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California to Pass Ethnic Studies Requirement

Photos by Delta Rae Read

In most English classes in the United States, the norm is to read the “classics.” Looking through the names of authors taught in high school, they seem to follow a certain pattern. George Orwell, Harper Lee, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ray Bradbury. The authors are all white. Though this is more complex than just English class, U.S history and many other high school courses also exclude non-white narratives. Where are students of color supposed to learn about their communities?

“Only reading books by white authors made it difficult for me to connect with the material,” said Amelia Kim, a volunteer organizer with Diversify Our Narrative. “They write about problems that I can’t relate to. I want students of color to learn about experiences that they are familiar with. I want them to know that their voices and stories matter.”

Diversify Our Narrative—abbreviated to DON—is a youth-led organization advocating for the inclusion of diverse books in schools. Unrepresented in all other subjects, students of color have called for the inclusion of Ethnic Studies classes to teach about minority history that is otherwise overlooked. As part of the LAUSD chapter at DON, Amelia has been working since June to get an Ethnic Studies requirement passed by the school board. On August 25, the LAUSD Board of Education voted unanimously to introduce an Ethnic Studies graduation requirement for all schools within the district. DON members celebrated their achievement after months of emailing representatives and speaking at District Board meetings. However, Amelia has her eyes set on a much bigger prize—the state of California.

With Bill AB331 passing on the Senate floor on September 1st, California is poised to be the first state to mandate Ethnic Studies for all high-school students. DON members have been avid supporters of the bill, which would require all public, charter, and private schools in California to offer a semester of Ethnic Studies starting in 2025. The organization’s Instagram, which has garnered over 123,000 followers, was instrumental in mobilizing students across the country in support of AB331. With the final decision on Bill AB331 in Governor Gavin Newsom’s hands, controversy has developed over whether or not this proposition is a good idea.

The model curriculum within AB331 is set to include lessons on racism, LGBTQ+ rights, immigration, and the history of various ethnic groups. The main criticism towards the bill comes from conservatives who claim that the course leans too far left politically. Various opinion pieces have surfaced calling the bill a form of indoctrination aimed at California youth. Assembly member Jose Medina, who wrote AB331, has replied to these statements by stressing the unbiased nature of the model curriculum. He stated that the purpose of Ethnic Studies within the classroom is to introduce “the experiences and contributions of people of color [that] have been left out of the classroom.” The mission of the Ethnic Studies mandate is to foster inclusivity for minorities, not to subscribe to a certain political ideology. California is the most diverse state in the U.S, so introducing a curriculum that encompasses every ethnicity is a large feat.

The proposed Ethnic Studies curriculum focuses on four ethnic groups: Asian, African-American, Latinx, and Native American. However, this has led the Armenian, Sikh, and Irish communities within California to speak out against AB331, stating that the model curriculum ignores their experiences. Since the Ethnic Studies bill only requires a single semester course, it would be difficult to include comprehensive lessons that cater to every aspect of California’s demographics. The revised curriculum has addressed these concerns by encouraging districts and schools to make the course specific to their student body. If a school were to have a large Filipino population, as Eagle Rock does, the lessons would adapt to incorporate that community.

A big issue still facing the passing of AB331 is pushback from the Jewish community. The first draft of the model curriculum included information surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. This portion of the bill contained what many considered to be anti-Semitic rhetoric paired with an anti-Israeli sentiment. The sponsors of AB331 considered this criticism and accepted several amendments to remove any bias towards the Jewish community. The California Legislative Jewish Caucus approved the final model curriculum saying that they “are pleased that AB331 now includes firm guardrails that will prohibit the teaching of any curriculum that promotes bias, bigotry, or discrimination, including against Jews or Israelis.” Even so, many major Jewish publications have continued to disapprove of the bill, applying pressure on Governor Newsom to veto AB331.

With recent protests and organizations like Diversify Our Narrative highlighting racial inequality in California, the chances of Newsom signing AB331 into law are promising. The Governor even passed a similar proposition for all California State Universities on August 17th. All indications point towards Newsom approving AB331 and providing minority high school students across California with a historic victory.

[Update] - Governor Gavin Newsom recently announced that the state of California will continue reviewing the model curriculum and vote on Bill AB331 in 2021.

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