August 5, 2019
All Connecticut high schools will be required to offer an elective course in African American, Puerto Rican and Latino history by 2022 under a bill passed by the state General Assembly and signed into law by Gov. Ned Lamont in June.
Passage of the bill follows months of organizing and mobilizing by students, educators and advocacy groups, including impassioned testimony by more than 200 people at a public hearing in March. The hearing featured testimony from dozens of students; no one testified in opposition.
“This bill is important to me because knowing your history gives importance and a sense of identity and self worth,” testified Shane Brooks, a student at the Science & Technology Magnet High School and New London High School in New London, CT. “Going to a public school with a lack of African American studies being taught in the school system made me feel irrelevant and unheard.”
“It’s not just about slaves
and MLK”– Shane Brooks
High school student
New London, CT
Hillary Bridges, the executive director and founder of Students for Educational Justice, grew up in the wealthy, overwhelmingly white suburbs around Philadelphia. She was her high school class president, homecoming queen, and an excellent student. But she wanted one thing more than any of that: To be white.
“Being black felt like carrying a burden I didn’t ask for,” said Bridges. “I had completely bought into the false narrative that white is better, prettier, more fun — just superior. As a descendant of enslaved Africans here in the United States, nowhere in my education did I learn to feel positively about the amazing things my ancestors had accomplished.”
It wasn’t until after high school, she adds, that she began to gain a broader – and more accurate – perspective. “The more I started to learn about why our country looks like it does, the more I wanted to know,” she adds. “And I got angry. Why did I not learn this in school?”
The bill’s lead sponsors – Rep. Bobby Gibson and Sen. Douglas McCrory – are also long-time educators.
During an emotional speech before the state Senate’s vote on the bill, McCrory noted that shortly after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction period, the United States had five black Congressmen. But “no one told us, no one told us…” he said. “Now, that’s the type of history that would motivate you.”
Connecticut Education Association President Jeff Leake testified at the March hearing, stating that the CEA “wholeheartedly” supported the legislation, and noting that integrating the history and achievements of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and other Latinos into the state’s required curricula was long overdue. “The history of these groups is tightly interwoven with U.S. history,” said Leake, “but we have not given it the prominence it deserves.”
Testimony from educator Sean Mosley, who chairs CEA’s Ethnic Minority Affairs Commission, underscored CEA’s support for the bill: “As our student population is becoming increasingly diverse throughout all districts,” he said, “it is crucial that the legislature acknowledges the importance and the need for school districts to implement content which directly addresses the cultural heritage of a significant portion of many districts across the states.”
Maya Sheppard is an organizer with Hearing Youth Voices, a youth-led social justice organization working to create systemic change in schools in New London, Connecticut. As an African-American growing up in the majority white community of Waterbury, Connecticut, what little she learned of her ancestors’ history was typically “rooted in shame” and focused on the same relatively narrow topics revolving around slavery and the Civil Rights movement.
At a time when U.S. politics are rife with polarization and division, much of it with deep historical roots based in racial sterotyping and oppression, Sheppard believes the type of U.S. history curriculum mandated by the new Connecticut law is more important than ever. “In order for us to create strong and equitable communities, it’s important for all ethnicities to learn about American history – which includes black history, Latino history and more.”
“The students really led the movement, and the adults… we kind of rode the wave.”– Sean Mosley
Chair of CEA’s Ethnic Minority
“It’s not just slaves and MLK,” said Brooks, who believes the new curriculum will benefit all students, not just students of color, and help districts to attract and recruit a more diverse educator workforce. Pointing out that Connecticut has more than 160 cities and towns, most of which are majority white, he adds: “They don’t experience a lot of black and brown every day. Great, so they can learn as well. But also the teachers – a lot of teachers are not culturally aware of what is going.”
Activism and mobilization by student such as Brooks, including heartfelt testimony at the public hearing, were critical to the success of the legislation, which some felt had little chance of passage when it was introduced early in the 2019 session.
“The students really led the movement, and the adults… we kind of rode the wave,” said Mosley, who teaches high school English in Waterbury. “It goes to show you, when you get students and educators organizing on an issue, positive things happen.”
Sheppard agrees: “We think about about budgets and test scores, but we forget about the stories of students who are living this everyday. Students are the most important and underconsulted resources in our schools. And this campaign was a prime example of what student organizing and student power can do.”
While the bill requires school districts to offer the course by July 2022, they can start offering it as early as July 2021. The fiscal note for the legislation includes $400,000 to fund curriculum development and the annual salary of a full-time statewide staffer to help ensure districts meet the requirement. The State Education Resource Center (SERC), a quasi-public agency established by Connecticut to serve the state Board of Education, will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting on curriculum development.
Mosley believes the community-based campaign that propelled the legislation to passage offers educators in Connecticut and beyond a solid road map for future efforts focused on education justice: “We have to really work with student groups, parent groups and community groups to make things like this happen. We can’t do it alone.”