In a critical attempt toward reducing the achievement gap between ethnic minority students and their peers, the Santa Barbara Unified School Board unanimously voted on November 13 to require ethnic studies coursework for high school graduation. The board meeting was packed with enthusiastic students and their supporters, as well as a small, vocal group of parents who opposed the initiative during public comment, criticizing it as “race-baiting” and “anti-American.”
The new requirement, scheduled to begin in 2023, is the result of three years of activism by the Santa Barbara Ethnic Studies Now! Coalition. The group was founded by community activist Fabiola Gonzalez, who said that she wished such an education — which reflected her own heritage and experience — had been available for her and her family.
Growing up, Gonzalez struggled to find her place in her school and community. Gonzalez is a first-generation Latina American; her parents immigrated to Santa Barbara from Mexico. It was her biggest secret that she worked with her parents as a gardener when she wasn’t in school. “It was something I felt a lot of shame about,” said Gonzalez. “It was not something I could bring to school.” Ethnic student minorities such as Gonzalez are not given the opportunity to see themselves or their histories in their studies. “I always felt like that’s just how it was,” said Gonzalez. “That I had to change myself to try to fit in.”
A self-described “typical good student,” Gonzalez never received lower than a B, was active in extracurricular activities, and graduated from Santa Barbara High School in 2009. Despite her good grades, she found herself struggling at City College. “There was a moment where I could have easily gotten stuck or lost and given up,” she said. Then she took her first Chicana studies course. “Those classes helped me look beyond my own life and barriers. They pushed me to work towards something greater than myself,” said Gonzalez. “But I was also frustrated that it took 19 years of my life to finally have access to an education about my own history, identity, experiences, and family.” Her older brother didn’t complete high school. “It wasn’t that he wasn’t smart or didn’t care,” said Gonzalez. “It just wasn’t the right information that he could connect to.”
A course in ethnic studies “teaches you to first of all learn about and love yourself,” she said. For Gonzalez, that meant learning about her parents and the immigrant experience. “Ethnic studies was so impactful for me because I was able to bring all of my personal history into the classroom in a way that made me feel both proud and supported by academics,” said Gonzalez. In a supportive and inclusive class environment, students have challenging conversations about power and difference. It gives every student the opportunity to learn about the diverse cultures with whom they coexist in their communities. Decades of research prove that such an environment improves cognitive ability, which in turn improves grades, class attendance, and the ability to empathize with students from all backgrounds.
Gonzalez is a testament to the success of ethnic studies. She transferred to UCLA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies (and a minor in education) and began a master’s at CSU Northridge. Along the way, she met activists involved in California’s ethnic studies movement, which led her to realize that Santa Barbara high school students would benefit from ethnic studies classes. She invited around 30 Santa Barbara parents and educators she hoped would share her passion for the subject. On December 14, 2015, she was surprised to see more than 40 people at the first Ethnic Studies Now! Coalition meeting at La Casa de la Raza. “It proved to me that our community not only needs this, but that it is also hungry for it.” High school students joined and energized the movement, eventually rising to become effective activists and leaders.
Just like the Parkland, Florida, students who witnessed the school massacre in February, Santa Barbara students began to speak out against the dangerous world they experience. Just in the last year, students have grappled with school lockdowns, online bullying, and violent threats against female students. In fact, local activists consider an education in ethnic studies as one possible solution to this violence among students. “If taught properly, ethnic studies classes provide at the very least a safe space for students to think out loud about these issues and share these experiences,” said Gonzalez. “Having that space alone creates a tremendous impact [against] the kind of violence that happens at school every day.”
Coincidentally, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 student strikes that led to the creation of the first ethnic studies department at San Francisco State University. A statewide model curricula on ethnic studies will be available by 2019 to standardize content and facilitate course adoption within California high schools. Oxnard and Los Angeles Unified, along with nine other districts, have already implemented ethnic studies requirements.
Gaining the social benefits of ethnic studies, however, requires more than the availability of courses. There must be permanent funding, adequate training for teachers, and sustained support both within the school district as well as the community. Santa Barbara members of the coalition are insisting that input from the whole community must be included in the implementation of the program.
During the three years of pursuing this program, coalition members worked closely with district officials to make sure their proposition was ready — the finalized plan involves modifying the district’s existing graduation requirements to include a five-unit ethnic studies course that’s transferable to the University of California and California State University systems. The units will not increase students’ required unit load and will be part of required core curriculum.
Boardmembers unanimously offered praise and support. “Not only is this a movement,” said Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten, “but it is a shift in culture, the way we think, and [the way we] have conversations moving forward.” Noting that the “real work” has just begun, Board President Jackie Reid added, “Let’s get this right so that other school districts follow suit.”
Ultimately, the night belonged to coalition members celebrating their long-fought victory. “If there is one thing that ethnic studies teaches us, [it] is that we are makers of history,” said Gonzales. “And I believe that indeed, tonight, we are making history.”