One of the 14 local school board members whom Gov. Ron DeSantis has targeted for removal in next year’s election is Jennifer Jenkins, a 36-year-old elementary school speech pathologist who achieved a miracle in 2020 by defeating a far-right incumbent in a deep red Florida county by nine points.
Jenkins is also a mom and she was at her Brevard County home on Friday morning with her 7-year-old daughter Olive, who was having a playdate with a best buddy. Jenkins then got a call that necessitated a sudden change in plans.
“I told [Olive] I was going to meet the vice president,” Jenkins told The Daily Beast. “She thought I was joking and she laughed at me. And then she said, ‘Will you be home before bedtime?’”
The day before, the Florida Department of Education had posted a 216-page manual titled “Academic Standards—Social Studies, 2021.” The board, which is not elected but rather appointed by Gov. DeSantis and includes a Moms for Liberty member, listed a number of “clarifications” that should now be taught in the state’s schools.
One is that “slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” Another supposed “clarification” dictates that such atrocities as the 1920 Ocoee Massacre and the 1923 Rosewood massacre in Florida should be taught as “acts of violence perpetrated against and by African Americans.” Never mind that the perpetrators were white and the victims were Black.
Word of these outrageous obfuscations of the truth reached Vice President Kamala Harris and she immediately made plans to travel to Jacksonville, Florida, on Friday to voice a response. The chosen venue was the Ritz Theatre and Museum, a center dedicated to clarifying Black history and culture in the city’s La Villa section, once known as the “Harlem of the south.”
Jenkins was invited to attend as someone who has been on the front lines of the culture wars as fought in her home county. The incumbent Jenkins unseated in 2020, Tina Descovich, has gone on to co-found Moms for Liberty. The extremist organization, lauded by both DeSantis and Donald Trump, has included Jenkins among its prime targets.
“They are moms for something, but not liberty,” Jenkins once remarked.
Jenkins has gone on to stage often solitary fights in Brevard: first for mask mandates during the pandemic, and later for LBGTQ+ rights and against book banning. Protesters jeered in front of her house and once brandished weapons behind it. Giant letters “FU” were burned into her lawn. She and her family were threatened and followed. She was vilified online. Republican state Sen. Randy Fine, known as DeSantis’ attack dog, repeatedly called her a “whore.” Someone accused her anonymously of abusing her daughter. The complaint was dismissed as bogus but not before an investigator checked Olive for marks and bruises, finding none.
“I’ve been fighting for two years in a state where so often I felt alone in the fight,” she told The Daily Beast.
The invitation to see Harris reminded her that even though she was the sole Democrat on her local school board, she has many allies. But Jacksonvile was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from her house in Satellite Beach and she had to scramble to get there. She first had to tell the other child’s mom that she was moving the playdate to her father’s house.
“I’m going to meet the vice president,” Jenkins explained.
Jenkins was on the way to Jacksonville when he got another call, this one asking her to introduce Harris at the event. Jenkins later said she found the prospect “terrifying.” But it became less so when she stepped before the crowd at the Ritz and the big moment came.
“It’s also really empowering to be in a space where like-minded people are together and supportive and willing to fight alongside of you,” she recalled. “So it kind of calms your nerves when you’re finally out there.”
Jenkins began by speaking as a mom for actual liberty, who fears for her child’s future in the Florida public schools.
“We will have her growing up in a system that whitewashes history and diminishes the contributions of African Americans in our curriculum,” Jenkins said. “A system that seeks to erase the LGBTQ community from our student bodies, our faculty, and our libraries. A system that bans access to bathrooms before the weapons that murder our children in their classrooms.”
She then spoke as someone who has been fighting it day after day.
“I would say to our visitors today, welcome, welcome to Florida. But one thing our Republican leadership has made very clear is that Florida isn’t welcoming at all. And I can tell you as a Democratic school board member on the front lines of this educational war, it’s not welcoming to our students, our teachers, and our parents either.”
Jenkins decried the unwelcoming powers in her state that seek to rewrite the past.
“They may want to make us relive the darkest parts of that history,” she said. “But today we get to witness history as our vice president gets to school the Florida Department of Education.”
She paused for an exultant instant.
“And I am so here for it,” she said. “So, it is my absolute honor to introduce the Vice President of the United States of America.”
No notes had been set out on the podium for Harris and she did not appear to produce any. Harris seemed to be guided solely by the outrage that had propelled her to Florida after she heard the State Board of Education’s new “clarifications.”
“To debate whether enslaved people benefited from slavery—are you kidding me?” she said. “Middle school students in Florida [are] told that enslaved people benefited from slavery. High-schoolers may be taught that victims of violence or massacres are also perpetrators… They insult us in an attempt to gaslight us, and we will not have it.”
Harris spoke of the war being fought by Jenkins in Brevard and by stalwart souls across the state.
“What is happening here in Florida? Extremist so-called leaders for months have dared to ban books. Extremists here in Florida passed a law, ‘don’t say gay,’ trying to instill fear in our teachers that they should not live their full life and love who they love,” Harris said. “And now, on top of all of that, they want to replace history with lies.”
On the drive back home, Jenkins continued to feel empowered. But she knows there is a tough fight ahead with those whom Harris rightly branded as extremists.
“It’s not gonna go away,” Jenkins said. “They’re not gonna magically turn around because she showed up. It’s really important that we keep the pressure on them.”
At 8 p.m., Jenkins arrived at her father’s house to pick up Olive. She started the 15-minute drive home.
“[Olive] asked if the vice president is a girl,” Jenkins told The Daily Beast on the way. “I said, ‘She is. Girls can be president, too.’ I said I’ll show her pictures at bedtime.”