Allies of color fight for ethnic studies

MPS gets on board…for now

(l-r) Kieber Ortiz-Sinchi, Lanise Block, and Macarre Traynham, MPS executive director of teaching and learning
(l-r) Kieber Ortiz-Sinchi, Lanise Block, and Macarre Traynham, MPS executive director of teaching and learning Charles Hallman/MSR News

Recent studies suggest that ethnic studies classes in schools can help create “more equitable schooling environments” for all students. During the 2015-16 school year, such classes were offered to Minneapolis Public School students for the first time.

Jonathan Hamilton, research director for the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership, has written in “The Need for Ethnic Studies Curricula in Minnesota’s Schools,” published in April, that “Ethnic Studies is a curriculum for all students that provides important insights into their own heritage and that of others in our increasingly racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse society. [It] promotes unity and cross-cultural understanding by teaching American values…through the historical struggles of one nation.”

Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and other local organizations and colleges co-sponsored a “Twin Cities Ethnic Studies Summit” April 30 at North High School. MPS Strategic Project Administrator Lanise Block told the MSR that the summit’s primary purpose is to inform the community that such classes are now available at district schools.

The Minneapolis School Board in 2015, after students, parents, teachers and administrators expressed interest, voted to implement ethnic studies courses in their high schools. The district has worked with the University of Minnesota and others to develop ethnic studies curricula.

“We want to use ethnic studies as a vehicle to help…our students [be] more aware of the historical context that informs their present experience,” explained Block on five Ethnic Studies pilot courses: African American History, Asian American History, Chicano/Latino History, Indigenous Nations History, and Contemporary Africa: Local, National and Global.

Ethnic studies “is an absent narrative not being told” about the history of Blacks and other people of color, said Block. These classes help students develop “critical consciousness and critical thinking,” and it is equally important for people of color as well as White students “to understand the full picture,” Block continued.

Kieber Ortiz-Sinchi, an MPS district social studies program facilitator for grades six-12, said, “We want to make sure parents are aware of what ethnic studies is…and can find opportunities to interact with the school board, administrators, teachers, and also give us their input and feedback.”

California public schools, such as in San Francisco, have led the nation for several years now in implementing ethnic studies programs. “It is not just learning about our history,” noted San Francisco organizer Alex Hing, one of three keynote speakers at the day-long summit in April.

Youth activists Kevine Boggess and Juana Teresa Tello of the Solidarity Organizing Project talked about its ethnic studies program that originated in five San Francisco schools and has expanded to 18. “Kevine and I are not formal teachers,” admitted Tello. “[But] we know ethnic studies can [be] a transformative experience.” Both individuals have been involved in organizing ethnic studies in San Francisco since 2010.

“It is not a perfect program,” added Boggess. For years, Black history in schools has been “devalued. I wanted to let folk here know they have allies on the West Coast who are willing to stand with them and fight with them as they fight for ethnic studies.

“We think ethnic studies is great and also creates ownership in the community,” Boggess said, adding the importance of a community “committed to seeing Black families successful and kids of color excelling for themselves.”

Asked whether whoever is hired as the new Minneapolis superintendent will support ethnic studies, as did both former MPS head Bernadeia Johnson and interim superintendent Michael Goar, Block said she hopes so.

“The push [for ethnic studies] has been a long time coming,” Block said. “We were able to get it this school year. We are going to expand it for the next school year.”


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