How We Brought Ethnic Studies to My High School

How We Brought Ethnic Studies to My High School

How We Brought Ethnic Studies to My High School

Students of color shouldn’t have to wait until college to learn about their histories. 


Two summers ago, I was going through old binders when I came across a worksheet from my fifth-grade social studies unit on Christopher Columbus. A chart took up most of the page, dividing it into two sections: one for the pros and one for the cons of Columbus’s colonizing voyages. My thick, slanted, 10-year-old writing was clustered on the “cons” side, where I listed five negatives, including “Christopher Columbus put the Taínos into enslavement and if they could not give him gold they were executed.” I wrote just one positive: that “he discovered most of Central America,” which, of course, is not true.

As I read over my answers more than 10 years later, I was deeply disturbed at the implicit judgement that the material and intellectual enrichment of European nations deserved to be considered a “pro” when it came at the expense of the genocide of Indigenous people. I sat on the floor, surrounded by these worn pages and memories, and felt the hollowness of the lack of ethnic studies in my primary education.

The worksheet became both a tangible and symbolic reminder of my own painful experience with Eurocentric textbooks and curricula as I began organizing with a coalition demanding a mandatory ethnic studies course at my former high school. I went to Menlo-Atherton (M-A), a majority POC high school in Northern California, where we were required to take European history to graduate. No class centered the experiences, perspectives, or histories of people of color. In my high school courses, I began to internalize the notion that my own cultural histories—Latin American and Latinx histories—were not academic.

It wasn’t until I took my first ethnic studies course in college that I understood both how intentional the whitewashing of curricula is and how devastatingly universal my experiences were. The more I reflected, the more disappointed I felt that I hadn’t had structured conversations about race and ethnicity, structural inequality, and systems of power in the classroom until college. I wanted high school students to learn about anti-racist movements and resistance to discriminatory structures of power. I wanted teenagers to have the language to engage in conversations about police abolition, affirmative action, and myriad other topics that they would undoubtedly confront during and beyond high school. I wanted students of color to see themselves: in their teachers, the authors they read, and the history they studied.

So in May of 2020, at the start of the longest continuous national protest in the United States, amid widespread calls for racial justice and police abolition, M-A  alumni vocalized demands for a mandatory ethnic studies class that would have as its key tenets anti-racism, self-determination, and decolonization. “A Eurocentric curriculum taught primarily by white teachers serves to reinforce structures of white supremacy. It teaches students to have an uncritical acceptance of the unjust status quo,” we wrote in a petition. Within days, the petition amassed more than 2,300 signatures and garnered dozens of positive community comments.

Simultaneously, teachers across the district were organizing. Stephanie Cuff-Alvarado, a history teacher at M-A, recalls conversations about ethnic studies as early as 2018. Back then, anti-racist educators were “pushed to the side,” by the department, but “the people who wanted [ethnic studies] found each other and we started brainstorming about what we could do,” she explained. Melissa Díaz, now an ethnic studies teacher at Sequoia High School, taught modern European history in 2019 and 2020. She described “slowly changing the class within our own classrooms, [by] not just focusing on the French Revolution but focusing on the Haitian Revolution, the Mexican Revolution…”—by making the course less Eurocentric.

However, it was the collective reckoning with institutional racism embodied by the protests in the spring and summer of 2020 that suddenly made the possibility of structural educational reforms plausible. Díaz recalls, “As educators, [the protests] ignited us in so many ways and made us a lot more unapologetic in our demands and in what needed to happen at these schools. It really lit a fire for us.”

Together, public-facing alumni demands and teachers’ behind-the-scenes organizing created the foundation for a district-wide coalition in support of ethnic studies—one that brought together teachers, alumni, students, parents, and community members. This dedicated group met consistently over the summer of 2020 to prepare a formal proposal for district department heads, principals, and the school board. Teachers from across the district presented the resulting document, a 32-slide presentation on ethnic studies in the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD), to the board of trustees in a virtual meeting on October 14, 2020.

The presentation and vote came just two weeks after California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed AB 331, a bill mandating a semester of ethnic studies as a statewide graduation requirement, but it also came after three of the largest school districts in the state—San Diego, Los Angeles, and Fresno— had mandated the course. Among organizers, there was hope for the SUHSD, and blossoming at the local level there was hope for the state’s trajectory, too.

