Sociedad Latina advocates to get Ethnic Studies into the Statewide School Curriculum

After more than 10 years working incrementally on a broad campaign to ethnically diversify the curriculum in Boston Public Schools (BPS), youth at Sociedad Latina are seeing some major gains this year that build on the work of so many youth before them.

Youth Leaders Arianna Rodriguez and Jason Dias, both of Sociedad Latina, reported that after much testimony and advocacy, BPS is moving towards an Ethnic Studies curriculum and two bills have been filed in the Legislature to begin to institute such a curriculum statewide.

It’s a victory that both said was made better as they are young people fighting for their own education, and also for that of younger children coming up behind them.

“I feel like us being so young and making so much change shows our generation is here to make a significant change in society,” Dias said. “It inspires me to be better and fight for the world to be better – a world where everyone is included, and everyone is loved and cherished.”

Rodriguez, now a senior, said she has gone from knowing nothing about her identity or about political change, to now being in the thick of it and finding herself wanting to fight for younger kids – something that has been a tradition of the Sociedad Latina experience.

“Younger kids will be the future,” she said. “If you want to be the next future, this is what has to be fixed to make that future happen. Over three years at Sociedad Latina I’ve seen a little movement on this at school, but there are a lot of students that want to speak about the school, but just don’t speak up…We’re speaking up for them and if we continue we will have our wishes heard.”

The program is a long-standing effort at Sociedad Latina where youth began a campaign years ago that became ‘Learn Us To Teach Us.’ That campaign was centered around language and English Language Learners (ELL). Many of the ELL students were also members of Sociedad and routinely reported getting treated poorly by some teachers and administrators.

Wilmer Quinones-Melo was a freshman in high school in 2009 when he began talking about how some of the teachers at his BPS school were treating he and his friends, who were ELL students. They often didn’t feel welcomed, and they were made to feel lesser than others, with teachers often not knowing their names and completely dismissing their culture.

“At that time, we were bringing up a lot of issues for ELL students and students from a diverse background,” Quinones-Melo, who has now graduated college and is in the working world, recalled. “A lot said teachers didn’t even know our names. Every time I talked to a substitute teacher or a principal, they told me I should go back to my country or learn English.”

That effort led Quinones to work with BPS to start the ELL Task Force. He served on the Task Force and reported to a wide group of BPS officials the experiences of students from around the district. That also morphed into a program whereby 15 students – many from Sociedad Latina – were able to be part of teacher trainings and inform teachers of their culture and the differences between so many of the cultures represented in the classrooms around the district. They even made a training video for new teachers to learn about the diversity of the students they were to be teaching.

Eventually, that gave birth to the ‘Learn Us to Teach Us’ campaign, which ran alongside Sociedad’s internal program about identity, called ‘Quien Soy Yo.’ That program helped the young people in the program learn about their ancestors and their cultural history. It was something they never got in school, but an experience more rewarding that math or science lessons, Dias and Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican, joined Sociedad when she was a freshman and heard about it from her friend. She said she was transformed by the identity program.

“I was very surprised because the last time I thought about my identity was in middle school,” she said. “In high school, it was only Black History Month or slavery. I was learning about my own identity and I didn’t even know my identity and apparently, I found out, I had a lot of identity. It really made me see we need Ethnic Studies in BPS schools. I don’t want freshman to join a school and by the time they graduate, they don’t know who they are. They just know math and science and nothing about themselves. I now have more knowledge of our family and who we are and that changes a lot when you know that.”

Dias, a student at Madison Park, had a very personal journey to getting to Ethnic Studies advocacy. His father came to the U.S. from Brazil, and Dias was born in Boston, but when he was young his father got deported. Despite having citizenship, Dias had to leave with his family and go back to Brazil. It was there he discovered who he was, learned about the Brazilian history and his own ancestors. He also learned that in Boston, all he had learned about was the history of people who had thrown his family out of the country.

“When I was in Brazil I really got to learn where I am from and who I am and I realized many students who come here from another country – they don’t know who they are, their ancestors and their bloodlines,” he said. “They’re learning about white history while experiencing racism and learning about the history of people who don’t seem to want us in the country. They don’t get to hear about themselves.”

Those experiences, and many more, have driven the campaign to great successes.

Both Dias and Rodriguez still get encouragement from alums like Quinones-Melo, and both have testified extensively at the Boston School Committee on the topic.

Now also, with the help of State Rep. Nika Elugardo and other legislators, two bills – one in the House and one in the Senate – have been filed to create a Commission for Anti-Racism and Equity in Education. Those bills call for exactly what the young leaders have talked about for years, creating a curriculum statewide – even in mostly white communities – teaching “ethnic studies, racial justice, decolonizing history, and unlearning racism at all grade levels using a critical approach and pedagogy that is age-appropriate” – to quote the bill. It also calls for extensive teacher training through professional development on race and racism in the classroom.

Drawing on the encouragement of former leaders like Quinones-Melo, Dias and Rodriguez said they have begun to take the message outside of Mission Hill and Boston.

“We’re trying now to stay connected and we’re meeting bi-weekly with others to spread the word about starting Ethnic Studies programs all over the state, and we’re particularly doing this in communities that are mostly white and maybe have not heard about this effort,” said Dias.

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