Ethnic Studies, Tribal history and culture curriculum, from Alcatraz to Seattle

My term as SCPTSA President is up in a few days, and for my last communication here, I wanted to share a piece presented to me by Shilalat Shega, a freshman at Roosevelt High School. You will read, as I did, her reference to the Third World Liberation Strike in 1969 which led to the establishment of the only College of Ethnic Studies in the United States at San Francisco State. Among the participants in the 1968 BSU/TWLF Strike and College of Ethnic Studies was Woesha Cloud North—my grandmother—who taught Native Art and Studies at SF State.

My grandmother lived on Alcatraz Island for six months during Natives’ occupation starting in 1969 and ending in 1971—a pivotal historical moment that contributed to the Red Power Movement and well-informed the founding of the American Indian Studies Department at SF State.

So now, fifty years later, Shilalat Shega hands me her letter to US Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, requesting mandatory Ethnic Studies. In it, Shega honors the strike that led to creation of Ethnic Studies at SF State and states, “having ethnic studies would give student of color inspiration and a sense of hope in their background and tells students of color and marginalized students that their lived experiences are complex and worthy of study.’”

As my grandmother writes in her essay “Living on Alcatraz,” regarding All Tribes Elementary School, which she helped found for the children of the occupation,

We wanted to help the children realize their ethnic identity as American Indians… Alcatraz is now halfway through its second year of occupation. The elementary school still goes on. Its mere existence has won recognition in many quarters that ethnic studies with a base in authenticity are important for school curricula on all levels.

Shilalat had no idea my personal connection to the story. She only wanted her voice to be heard. I was honored to receive her words and hope you will:

  • Read Shilalat’s words

  • Act on her plea by showing your support for ethnic studies in Seattle Public Schools.

Let’s do this for Shilalat and every other student that does not see themselves or their story in our curriculum.

Since Time Immemorial Curriculum will finally be formally adopted at the June 26 Seattle School Board meeting. Let’s get there with Ethnic Studies, with Black and Latino studies, with Asian studies. Let’s show Betsy how it’s done. Our children shouldn't have to wait another fifty years.

Chandra Hampson, SCPTSA President 2018-2019


Dear Betsy Devos,

Throughout your lifetime have you ever heard about how minorities/people of color ever fought back and tried to resist against the power of the colonizer? Yeah, we’ve learned about France, Germany, Russia, Italy, and England but have you ever dived deeper into learning about the ethnic backgrounds of people other than the Europeans? I understand the connection that the United States has to these nations is very authoritative, but it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge the existence of other major countries. Having Ethnic Studies would help us learn more about the history of different ethnic backgrounds from a different perspective and gain inspiration to fight against the differences that lead us to discriminate against each other. Ethnic Studies should be a mandatory class to graduate from high schools so that students all have the chance to learn history from a non-whitewashed perspective.

Many students of color in the U.S are not getting the education they really need to be taught. From a young age, history has been taught to students in a way that portrays minorities as inferiors compared to Europeans. Students have been taught the only parts of history where their ethnic background has failed to thrive which also fails to inspire students of these backgrounds to have pride in the place they come from. Although students should learn about the struggles that their country has faced to be where it's at today, they should also be taught the many achievements that their country has had throughout their battles. 50 years ago, In San Francisco, the push for Ethnic Studies in higher education began when a coalition of student groups, known as the Third World Liberation Front, held a strike on the San Francisco State University's campus in 1968. The students protested against racial discrimination in higher education and demanded that San Francisco State University create a college of Ethnic studies.

Many colleges and University students are demanding to have Ethnic studies as a major, so why not have it. To the statement in the Wellesley News, “members of the Ethnic Studies Coalition expressed that students of all racial background could benefit from the major.” It's important for students with different backgrounds to know how their ancestors lived and fought for this state. For many years this argument has mainly stayed on college campuses, where conservative critics argued that such classes were a waste of time and money.

Having Ethnic Studies as a major would help students of color get all the knowledge and facts about their ancestors. A Mexican-American studies program director Sean Acre told the Associated Press that students, “need to know that their ancestors, many of their parents, great-grandparents, have contributed to this great nation.” If students got to have the opportunity to learn about their ancestors, they would be proud and try to research more about their background. When students learn about their ancestors, more student may see the world different and help make the world a better place for all of us to live in. According to a professor at a California University, “with projections of drastic changes in the Ethnic Composition of the population in the United States, the new millennium becomes a frightening question mark for conservatives who worry about changes to the American way of life. But proponents of ethnic studies argue that to remove these programs would impact the quality of life for future Americans living and working in a multicultural society.” The quote claims if we have Ethnic studies as a major in schools then many students will make a change to the way we live now. It could come with both good and bad consequences, but students deserve to know the real truth about their history and how their ancestors have contributed to the making of America. The coalition of San Francisco stated, “Having Ethnic Studies as a major tells students of color and marginalized students that their lived experiences are complex and worthy of study.” Having ethnic studies would give students of color inspiration and a sense of hope in their background. Ethnics studies help students to learn about their true history without it being whitewashed.

Even if having Ethnic Studies as a major only benefits student of color it could also impact the white students. The coalition of San Francisco said, “It’s also important for white students to understand the historical exclusion of certain groups from full participation in the economic, political and cultural life of the United States and to see how that exclusion never berates to the present day. Ethnic Studies gives students a framework which we can use to situate ourselves in a broader historical context, a language which we can use to critique our current institutions, and the tools which we can use to work for our own liberation.” Even if this major is mainly taken more serious by students of color it’s important for white students to know and learn about other ethnic backgrounds too. Ethnic Studies would help white students to also learn about the history of minorities in a new perspective where Europeans are not the main point of attention. Ethnic Studies could open the minds of white children to realize how excluded the existence of other backgrounds are from our history textbooks. Ethnic studies gives us a way to teach about the history of other ethnicities. This could also change the way white students see their history and realize the privilege that they have had for so long. The audit commissioned by the Arizona education department found that, “The high school graduation rate of students taking Mexican-American studies in Tucson was higher than that of students who didn’t take the classes. Students in the class of 2010 who had taken the course were 11% more likely to graduate than those in a comparison group who didn’t.” Students who did not take ethnic studies as a major did not have as great of a rate of graduating high school than those who did take the major. This shows that having to take a class that you wouldn’t even think of taking would help you graduate high school with the knowledge of the history in other different perspectives.

Some people really love this new idea of having Ethnic Studies as a major while others don’t. Some think that having this major is “too much to learn.” Anthropology Major Renee Chen is a student who isn’t sold on the prospect of an Ethnic studies major at Wellesley who says, “I’m just not sure if an Ethnic Studies Major is realistic—there's simply too much to learn in too little time.” For students what is too much to learn? We have been going to school learning about the same thing repeatedly each year, and when we want to learn more about something else, we don’t get the opportunity to do so. So, having Ethnic Studies as a major would be amazing, and students would be learning new things.

To conclude this all, Ethnic Studies should be a mandatory class to graduate from high school, because it would help students learn more about their ancestors, feel that their history is worth learning, and even if you are white you would also be getting the opportunity to learn more about other races. For many years colleges and universities have been trying to make a change to schools to have Ethnic Studies as a major. It is important that we have all the knowledge of the history in depth more than just learning in one perspective. Having Ethnic Studies shows how we care about the history of other ethnic backgrounds.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Shilalat Shega