Activism / StudentNation / March 22, 2024

The Mama Bears of Montgomery County, Texas

In 2022, three conservative Christian women with no prior political experience were elected to a school board. Are they part of a larger movement to undermine public education?

Yasmeen Khan
A meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Conroe Independent School District.

A meeting of the Board of Trustees of the Conroe Independent School District.

(Conroe ISD)

Reading has always been an important part of Psalm Lawrence’s life. She was born in Chicago to a single mother, and her family emphasized education from an early age. “I didn’t grow up in the best living conditions or have the easiest time growing up,” she says. “But one thing my mom always made sure she did—whether we had somewhere to live or didn’t have somewhere to live—she made sure I read, and she read to me.”

In 2015, Lawrence’s family moved to Montgomery County, Tex., a booming jurisdiction north of Houston. She became a student in the Conroe Independent School District—the ninth largest school district in Texas and the 60th in the United States.

Later, she attended Conroe ISD’s Oak Ridge High School, where she enrolled in advanced English classes for all four years. During her senior year, Lawrence noticed a disturbing trend in her AP Literature and Composition class. “Almost every single book that we had read that year was up for potential banning or had already gotten banned.”

Many celebrated novels—including Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye—have recently been removed from libraries in Conroe ISD. In the 2022-2023 school year, Conroe ISD banned 59 books, more than any other school district in the greater Houston area. The year prior, they banned none.

“It’s happening in Austin too,” says Lawrence, who recently graduated from Oak Ridge High School and is now a student at the University of Texas at Austin, where she majors in African and African Diaspora Studies. “It’s happening in Dallas. It’s happening in Florida. It’s happening everywhere. This very calculated attack on public education…it’s not coming from nowhere. It’s very calculated”

The surge in book bans can be traced back to a change in Conroe ISD’s leadership. In November 2022, Misty Odenweller, Melissa Dungan, and Tiffany Baumann Nelson were elected to the district’s school board. The three women—who called themselves the “Mama Bears”—identify as conservative Christians and had no prior experience in local politics. In an interview with Lone Star Community Radio, Odenweller outlined the primary objective of her and her colleagues’ campaigns: “Our goal is not to ban books. Our goal is not to remove books from shelves. Our goal is to protect children.”

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Despite Odenweller’s disavowal, book bans increased sharply after her election. Some parents within the district see the censorship as the Mama Bears’ misguided attempt to preserve the innocence of Conroe ISD’s children. Others doubt the sincerity of their actions. The Mama Bears’ relationship to State Representative Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands), as well as their financial ties to the statewide PAC Texans for Educational Freedom, suggest that their goals may expand far beyond the boundaries of Conroe ISD.

Odenweller, Dungan, Nelson, and Toth did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Dungan, Nelson, and Odenweller met through the Facebook group “Mama Bears Rising,” an organization in Montgomery County whose mission is to get mothers involved in local politics. Mama Bears Rising was founded by Cassandra Crowe, who was then working as a policy adviser for Texas Representative Steve Toth, and Jessica Brassington, who had previously worked as a holistic health coach.

In 2021, Brassington took to Facebook to air her grievances about Covid-19 policies, hospital protocols and vaccine mandates. There, a mutual friend introduced her to Crowe, who put her in touch with Representative Toth.

“That threw me into this whole new world of politics,” Brassington recalls. “I knew nothing about that. I really didn’t know anything on the local level.”

The organization officially launched on May 3, 2022, with a screening of The Mind Polluters at Grace Church, cohosted by Toth. According to its distributor, the self-described “filmmaking ministry” Fearless Features, the documentary “exposes the dark realities of the intentional grooming of children into a worldview at odds with the Christian faith, a worldview of rampant sexuality, homosexuality, and transgenderism.”

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Public education quickly became the primary focus of Mama Bears Rising. On May 11, 2022, Crowe posted an “action challenge” to the organization’s Facebook group. “There are HUNDREDS of sexually explicit, obscene, and pornographic books that have found their way into CISD libraries and classrooms,” she wrote. She urged the members of Mama Bears Rising to target these books for removal. By the next school board meeting, Odenweller, who was not yet a trustee, had filed formal complaints against a number of the books.

On August 8, 2022, Odenweller announced that she had entered the race for Conroe ISD’s school board along with Dungan and Nelson. On the surface, the women seemed like successful case studies for Mama Bears Rising’s mission: three mothers empowered by the organization to take a stand in local politics.

But when Crowe wanted Mama Bears Rising to endorse the three candidates, Brassington hesitated. “I’m not saying that I was against them,” she explains. “But I didn’t want to deter a mom who didn’t maybe agree with all of those things…. I knew quickly that either I had to step in and change course, or I had to give up and let them take it over.”

In the end, Brassington took control of Mama Bears Rising. Crowe is no longer involved with the organization, and although Odenweller, Dungan, and Nelson met through Mama Bear Rising’s Facebook group, Brassington denies any ongoing affiliation between her brand and the trustees. Crowe did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Going forward, Brassington wants to focus on building community through Mama Bears Rising. “I don’t want to be associated with political drama of certain parties,” she says. “It turns moms away who do try to get involved. People try to pigeonhole them into one thing, and if you deviate at all from that narrative, you can quickly be seen as an outsider.”

