By Cervante Pope
There’s no denying that differences exist among the diverse cultures and heritages in the world. Families have control when it comes to teaching and passing down knowledge of these polarities at home, but the way their cultures and history are edified in an educational setting is out of their hands. In Oregon, the Ethnic Studies Coalition is crusading for students to learn true portrayals of minority cultures through the presentation of a new bill to the Department of Education.
If passed, House Bill 2845 would modify the current standards for social studies curriculum in schools by making Ethnic Studies required learning for students in grades K-12 by the year 2020.
While the word “ethnic” implies a specific focus on the study of racial minorities, the bill extends itself to be inclusionary of social minorities, like the LBGT or disabled communities, to be informative of the full scope of marginalized groups. Oregon has seen a detrimental spike in race and hate-based crimes and attacks, particularly in schools; this sensitive social climate calls for a deeper attention to how all students learn about cultural history. The Ethnic Studies Coalition has been working tirelessly on this bill prior to the recent change in political power.
“The Coalition came together to envision and draft this bill prior to Trump’s election,” says Emily Lai, the Director of Programs for Momentum Alliance, a youth-led social justice nonprofit whose mission is to inspire young people to realize their power individually and collectively. Momentum Alliance is one of several organizations that make up the Ethnic Studies Coalition. “Education and equity issues have always been urgent for us, and we recognize that the Trump presidency has made more people understand and feel the urgency and gravity of equity issues.”
“Worries seem to be centered around how exactly to convey racial and sexual differences to students of such a young age.”
Along with Momentum Alliance, the Ethnic Studies Coalition is comprised of the Oregon Student Association, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), Coalition of Communities of Color, Chalkboard Project, and the Oregon Student Association make up the Ethnic Studies Coalition. These organizations have worked hard to define the guidelines to ensure the bill’s success.
The bill directs the Department of Education to assemble an advisory board of 14 members, representative of each group targeted through the bill’s outreach, including students from grades 7–12 and representatives from the Commission of Indian Services, the Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander Affairs, the Commission on Black Affairs, the Commission for Women and a representative of the LGBT community.
The advisory group will determine a foundation for teachers to employ in building their curriculum by providing “a list of suggested materials, resources, sample curricula and pedagogical skills training programs for use in kindergarten through grade 12 public school classrooms that accurately reflect the ethnic and social diversity of this state and the United States,” while also proposing “professional learning requirements for educators and staff to facilitate the successful implementation of the proposed ethnic studies standards,” per the bill’s language.
Additionally, HB 2845 is requiring the Department of Education to “publish annual reports on implementation of standards” to log the progress between the bill, the students and the educators.
“As an educator of color, I strongly support this bill that would allow me to teach my students about their own history and not just what is in the textbooks,” says Alejandra Barragán, a second grade Spanish immersion teacher in the Reynolds School District, and the Ethnic Minority Director of the Oregon Education Association.
“I am excited for the opportunity to see these standards in place and differentiate the learning for my students. It is important that our students engage in history and become critical thinkers as they engage in the present.”
“Ethnic Studies is essential to break down barriers and stereotypes.”
The bill has garnered much support and legislative backing, such as from its chief sponsors Representative Diego Hernandez and Senator Lew Frederick, but some legislators have expressed concerns about the bill’s inclusion.
According to Lai, certain legislators from more rural and republican-leaning parts of Oregon question the social minorities aspect of the bill, as well as the teaching of Ethnic Studies to grades K–12. Worries seem to be centered around how exactly to convey racial and sexual differences to students of such a young age—but, ultimately, support is still shown.
“Beyond that, most legislators understand and support the intention and overall goals of the bill,” says Lai. “They understand that teaching the histories, contributions, and perspectives of all cultures and communities is beneficial to all Oregonians.”
The most important aspect of HB 2845 is the students that it will affect, who have grown up learning from a curriculum that does not offer them a relatable history. Chinook Native and Pacific Islander Alexis Cannard, a Roosevelt High School senior, has been shaped by her Oregon education in many ways. She feels that the lack of representation of her own background, as well as the histories of other, has strongly affected her, and is concerned about the impact it continues to have on younger students.
“I feel my history is written in missing pages of our textbooks,” Cannard writes in a testimony to Chair Margaret Doherty and the rest of the House Education Committee. “Ethnic Studies is essential to break down barriers and stereotypes.”
“We need to start to think critically and question everything,” Cannard continues. “Ethnic studies will start conversations. It will spark the drive to seek change.”