Diversify Our Narrative: California students demand curriculum change

July 16, 2020, 11:51 a.m.

“To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Romeo and Juliet.” “The Great Gatsby.” “Lord of the Flies.” “Of Mice and Men.”

Nearly any American high school student will recognize these titles from books they’ve read in an English class. Less frequently seen in the classroom, however, are texts like “Children of Blood and Bone,” “The House on Mango Street” or “The Joy Luck Club.” The difference? The books in the first list were all written by white authors, and the latter by authors of color. And students are getting fed up.

Enter: Diversify Our Narrative.

Amid a growing nationwide push to combat institutional racism, a group of students is expressing discontent with whitewashed narratives presented to them in school. The Diversify Our Narrative program, co-founded by Stanford students Jasmine Nguyen ’23 and Katelin Zhou ’23, aims to widen the range of perspectives in the literature curricula of California high schools by integrating a more diverse authorship.

The group proposed that “at least one book in every English/Literature and Comprehension class be by a person of color AND about a person/people of color’s experience(s),” according to the Diversify Our Narrative website. Teachers will have the opportunity to choose this book from a recommended reading list, or choose an alternative that abides by Education Code 60002, Article III, which requires teacher involvement and promotes community involvement in the selection of materials.

The sample petition to California school boards on the Diversify Our Narrative website also says that the reading materials must “accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society,” and at least one of the mandated books must be about the Black experience in America, “due to the anti-Blackness that has existed since the inception of our nation.”

Nguyen said that witnessing the “surge of power behind the Black Lives Matter Movement” and the public’s response to recent events made her and her co-founder hopeful that they could “use the momentum to make change in our schools.”

“Racism has always been a huge problem for America… but the momentum behind all the activism going on made us realize that there was a big opportunity to try and help contribute to the movement in whatever way we could,” Zhou added. 

The two students saw an opportunity to use the public education system to address what they saw as the root of the problem.

“We realized that the older someone gets, the more solidified their political ideology becomes, which is especially problematic if that ideology is rooted in hatred, prejudice or innately racist beliefs,” Zhou said. “By teaching books about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) experiences, we figured that students could engage in well-facilitated conversations on race and learn how to empathize with different groups of people based on a well-told narrative.”

After diving into research on state education codes, Nguyen and Zhou outlined a list of petition demands and launched a website with a group of BIPOC peers. Now, the program is picking up steam all over California. On the district level, high school students have started 80 chapters of Diversify Our Narrative, and the group’s petition has garnered nearly 18,000 signatures.

Student activist and Mt. Carmel High School rising junior, Tamara Alsaied, got involved in the program through a post that she saw shared on social media. 

Alsaied said that seeing other students advocate for minority representation inspired her to join the cause.

“There’s a lot of talk about what’s going on and the racism within our school system, but then to have students take action and be proactive about it was really inspiring, and I really wanted to be a part of that,” Alsaied said.

Alsaied and a group of about 50 of her peers have already started mobilizing change in their own school district by reaching out to administration at their district. They’re talking with their principal and some teachers who are already getting involved in changing the curriculum. They’re also planning to start a Diversify Our Narrative club on campus.

Outside of Diversify Our Narrative’s main demand: the mandate of at least one book by an author of color and about a person of color’s experience, Alsaied said she hopes also to gain support for the cause from people of all political views. 

“It’s not a place to have political arguments,” Alsaied said, “It’s a place to understand and listen and accept.”

She said another of her goals is to expand the program to elementary and middle schools later.

“I think it’s important to also get the younger ages, because that is where opinions start,” Alsaid said. “Our education is where all of these ideologies start. And so it’s really important for us to stand and fight for what we want.”

A Sierra High School rising junior, Josselyn Rondon, also took the initiative to organize the Manteca Unified School District’s branch of Diversify Our Narrative.

“I thought it was really important that schools address racism, not just in the past, like slavery or the Confederacy, but also address modern day racism, like system racism or microaggressions,” Rondon said.

She and a group of representatives from her district are gearing up for a school board meeting later this month by gathering signatures from community members and spreading their message throughout the community. In the works is a plan for a giveaway with local businesses to benefit the Diversify Our Narrative program and spread awareness of the message.

Incorporating books by diverse authors is important in helping students feel more included and supported by their community, Rondon said, and she emphasized that students need to learn history from another perspective, not one that’s “whitewashed or glossed over.” She said she’s ready to let her district know she and her peers aren’t happy with the exclusive narrative they’ve been presented with in their classrooms.

“We want to make sure that the school board and the district knows that we are not just going to sit here and be okay with [a biased curriculum],” Rondon said. “We want to make sure they know we’re aware, and we want to make a change.”

While Zhou and Nguyen acknowledge that the Diversify Our Narrative initiative is just the start of a long journey toward racial justice and anti-racism in the classroom, they believe that the program is a step in the right direction.

“We’re excited to see where this goes, and obviously this is just the very baseline of what we need to do to combat racism in this country,” Zhou said. “There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Contact Kira Sterling at kcsterling5012 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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