When the board unanimously voted to approve the required ethnic studies course, I jumped up from the Zoom screen and ran to tell my parents, out of breath and in complete shock. “I honestly [still] can’t believe [that] happened,” Cuff-Alvarado recalled. We had done it.

During a current national climate of white supremacist historical erasure, book banning, and silencing of people of color and their histories through statewide legislation, I have spent a lot of time thinking about what made our local organizing for ethnic studies successful. In the summer of 2020, organizers from another high school, in Massachusetts, asked for permission to use the petition we created as a template for their own demand for ethnic studies. This request, paired with frightening developments in Texas, Florida, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and elsewhere, prompt the questions: Can our local demands and achievements be replicated? If not, what can be learned from these Bay Area high schools? What led to our successful implementation of ethnic studies?

That the LA, Fresno, San Diego, San Francisco, and Sequoia Union High School districts all implemented a mandatory ethnic studies class either prior to or despite the statewide veto of AB 331—and that the vetoed bill was eventually passed—is a testament to the power of local grassroots organizing. That all five of these districts are majority students of color also importantly locates the fight for ethnic studies in Black and brown communities.

Pressure at the local level from major districts and communities undoubtedly helped the case for ethnic studies at the state level. From social media petition campaigns to administrative statements in support of ethnic studies, this grassroots work was crucial to the realization of anti-racist pedagogy. Further, successful implementation at the district level emphasizes the importance of local and specific experiential knowledge of educational context. As alumni, for instance, we knew what it felt like to be students of color in our schools, and we had specific examples of what our syllabi included and what they erased.

Even as we prioritized demands specific to our district, however, we connected them to a broader movement for anti-racist education. The importance of our organizing’s context—of national Black Lives Matter protests, marches, and demands for racial justice and abolition—cannot be overstated. Among advocates in the coalition for ethnic studies, there was a sense that our organizing was part of a larger collective movement for equity and anti-racism. We were empowered by protesters around the world, by what we were reading, and by one another.

We were also inspired by the urgency voiced by advocates around us. Bolded in our petition was the demand: “We need an actively anti-racist curriculum now.” As Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” “‘wait” has almost always meant ‘never.’” To demand ethnic studies now was to preemptively counter the white moderates of whom King warned.

However, our urgency also manifested in politically expedient strategy choices that catered to those in power. The choice to make the case for ethnic studies using achievement language (i.e., “ethnic studies increases standardized test scores and graduation rates’), rather than acknowledging that students of color deserve to learn their histories regardless of whether they score better on standardized tests—an already problematic measure of achievement—is an example. While strategic, in the long run this framing does a disservice to our vision. Diana Nguyen, a current ethnic studies teacher at Sequoia High School who helped develop the curriculum, said, “When we were proposing, we had to be political. We had to organize in a way that was palatable…. The expectation that ethnic studies is only worthy because of achievement is very hurtful, and it makes me wonder if that’s even something we should have said.”

Similarly, as much as mainstream media advance the sensationalist notion that ethnic studies is “controversial,” demanding that a single course prioritize POC histories and anti-racist pedagogy is not really radical. Asking for school-wide de-tracking, for textbooks to be rewritten, or for equitable funding of feeder schools all would have been more complicated, though equally necessary, demands. In response to an education system that for centuries has prioritized whiteness, our ask was limited and reasonable.

As of October 2021, ethnic studies is in full swing at M-A. Last month, I spoke to students from my former high school about their experiences in the class. One of them quickly corrected me: “I think of [ethnic studies] as more than just a class,” she said. It’s “a community, and you learn through that community.”

Ethnic studies is indeed more than just a class, and more than a community, too. It is a pedagogy; it is advocacy—and its future lies in the deepening and widening of its scope. Anti-racist content and teaching methods should be introduced to all subject areas, from history to foreign languages to biology.

I picture the SUHSD’s graduating class of 2025 after having taken ethnic studies, how they will engage with their communities, and I have hope that their existence represents a change for the better—and not just symbolic or metaphorical progress. I hope that the histories and strategies they learn compel them to actively work to create a more equitable and just society. Abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “What the world will become already exists in fragments and pieces, in experiments and possibilities.” From my college ethnic studies classrooms to my former high school district, I see that these futures already exist.

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