Aliya Ahmed realized after her first year at Mira Costa High School that all the courses she’d taken had “such a great lack of inclusion.”
“Everything was so whitewashed,” she said.
So, Ahmed, now a sophomore, decided to join Hannah Gedion, a junior at Mira Costa who started Manhattan Beach Unified School District’s chapter of the statewide #DiversifyourNarrative initiative, and other students, to change that.
The student-led California-wide initiative advises school boards on expanding their curriculum with diverse, anti-racist texts. MBUSD's leg of #DiversifyourNarrative is working with the MBUSD Community Panel for Equity, a group of local alumni, students, parents, staff and community members pushing for change in Manhattan Beach’s education system. Both are working to create more inclusive and representative learning environments for students moving forward.
There are a lot of historical inaccuracies taught, Gedion said, and students have overlooked them for so long because no one thinks they need history to graduate.
“The way society is right now,” she added, “History is more important than ever,” and so is a “reevaluation of what we teach people and how it affects our lives.”
Part of making inclusive teaching and learning a perpetual part of the district moving forward, said Ronald Clinton, leader of the Panel for Equity, is introducing an equity officer to MBUSD.
The hired officer would serve as a consultant and manager of sorts, he added, to institutionalize the panel’s efforts, continuing to push for curriculum reform and advocate for equitable measures in MBUSD’s budget.
“It’s a way of saying ‘we’ve now got someone there we can talk to (directly) and (who can) make things possible on a district level,” Clinton said.
Clinton, he said, has his own experiences with gaps in the district's educational diversity.
One of those times was in his 10th grade modern world history class.
“During the time it didn't affect me, but looking back, it did," said Clinton, who graduated from Mira Costa in 2017 and attends Stanford University.
His teacher had asked the class where their families were from, Clinton recalled, and when his turn came, unlike his classmates, he said he didn't know.
Then, “they asked, ‘do you have any guesses?,” he said.
The district “needs more faculty of color,” Clinton said. The sensitivity of topics like that for a Black student is “not something you’d have to explain to most Black teachers.”
“I truly think if I had a teacher of color or a Black teacher specifically, that wouldn’t have been an issue,” he added.
As for Gedion, certain questions on assignments she’s gotten have rubbed her the wrong way.
In covering slavery in US history class, she said, Gedion and fellow students were asked: “what are the pros and cons of slavery?”
“The fact that they asked what the pros are, consciously saying the ways it benefited the US undermines the fact that it’s a demoralizing thing for African Americans.”
Posts on #DiversifyourNarrative’s Facebook discuss how intergenerational trauma affects many Black, indigenous and other people of color, racial enslavement being one example.
The Panel for Equity's social media committee, Clinton said, has been posting narratives of what students experience in MBUSD schools, showing the need for inclusive change.
In an anonymous post on the panel's Facebook page, one student said: "In elementary school, when we were learning about slavery, a teacher had us pretend to be slaves cramped in a boat. They threw candy at us to show how slaves had to fight over food."
“There’s something wrong if people think kids are going to remember that scene later in their lives in an academic way," Clinton said.
With experiences like that, he added, the panel’s goal is “mainly to make sure each student feels welcome, especially in an environment where being a person of color, in the overwhelming minority.”
Clinton said his group has been talking to school board members weekly to ensure they are on board.
“I think they're starting to realize how important these issues are,” he said.
The issues the Panel for Equity is working on, he added, are not limited to racism but anti-bias and anti-discrimination in sexism, against the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and more.
“We’re really trying to make sure each student’s voice is heard,” Clinton said.
The panel’s curriculum reform committee has already been collaborating with history and English teachers at Mira Costa, said Jasmine Williams, lead of the committee.
Teachers have been sharing their syllabi with the group, she added, seeing how to introduce more inclusive voices and diverse literature, like replacing “Lord of the Flies” and “The Catcher in the Rye” with books by POC authors.
In reaching out to teachers at Mira Costa, Ahmed said, she’s gotten feedback from many who are open to changing their curriculum, integrating more diverse topics and assignment prompts.
“I think many of them want to make this change,” Ahmed said, “And our goal is to support and give them more resources to be able to do that.
Members of #DiversifyourNarrative’s MBUSD chapter have been informally talking with some school board members about implementing ethnic studies curriculum among other ideas, Gedion said.
A goal is to implement an ethnic studies class into Mira Costa’s history department as a mandatory course for freshmen, she added.
The state Senate, in fact, recently passed a bill that makes ethnic studies courses a high school graduation requirement.
It looks good, Gedion said, for MBUSD to get ahead of this.
There are so many towns in which residents need to see an example of what it looks like to pick up the pieces and effect great change, Gedion added. If Manhattan Beach can be a leader in that charge, it will be a powerful message to send.
“This really is a perfect opportunity for MBUSD to be on the forefront of equitable change,” Clinton said.
Although starting the initiative was in reaction to recent issues of racial injustice, he added, it does not end there.
“This should be institutionalized,” Clinton said of the groups’ efforts. “This is just the beginning. I hope we can be proactive, continue to push change to affect people who need it and work on these issues that are (possibly) not being talked about in other districts.”
Manhattan Beach Unified is hosting a board workshop on Equity, Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusion at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 30, according to a district spokesperson. The workshop will be live streamed on YouTube.
While there's an urgency on the part of the student and community groups to diversifying Manhattan Beach Unified classrooms, there’s no timeline to meet a final goal.
“Education reform doesn't stop, (we) won't ever stop,” Williams said. “The work we’re doing, we’re in it for the long haul.