Guest Commentary: Oakland – ‘WE WON!’ Students & Multiracial Coalition Defend Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft


by Sam Gonzalez

Many students and educators of color stayed up late Wednesday night until 2 a.m. to speak up for Ethnic Studies – specifically Arab American, Central American and Pacific Islander Studies!  Over 225 e-comments were also submitted, with the majority in support. Oakland communities of color and students were clearly in solidarity with the multiracial statewide Ethnic Studies movement which has coalesced around support for the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) draft at the California Department of Education.

The Oakland School Board passed the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum support resolution with 6 yes votes, including 2 student advisory yes votes from Directors Denilson Garibo and Mica Smith-Dahl, 4 adult yes votes including co-authors Rosie Torres, Aimee Eng, Jumoke Hinton, and Shanthi Gonzalez),  2 no’s (Jody London and Gary Yee) and 1 abstention (James Harris). The often-heard statement “Ethnic Studies saved my life” is not a metaphor, and this is the core substance of why it was so important to those in Ethnic Studies communities to speak in support of the cause toward the end of the 9 hour meeting, and for Oakland educational leaders to move the resolution forward as several other school districts have done. The diverse testimonies in support spoke volumes.

A beautiful multiracial and intergenerational coalition of impacted communities of color, progressive Jewish American allies, Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) teachers, parents, and Third World Liberation Front founders of Ethnic Studies with roots in Oakland, came together in strong solidarity to say NO to unfair attacks on the ESMC and YES to inclusion, transformation of school curriculum, and lifting up the voices and stories of those who are most underrepresented and unseen in our schools.

Oakland students really shined – OUSD Student Directors speaking truth to power, All City Council Student Union leaders eloquently sharing why Ethnic Studies is critical, and OUSD alumni now at Stanford University, expressed appreciation for the ESMC draft, and mobilized students that night to log on and support as well.

When they cut off the speakers at 30 minutes for public comment, there were still many more supporters ready to speak, and the time was extended only for Oakland students. Though not everyone was able to speak, gratitude was expressed for all who showed up in support and showing OUSD leaders how much the community cares about Ethnic Studies and saying no to the erasure, suppression, and silencing, specifically of the Arab American, Pacific Islander, and Central American communities being able to tell their own stories.

The support of many in the Jewish community was also evident, both in e-comments and in person, including a public comment read for Oakland area Rabbi Dev Noily, who recently published an op-ed in support of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft, saying other Jews should be supportive as well.  Many more Jewish groups have been vocal about this support of the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Draft, including Mizrahi Jews.

OUSD parent Steve Weiss shared, “This represents Oakland, and I’m proud this resolution has finally made it here. I moved to Oakland 20 years ago and this is the reason I moved here. Oakland is leading America in teaching the history of POC in a manner that gives voice and power to those very people. I’m proud my children go to school in Oakland and will have the potential opportunity of learning this curriculum. As an active member of the Jewish community in Oakland I’m fully in support of this, and condemn many of the racist remarks being made by my fellow neighbors and community members. There is no room for hate and racism in Oakland.”

This huge showing brings to the forefront for OUSD leaders the critical work of representation in curriculum for students of color who refuse to be invisible anymore, and the resolution now mandates further implementation and preparation for middle and elementary schools and Oakland-specific curriculum.

Racist attacks against the ESMC draft from primarily white interest groups dominated the media narrative in August 2019, and put the California Department of Education and state officials in a high pressure defensive situation where they had to react fast to appease the pressures from whiteness. This includes reactive comments purportedly attributed to California Governor Gavin Newsom from a private meeting last August, though Ethnic Studies communities are confident that if the Governor takes time to read the full 582 page curriculum, and listen to Ethnic Studies leaders of color throughout the state, he would not reproduce racist right-wing talking points, and instead publicly side with communities of color in this cause — time will tell.

State Board of Education (SBE) President Linda Darling-Hammond has since publicly appreciated the many productive components of the draft, and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond has also further sided with Ethnic Studies advocates since.

Though not as publicized as the attacks in August 2019, at the September 20th 2019 California Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) meeting, support for the overall draft by several State Board of Education and Instructional Quality Commission members was evident.

Perhaps most importantly, Ethnic Studies educational leaders, who have already proved its potential in districts and classrooms across the state are widely in support of the  ESMC draft.

The California Department of Education (CDE) appears to be listening to the public in this matter, as the department is now indicating support of the overall draft with some reasonable revisions, as well as affirming the continued inclusion of Arab American Studies, Pacific Islander Studies, and Central American Studies course outlines within the curriculum moving forward as Ethnic Studies communities are insisting.

In terms of one of the most controversial elements of the draft, accounting for less than .01% of the entire curriculum—the inclusion of the Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement from a Palestinian perspective—it has been reported that the CDE has assured certain stakeholders that BDS will not be in the curriculum moving forward, which many including Jewish supporters of the movement who spoke in Oakland, do not agree with and consider censorship. Many educators, including members of the Save CA Ethnic Studies Coalition, express that controversial topics are necessarily a part of Ethnic Studies, and rather than censorship, offering multiple perspectives on the topic and pedagogical guidance for teachers working with sensitive issues, could be one way for the CDE to navigate it moving forward.

The exponential support for communities of color, the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft, and for Arab American Studies, Central American Studies, and Pacific Islander Studies as a part of it, was evident in Oakland this week, as the 50 plus year legacy of Ethnic Studies, and the attacks against it, continue.

Sam Gonzalez (they/them/their) is a Bay area organizer who writes, creates digital media, and advocates for intersectional social justice causes important to people of color.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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