The Pentagon official who oversees diversity, equity and inclusion for the Defense Department’s schools is at the center of an inquiry from lawmakers who said she made “racially disparaging” comments.
Now, Kelisa Wing, who has led diversity efforts for the Department of Defense Education Activity since December 2021, is pushing back against those claims in an exclusive interview with Military Times. She emphasized that she is speaking only as a private citizen and educator, and not on behalf of DoDEA.
“No, I did not make disparaging comments against white people. I would never categorize an entire group of people to disparage them. I’m speaking now as a private individual, about my private free speech from July of 2020,” she said.
At issue is a tweet Wing sent that month, before she was appointed to her current position.
“I’m so exhausted at these white folx in these PD [professional development] sessions this lady actually had the CAUdaacity to say that black people can be racist too … I had to stop the session and give Karen the BUSINESS … we are not the majority, we don’t have power.”
Wing’s tweets have since been removed along with most of the videos on her web page, and her Twitter account is now set to private. FoxNews.com first reported on Sept. 13 about remarks made by Wing before she took on her current position.
Wing told Military Times that tweet must be considered within the context of that day. The professional development session was was not affiliated with DoDEA, she said. It was held outside of work on a day when she was off.
“I was in a space where I was the only person of color,” she said. It was in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in 2020. “The purpose of that was people wanting to reconcile what was happening at the present time.
“In the middle of that session, someone just called out, ‘Well, Black people are racist, too.’ It didn’t have any context to what we were talking about, and I started to explain to her that yes, everybody can be racist. But we’re talking about systemic racism and how that impacts people and their ability for housing, their ability for a lot of things.
“That’s something that I thought we were there to discuss.”
The lawmakers also cited press reports stating that Wing tweeted she was “exhausted by 99% of the white men in education and 95% of the white women.”
Those reports are wrong, Wing said. Fox News correctly reported in September that the tweet was made by another Twitter user, she said. Fox reported that she responded to the tweet, saying “If another Karen tells me about her feelings … I might lose it …”
Somehow, a follow-up story in December attributed the original tweet to her, she said.
That is now gaining traction at other news outlets and in Congress, and “it’s an absolute lie,” Wing said.
“The truth is important. I never would say anything like that,” she said. “It’s in direct contradiction and misalignment to who I am and who I’ve been my entire life.
“I can’t advocate for equity and access and opportunity and then not be willing to advocate for myself when an injustice is happening for myself,” she added. “I have to stand up at some point, and this is the right time.”
Since the first press reports appeared in September, lawmakers have been pressing defense officials to respond to their concerns.
That same month, 20 Republican lawmakers, including members of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, demanding to know whether DoD officials were aware of Wing’s tweets before they placed her in her current position.
Lawmakers also asked Austin whether DoDEA endorses “the ideology” in those tweets, and whether it’s been incorporated into the curriculum proposed by DoDEA.
The House members followed up with a second letter to Austin on Jan. 30.
“It is outrageous that a DoD official whose job it is to oversee ‘worldwide K-12 education programs for the children of DoD personnel’ has engaged in racially disparaging comments with clear inflammatory language on her social media and in other writings,” wrote Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., chairman of that committee’s military personnel subcommittee.
“To date, no meaningful answers have been forthcoming,” Rogers and Banks noted.
DoDEA spokesman Will Griffin told Military Times that Wing’s position as chief of diversity, equity and inclusion has not changed. Wing, an Army veteran, was named DoDEA Teacher of the Year in 2017, the first person of color to achieve that honor.
Rogers and Banks are asking for answers by Monday. They want all materials related to whether DoD officials were aware of Wing’s comments before hiring her.
They are also asking for all materials used by DoDEA, including educational materials, that promote “the exclusion, denigration, discrimination of any individual or group of people on account of race or ethnicity, critical race theory, or culpability of any living person for historical actions.
In addition, they are seeking all early childhood and primary school course information, and any material related to service members’ parental rights over their children’s “educational formation.”
Asked about the House members’ concerns, Wing reiterated that she is speaking as a private citizen, not on behalf of DoDEA.
“The work of diversity, equity, inclusion in any setting is not about elevating one group of people over the next,” she said. “It is the understanding that when everyone has what they need to be successful, everyone is successful.”
More than 67,000 students attend 159 schools operated by DoDEA worldwide.
No information was available about the results of any DoD inquiry into the matter.
“We are in receipt of the House Armed Services Committee chairman’s letter on this matter, dated January 30th,” said a Pentagon spokesman in a statement provided to Military Times. “We are taking appropriate actions now to address the chairman’s specific concerns with members of the committee.”
A controversy over ‘wokeness’
In another tweet from 2017, Wing described herself as a “woke administrator.”
Wing told Military Times that, for her, “woke” means “being conscious, being aware, being aware of my surroundings, being aware of everything … that’s what it means to me and what it’s always meant to me.”
In their letters to Austin, the House representatives also referred to comments in books associated with Wing, saying she “reportedly disseminated her woke invectives.” The books are part of a series of children’s books on racial justice in America, with titles including “What Does It Mean to Defund Police,” “What is White Privilege?” and “What is Anti-Racism?”
The front covers of the books list each author and “with Kelisa Wing.” However, Wing said, “I want to go on record that I’m not the author of those books.” She describes her role as a “content adviser,” helping lay out what the general themes and purposes of the chapters should be.
A review of all the DoDEA school libraries by the group Open The Books, a nonprofit government watchdog, found that 11 of the schools collectively carried 45 copies of these racial justice series books.
Wing said she doesn’t promote these books through her DoDEA work, and she doesn’t receive royalties from the sale of those books.
Wing is the author of four books: “Conversations” (2006); “Weeds & Seeds: How to Stay Positive in the Midst of life’s Storms” (2017); “Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline” (2018); and “If I Could: Lessons for Navigating an Unjust World” (2020). She was a also contributing author of “Becoming a Globally Competent Teacher” (2019)
In one professional development video from 2021, she mentioned to her DoDEA audience that she is proud of her book “Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline,” and held it up, saying “shameless plug.”
As for questions about possible concerns about ethics and conflicts of interest between her private enterprises and her position at DoDEA, Wing said, “I disclose to my employer my private activities as required to do so and have always done.”
Wing served in the Army for six years and left as a staff sergeant. She has worked for DoDEA for more than a decade.
At the time she was named 2017 DoDEA State Teacher of the Year, she was teaching 8th grade language arts and reading at Faith Middle School on Fort Benning, Georgia. Her students nominated her.
Wing “has been involved with diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for students and schools over many years,” according to the Dec. 8, 2021, press release announcing her selection as DoDEA’s chief of diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Kelisa Wing is exactly the right person to lead our efforts in building on the foundational work done to support meaningful change in our organization,” said DoDEA Director Tom Brady in the 2021 announcement. “This new position will take a holistic approach to identifying and improving how we integrate the practice of diversity, equity and inclusion in every aspect of DoDEA, from curriculum and assessment to hiring and professional development.”
The newly created position wasn’t a promotion, Wing said. “I was asked to do the job, and I’ve been doing that job to the best of my abilities,” she said.
When named to the position in 2021, Wing said diversity, equity and inclusion “is a shared responsibility and is our collective work to ensure that everyone has equitable access to learn, achieve, and succeed no matter who they are, where they are located, or what they look like.”
Wing declined to talk about specific work she has done in this position in the past 14 months, explaining that, in this interview, she was speaking as a private citizen, not on behalf of DoDEA.
However, she said, “Everything I’ve done since I served my country as a soldier and now as a civilian, I’ve done with the same tenets that I brought to the military, which is loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor and personal courage.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.