I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies from UCSD in 2003. Before entering the university, I had never heard of this area of study. The ethnic studies program at UCSD is an “interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity, indigeneity, gender, sexuality, class, and dis/ability.” This program was the first time I was exposed to diverse people in world history, current events, and politics, which gave me an understanding of how power and inequality played out locally and globally. It was an eye opening experience that allowed me to understand that people who looked like me and talked like me were important contributors to almost every facet of society, yet were never mentioned in our history books or given any credit for their contributions.
So I was pleasantly surprised to read in the San Diego Union Tribune about a young lady in my home town of Chula Vista bringing an ethnic studies course to her high school. Ana De Almeida Amaral won the Girl Scouts top national honor for an ethnic studies course that she created and taught at her high school, High Tech High Chula Vista. Ana realized, like I had so many years ago, that “representation of people of color wasn’t apparent in our curriculum, in our history classes, or in school clubs,” and that, “students come in as racial beings, and it’s important to be able to own that and interact with people who have different cultural backgrounds.”
It was exactly this lack of cultural representation in our schools’ curriculums that pushed me to get my degree in ethnic studies. I learned through my own studies and experiences that although not explicitly said, burying a people’s history created a message that their contributions weren’t important.
Coming from an area that is predominantly Latino and only five miles away from the Mexico-US border, it is essential for students to have access to academic subject matters that are relatable to them. Having an ethnic studies curriculum allows students to feel that their contributions to our society matter. They have a voice that can do powerful things such as their ancestors before them. They can see that although their ancestors faced all types of adversity they were able to overcome and do great things. But this isn’t just important to people of color, an ethnic studies curriculum teaches Euro-American students to value diversity and helps them become culturally sensitive.
This is not just the opinion of a few people. There are many studies that have tracked the importance of a culturally diverse curriculum and its impact on high school graduation rates and college success. In her work “The Academic and Social Value of Ethnic Studies,” Christine E. Sleeter, Ph.D. discusses how having an ethnic studies curriculum makes a positive impact on students and their scholastic outcome. She also notes that the most impactful curriculum not only presents diverse groups but also includes the effect of racism. Teaching students in this manner allows them to “grapple with multiple perspectives,” and “produces higher levels of thinking.” This helps to prepare students to enter institutions of higher learning with a bigger world view and be able to articulate and challenge systems and ideologies that are not inclusive of all people.
Although studies show the importance of an ethnic studies curriculum, it has been a very difficult task to convince school boards. Even in school districts with a diverse population, school officials do not have a full concept of its importance and impact. This is largely due to the fact that an ethnic studies program challenges the ideology that schools and their curriculums should be color blind. This creates a system in which race and racism is glossed over. Students are not taught to engage or question the way school subjects are being taught and who is not included in the narrative. Ana De Almeida Amaral also faced this challenge in presenting her work and trying to convince school administrators that ethnic studies was needed at her school. She explains in the article that while they understood the importance of including a history with their student’s identity in it, making them understand the importance of it outside a history course was more difficult. The goal of an ethnic studies curriculum should not be that it be included in the current list of subject matter, but that it would permeate all scholastic subjects and create a more dynamic academic experience.
Ethnic studies courses are essential in being able to help students of color reach academic success while creating a space for dialogue on current divisive systems in place at all levels of society. Students of all cultural backgrounds should be able to relate to the subjects they are learning on a more profound level. All students should feel empowered and their voices championed throughout the curriculum. Doing so will allow students to be better engaged in their school work and to develop critical thinking to create solutions to problems long held by society.
Note: The San Diego Unified School Board passed a resolution requiring high school students to take ethnic studies to graduate.
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