, along with Williams's work to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion, helped the district see things through a new "equity lens."

During her time at Camas School District, meanwhile, Williams gave a TEDxYouth talk that encouraged listeners to inject race into public schools and slammed the idea of a "colorblind" curriculum, arguing it makes white people "blind to injustice." Educators, Williams said, have an "obligation" to "disrupt and repair" the current school system through antiracist efforts, arguing that "all things being equal does not mean equitable outcomes." "You are part of the problem, and you are part of the solution," Williams said.

Kotek's office did not return a request for comment on Williams's social justice emphasis and how it may impact her performance as education director. Williams will take over as the state's interim director on July 10, a title she will hold until September, when Oregon's senate will take up her confirmation vote.