Even without the endorsement of Mama Bears Rising, Odenweller, Dungan, and Nelson ran successful campaigns. Dungan and Nelson won their races with around 60 and 52 percent of the vote, respectively, and Odenweller won in an uncontested election. In a Facebook post celebrating the group’s win, Odenweller thanked Crowe and Toth for their support of her campaign.

All three women made their Christian faith central to their candidacies. Odenweller’s logo depicted a burning cross over an open book; on her website, Nelson listed faith as one of three central tenets of her campaign. In a group interview from September 2022, Dungan described herself and her fellow Mama Bears as almost “God-appointed.”

“I use the word Christian nationalist, not as an insult, not as an epithet, but as just a description of the way that some people see the function of the ideal government,” said Franklin Strong, an educator in Austin and an activist against book banning. “There are people who just think that public schools should reflect their particular brand of Christian values.”

According to the Mama Bears, Christianity motivates their central purpose: protecting Conroe ISD’s children. “Fortified by my faith as my backbone, I will work passionately to empower parents and ensure the minds of our children are protected from radical indoctrination,” reads a promise on Nelson’s campaign website. Odenweller and Dungan make similar allusions: Odenweller writes that her goal is to “preserve the innocence of children,” while Dungan writes that she is “determined to advocate for Conroe ISD’s children, their education, and their innocence.”

Though the Mama Bears’ protection has primarily presented itself through book bans, they have also targeted other classroom materials. At a school board meeting in August 2023, Dungan took issue with a poster of children with “racially-colored hands” that read “All Belong Here.” Dungan claimed that a first-grader was so upset by the poster that they had to be moved to another classroom. She saw the poster as an example of the “presence of personal ideologies” in public schools and urged the school board to establish guidelines to regulate similar instances.

Opponents of the Mama Bears also center their advocacy in the interests of their children. Erin Bingham created standUP: Conroe ISD to help parents in the area understand what’s happening in their school district. She has nine-year old triplets, and moved to Montgomery County years ago so her children could attend Conroe ISD”s public schools. “It’s my only motivation,” she said. “The only reason that I’m as involved in this as I am is because I want my kids to remain in a great district and not get bogged down by political games.”

The Facebook page for standUP: Conroe ISD has just over 2,000 members. Though Bingham admits that it’s hard to quantify the counter-movement, she believes that the group’s views are representative of the majority of parents in the district. “Our group is almost exclusively parents of current CISD students and staff,” she told The Nation. “Their group is overwhelmingly not. So they are louder at board meetings, because the typical parent of school-aged kids doesn’t have time to trek to Conroe for a school board meeting on a Tuesday.”

Although he disagrees with their policies, Conroe ISD parent Paul Laskoski, for one, believes the Mama Bears are truthful about their intentions. “I think that they believe they’re helping the children,” he says. “But I don’t think they realize that they’re only helping some children.” LGBTQ+ students, as well as students from other marginalized communities, do not feel helped by policies that remove books containing their perspectives, he notes.

Others see the Mama Bears’ as stalking horses for broader agendas, pointing to financial records which paint a picture that’s bigger than Conroe ISD. Texans for Educational Freedom, a conservative PAC which promotes school voucher programs and funds right-wing candidates in school board races across the state, spent thousands on all three Mama Bears during their campaigns.

School vouchers are certificates of government funding that can be used to pay tuition at a private school, rather than having a student attend the public school that they are zoned to. Critics argue that it does nothing to improve student achievement and diverts already-scarce funding from the public school system.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott spent most of 2023 campaigning to create school vouchers in the state. But in November, a bloc of 21 Republican representatives joined with Democrats to pass an amendment by Representative John Raney, removing a provision of House Bill 1 that would have allowed for the creation of vouchers—temporarily ending Abbott’s crusade, but not necessarily altering his end goal.

A month later, Abbott received a $6 million campaign donation—the largest single campaign donation in Texas history—from Jeff Yass, a Republican megadonor and top proponent of vouchers, indicating that the issue will continue to play a prominent role in Texas politics. Toth, who remains closely affiliated with the Mama Bears, has also shown persistent support for voucher programs.

“Conroe is unique because we have the Senate and House advocates for vouchers in our district,” says parent activist Bingham. “Brandon Creighton is my elected Texas senator. And Steve Toth is my elected House Rep…. Having both of them being such vocal advocates for vouchers and defunding the great district that they represent does pose a problem.”

Bingham argues that the Mama Bears’ connection to Toth indicates that they, too, are complicit in the campaign for school choice. “They seem very aligned with his agenda,” she says. “Their intent is to undermine public education, so that the public will eventually support vouchers.”

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Yasmeen Khan

Yasmeen Khan is a sophomore at Harvard College. She is a staff writer and editor-at-large for Fifteen Minutes, the weekly magazine of The Harvard Crimson.

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