Isa Alarcon (left) and Laura Flores (pictured here at a Black Lives Matter protest) are spearheading demands for greater diversity in texts and an end to the endemic racism at Carpinteria High School.

When the Black Lives Matter movement swept the U.S. in the early summer months, students everywhere felt called to action. For many, the nationwide wave of public outcry against racism was the first time they’d felt able to speak their truth and create change in their communities.

For the students leading Diversify Our Narrative Carpinteria, a grassroots initiative that seeks to implement diverse and anti-racist texts in Carpinteria Unified School District (CUSD) curriculum, it felt like the first step toward mending some longstanding problems with racism among students and a lack of adequate cultural representation in academic material. Spearheaded by 2017 Carp High graduate Sophia Nakasone and soon-to-be seniors Laura Flores and Isa Alarcon, Diversify Our Narrative Carpinteria has gained momentum and support from students, parents, and educators.

The original Diversify Our Narrative campaign was founded by two Stanford students in June 2020, with the goal of encouraging students nationwide to create local groups to mobilize their school boards. With an ever-growing leadership team and a list of progressive demands for the CUSD school board, the Carpinteria branch has taken on the challenge and is insistent on fighting for the change they believe students deserve.

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“I’ve been in Carpinteria schools since preschool, but I’ve always noticed the lack of literature and novels and stories [about] people who were different than the normal white, male, cisgender narrative. It was always that perspective,” said Flores. “I didn’t read my first story about a Latina woman until a couple months ago I think, [but only] because I did the work myself and I looked for those stories.”

“I’ve known Laura since I was in kindergarten … we’ve had these conversations together for a long time,” agreed Alarcon, who is Chilean. Flores and Alarcon were also the primary organizers of the Carpinteria Black Lives Matter protest, along with two of their classmates.

“It wasn’t until the Black Lives Matter movement that I realized no one is doing anything here. It’s not going to change by itself, so I was like, if no one’s going to do anything then we’ve got to do something,” Alarcon said.

Nakasone had a similar realization after graduating from Carpinteria High School. Now a fourth-year criminology and economics double major at UC Irvine, she recalled the shortcomings of the CUSD system that she belonged to for 12 years. “I never once heard about an Asian-American woman in class, let alone a mixed woman, and what that experience is like. I never knew what it was like to be mixed until I went to college and made friends with other people who were mixed. [I realized] it was its own intersectional experience.”

Ever since Nakasone, Flores, and Alarcon launched the chapter together in June, they’ve seen rapid growth and support. A team of 12 now works together to oversee social media, research, outreach, and fundraising for the initiative, but closer to 40 people contribute and support in some way. “Our roles are kind of interchangeable,” Flores said. “We all support each other and help each other.”

Their first major milestone will come on August 11, the group hopes, when the Carpinteria school board votes on the implementation of a multicultural literature course for high-school seniors. “We’re pretty confident that it’s going to get passed,” Nakasone said. “If it didn’t, that would be a very careless and petty move.”

Diversify Our Narrative Carpinteria has also been encouraging students and community members to attend school board meetings via Zoom and speak in support of the multicultural literature course. So far, their petition on the matter has accumulated 527 signatures ahead of the vote. However, the work has not been without its challenges, and there’s still a long way to go.

“I think it’s safe to say that the school board was not taking us seriously in the beginning,” Alarcon said. “It wasn’t until we kept pushing and kept emailing them and kept reaching out that they would take us seriously.”

Flores also recalled a previous school board meeting where Boardmember Andy Schaeffer said that students’ reading levels must improve before diverse texts can be implemented, she said. “The majority of kids who are not at reading level are people of color and Hispanic, so obviously, there’s an issue there,” Flores said. “Maybe if they saw themselves in what they’re reading they’d be more motivated to read, you know? You can’t expect to hold up a mirror in the classroom when these kids can’t even see themselves.”

Nakasone, Flores, and Alarcon also agreed that while the 12th-grade multicultural literature course is a great start, they’re trying to achieve much more systemic change. For every English/Literature and Comprehension class at all grade levels K-12, they demand that there be at least one book by a person of color and about a person/people of color’s experiences. “So far, we’ve gotten support from almost every grade level; we just need to get it into actual writing from the school board,” Nakasone said.

“Another demand, once we get literature in, is getting history to be taught in a way that is representative of what actually happened,” Nakasone continued. “Especially because we’re on Chumash land, I think it’s really integral that we discuss what actually happened, and that we [bring in] Chumash voices to talk about that.”

Diversify Our Narrative Carpinteria also hopes that a more diverse curriculum can bring about a shift in culture at Carpinteria schools. Over the summer, many students have taken to social media to share their negative experiences. An Instagram account called @bipoccarphigh, which allows students to anonymously publish their stories, has collected more than 120 posts from current and former CUSD students detailing disturbing accounts of racism, bullying, and an overall culture of intolerance. Flores said she hopes that students would be more empathetic if they had more access to information about different cultures.

“[Racism] is a learned behavior, so I think that the education system is a great way to not only unlearn that behavior but teach [students] that that way of thinking is often based off of stereotypes, and people are so much more than stereotypes,” Nakasone said.

“We’ve been doing more outreach and recruiting people onto our team. We actually got our first middle schooler the other day,” Alarcon said. To keep the momentum going into the future, the group will need more sophomores, freshmen, and middle schoolers on board.

“I’ve seen this change happen successfully, from small districts and from large districts,” Nakasone said. In her work as the deputy director of communications for Diversify Our Narrative, Nakasone works with 40 other districts in California. “I’ve seen school boards who are actually supportive of students’ needs and of teachers’ needs, so [being a small district and lacking funding] is not an excuse for CUSD anymore, because I’ve seen it happen in other places. It’s not a small district thing; it’s a CUSD thing.”

“Me and Laura are seniors. We’re going to graduate next year and we’re not going to be in Carp for very long. Sophia is doing her last year at UCI. We’re going to be gone in a couple of years,” Alarcon said. “We’re doing this now so that the classes and the generations behind us can have it and keep it going. I know part of me is doing this for my little cousins and my siblings in the school district. I want to keep this going for them.”

To get involved with the Carpinteria chapter of Diversify Our Narrative, community members can reach out to Ventura Unified School District also has its own chapter, and as of August 3, a chapter for the Santa Barbara Unified School District has also been registered but is not yet active. 

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