It’s commonsense! Why California educators took ethnic studies mainstream

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Jose Lara (back row middle) with organizers

By Sabrina Holcomb

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Thanks to social studies teacher Jose Lara and a coalition of activists who spearheaded the fight for California’s game-changing ethnic studies bill, students in one of the most diverse states in the nation will benefit from a more diverse curriculum. The first of its kind in the country, the landmark bill orders the creation of a model ethnic studies course for high school students statewide. NEA Edjustice caught up with Lara (first-ever winner of NEA’s Social Justice Activist Award) to ask him what this news means for California’s – and potentially the nation’s – students.

Why is this a win for students?

Coalition member Javier San Román said it best: “To ask students to study a world in which they can’t see themselves is to relegate them to a blindness of the soul and a crippling of the spirit.” Research shows that students who take ethnic studies classes perform better academically and socially. When students of color see themselves in the curriculum, it empowers them to create an academic identity—to see themselves as scholars. It also promotes cultural understanding among different groups of students. I think it makes us a stronger America.

Is that why educators worked so hard to pass this bill?

Yes, we’re committed to social justice in education and ethnic studies, by its nature, has a strong social justice component. Students are not just learning about the contributions of different groups; they’re studying history, warts and all. It’s important for students to learn and critically analyze. We don’t live in a fairy tale world; we live in a real world. And it’s going to get very real in Trump’s America.

Jose Lara accepts the first-ever NEA Social Justice Activist Award

What does an ethnic studies class look like?

It varies according to the needs of the school district. Here in El Rancho Unified, we have a menu of classes, including gender and ethnicity in literature and film, women of color in history, Mexican American studies, multicultural literature, and Chicano mural art. The San Francisco model, on the other hand, is more of a general studies class.

Why are ethnic studies programs relevant in a post-election America?

Students who are seen as different—Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ youth—are under attack in a way we haven’t seen in a long time. Ethnic studies is more critical now than ever. Knowing about the contributions of their community provides students with positive affirmation that becomes a protective force field.

How did you get this bill passed?

Persistence and passion. We tried to pass a statewide bill twice before. The third time was the charm because we had all the pieces we needed: a champion in the state legislature, a broad coalition of organizers across the state, and research proving the value of ethnic studies programs. The momentum around this has grown. I’ve been asked to help activists in other states build their own ethnic studies campaigns.

What’s your advice for educator activists who want to recreate your success in their own districts?

Go to Ethnicstudiesnow.com to access the same toolkit of resources that helped us build successful campaigns making ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the El Rancho and LA Unified school districts. Also connect with your local community college – which likely has ethnic studies classes already – for support. The campaign for ethnic studies in my district started as a project at an NEA meeting. Five years later, it was a movement.

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