Rachel Dolezal, then president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, speaks at a rally in downtown Spokane. Credit: Aaron Robert Kathman / Wikimedia Commons

After a protest petition gathered more than 1,100 signatures, Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who describes herself as “transracial,” will no longer take part in DreamWeek.

Dolezal was scheduled to attend a screening of the documentary The Rachel Divide on Jan. 20 at Alamo Drafthouse. DreamWeek founder Shokare Nakpodia said a discussion with four panelists will follow the screening instead.

Nakpodia said the controversy around Dolezal’s appearance distracted from DreamWeek’s mission and events.

“We have over 150 partners and over 170 events that are being overshadowed by this situation, and we feel that it’s important to highlight them rather than focus so much attention on this,” he said. “We realize her presence here would cause some anguish with members of community and we don’t think that’s of any value, at all.”

Nakpodia said he originally thought hosting Dolezal would supplement discussion around the Netflix documentary about her. Screening The Rachel Divide was already on the slate for DreamWeek, he said, and someone suggested inviting her so attendees to ask her questions directly.

“You watch the documentary, you have the opportunity to [talk to her],” Nakpodia said. “That was it.”

Dolezal, who claims to be black and even served as president of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington, made headlines in 2015 when her parents confirmed she is white. Dolezal resigned from her post at the NAACP and lost her teaching job in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University. She has since legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Dolezal currently faces charges of welfare fraud in Washington.

The petition to disinvite Dolezal launched Sunday on Change.org. As of Thursday afternoon, it had 1,179 signatures.

“We take tremendous issue with Dolezal being given both an audience and opportunity to further monetize her exploitation of Black women and the community at large,” the petition’s description reads. “We will not – under the guise of enlightenment or egalitarianism – accept a woman who is a proven fraud lecturing us about her experience. Dolezal’s actions were not only dishonest, but they were deeply damaging to the Black community because she took opportunities away from the very members of the community she claimed to be working on behalf of.”

It was not the intention of DreamVoice, the group that organizes DreamWeek, to endorse or condone Dolezal’s actions, said Nakpodia, who serves as president of DreamVoice.

“This is not about Rachel,” he said. “This is about the people who were impacted, especially those were were close to her, especially the people who were children of color.”

Kirsten Thompson, who started the petition, said she feels the entire event should have been canceled. But Dolezal is disinvited, she said, and if the community was agreeable the documentary still being screened, she is OK with it, too.

“I do agree the conversations need to be had, but we don’t need to have the aggressor in the conversation,” Thompson said.

Entrepreneur and poet Naomi Johnson, who is hosting a DreamWeek event, agreed.

“To me, it’s like, [did] David Duke from the [Ku Klux] Klan need to be present to have a discussion about the Klan in the ’70s? Absolutely not,” she said. “We don’t need your speech about that, you’ve said enough. Your presence alone is going to create … disruption.”

Though she would have been provided lodging, DreamVoice would not have paid Dolezal for her time in San Antonio, Nakpodia said. He acknowledged that Dolezal might have been able to use her appearance for personal gain.

“Could she benefit from it? Yes,” he said. “She’s posting [about her activities on social media], that’s definitely some benefit to her. But what is the benefit to us? Is it much greater? You have to argue that too — of what benefit is it to us?”

DreamWeek, which was created to foster civic dialogue and engagement, can still fulfill its mission by bringing everyone to the table, Nakpodia said.

“We believe the truest voice will always triumph,” he said. “That is our belief. Why not allow everyone, grant everyone an audience? It might sound naive, but that’s what MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.] did. He confronted all these issues head-on. His heart, spirit, conscience, and vision prevailed.”

Dolezal could have been part of discussion around social injustice as a white woman, Thompson said, but she instead chose to misrepresent herself.

“She could have said, ‘I love black culture.’ She didn’t do that,” Thompson said. “When she [claimed to be black], she took away opportunities from women who could have served in some of those positions that she did.”

This story was originally published on Jan. 9, 2019.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.