Long Beach has one of the most diverse communities in the nation, with over 400,000 people from around the world calling it home. Despite this diversity, most people don’t have any knowledge about the cultures living inside the city and how those cultures meld and impact each other. But now, schools, community organizations, and policymakers alike are working to generate cross-cultural dialogue throughout the city by promoting ethnic studies in high schools.
“Young people of color deserve to learn their histories. All young people should know the histories of communities of color,” said Kimmy Maniquis, program director for the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ). “Seeing your people’s contributions validates the worth of your ancestors, your parents, your community and therefore your own self-worth. If my people’s story is valued, I am valued.”
Ethnic studies courses are similar to history courses, Maniquis explains, but they are also very different.
“Ethnic Studies is about movements, not heroes. Whereas traditional curriculum highlights the accomplishments of individual leaders, Ethnic Studies explores the contributions of communities in challenging social inequities,” says Maniquis.
Jose F. Moreno, Department Chair for the Chicano & Latino Studies at Cal State Long Beach believes taking an in-depth approach to history is one benefit of teaching Ethnic Studies. Filling in the gaps of history that are left out from standard history classes creates a better understanding of all cultures.
“Ethnic studies allows our kids and then our teachers of course, to really learn the nuances and complexities of history,” said Moreno, who is spearheading the effort. “It’s not as simple as versus and against, it is a lot of different people having sacrificed themselves to try to bring a true multiracial America, a more just America.”
So why is ethnic studies being pushed now?
AB 1750, clearly titled “Bill to promote Ethnic Studies in Public Schools”, is a bill put forth by California Assemblymember Luis Alejo in hopes to, as the title says, promote ethnic studies in public high schools.
This landmark legislation would establish Ethnic Studies courses as part of the standard high school curriculum. Doing so would allow high school students all across California to study a diverse set of cultures and communities.
That diversity could expand to several different ethnicities here in Long Beach.
“If young people are able to learn the history of social movements around labor, racism, access, etc., this offers them a foundation for creating movements to challenge current day inequities,” Maniquis said. “If this critical understanding can serve as a launching point for young people to become involved in community organizing or educating to transform communities, we would have the potential to eradicate some very serious social injustices.”
Peter Ly, a teacher at Jordan High School has seen firsthand the benefits of ethnic studies courses in high schools. By teaching students about other cultures as well as their own, there began an easing of racial tensions between Latino and African-American students that had plagued the schools.
“When you teach them about different cultures they know more, they understand more, they are less likely to be upset,” said Ly, who started an Asian-American club at the high school. “Prejudices and discrimination and all these different things come from misunderstanding…as long as you bridge the gap between misunderstandings there’s going to be less tension, less violence, less conflict.”
Ly believes that this “bridging” has lowered the violence and confrontations at once-dangerous Jordan High School. Students began to understand that the similarities between them and their peers outweighed the differences they perceive.
The class itself was a reflection of the students within the community, creating a very historically inclusive course.
“We teach kids about social responsibility, different cultures, the history of different cultures — African-American history, Latino history, Pacific Islander history, so that kids can better understand each other,” Ly said.
Working with Jordan High’s Male Academy, Ly has noticed the bond this understanding has given to students of different backgrounds.
“A lot of kids don’t even know their own history,” Ly said. “They don’t know the struggle and then they come to realize that their cultures are different, yet they both want the same thing.”
However, schools aren’t the only place where youth are learning about their own culture and the cultures of others.
Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) is an organization in Long Beach that promotes and celebrates the Southeast Asian culture that is a major part of Long Beach’s diversity.
“Oftentimes our history and our issues are made invisible. It’s important for our stories to be told and ethnic studies classes are a great way for students to learn about their own history and the history of other communities,” said Justine Calma, media coordinator at KGA.
Calma believes that comprehensive cultural learning encompasses even more than what is traditionally taught in an ethnic studies curriculum.
“We want culturally relevant education that reflects the community’s diverse history and strength, and that includes ethnic studies, history, language and cultures, like food and dance,” Calma said. “Ethnic studies encompasses a lot, culture is just one aspect. When we talk about ethnic studies we also talk about the ability to learn community history, like some of the issues that have impacted our community, especially as refugees and immigrants.”
Other high school ethnic studies programs nearby have already seen some impact.
“Our ethnic studies program was in response to the actions by the government in Arizona that made ethnic studies illegal,” said Oscar De La Torre, board member for the Santa Monica-Malibu school district. “The most developed ethnic studies in the country existed in Tuscan and it was made illegal by the Superintendent. They outlawed books, they made it illegal to teach certain books, it was crazy it was so anti-American. So our response was to make an ethnic studies program in Santa Monica.”
De La Torre believes his classes have inspired students and has given them the skills to critically think about their environment.
“It creates an inclusive curriculum that embraces the cultural diversity that makes up our community,” says De La Torre. “A lot of interesting things happen when we taught students to become critical thinkers and to challenge conventional thought…we saw a light turn on that didn’t exist before.
De La Torre’s hope is that these courses spread a growth of critical thought in our students as well.
“It only makes sense that ethnic studies would be part of the core curriculum in Long Beach,” De La Torre said. “It has been a great success in our community and I can only imagine the bridges it is going to build in Long Beach.”