Ethnic studies is key for robust civic and community engagement

By John Trasviña, California Executive Director

As California schools re-open online and ultimately in person, two upcoming education decisions in Sacramento will define schools’ role to prepare students for our diverse democracy. In recent years, we have asked more and more of our teachers and schools to prepare students on science and technology literacy and less on how to relate to people and fulfill their civic roles in society. Meanwhile, faith in public and private institutions — from business to religions, media to mayors, law enforcement to legislatures — continues to drop.

Civics education and ethnic studies are critical components to training young people and society generally to respect one another and to contribute to community solutions. Accordingly, this month, California Governor Newsom should sign AB 331 to make ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement and the State Board of Education should establish criteria for local school districts to award a State Seal of Civic Engagement.

Ethnic studies has long been touted as a way to improve self-esteem and social emotional learning. It is more than that. As important as it is for young people to learn about the contributions of their ancestors and obstacles they have faced and often continue to face, it is also vital for young people to know about each other. Stereotypes and biases are broken down not just by young people interacting with each other in integrated neighborhoods and schools.

Stereotypes and biases weaken when young people learn about the untold stories of their own cultures and the contributions of all people to California and the nation. Learning about our past is the first step. Applying civic skills to chart a path forward to address historic inequities makes learning complete. This work is not the sole responsibility of any particular group having to champion their “own” people. When students gain practice in working with people with whom they may disagree, identify local change makers and learn the skills to hold public officials accountable, we are fulfilling the traditional role of public education in a democracy.

The State Board of Education will consider criteria for local school districts to award a State Seal of Civic Engagement that highlights student opportunities and achievement in civic learning. The State Seal will recognize and validate civics education in the classroom and
problem solving in their communities. After the State Board adopts the criteria, it is up to each school district to opt into a program of providing classroom civics training and community engagement opportunities following which students obtain letters of recommendation from teachers or community members and make presentations to their schools on their involvement.

Young people are already at the forefront of discussing controversial community issues from police reform and gun safety on the local level to the climate crisis and immigration on the global level. Their education in our California public schools is incomplete without ethnic studies and civics training that increase their understanding of the people of our history and future and the issues that will define this century. Today’s youth can expect to live into the 2100s but will be ill prepared to advance our nation without this training. This training is especially important for students whose families are new to America and may lack experience in a democracy or a understanding of our history but bring important new perspectives to our civic life and communities.

Governor Newsom, by approving ethnic studies as a high school graduation requirement, and our California Board of Education, by establishing the State Seal of Civic Engagement to recognize student achievement and civic involvement in their communities, can help turn anger into action, reduce disillusionment and alienation and improve understanding of the diverse people and essential institutions of our society.

John Trasviña is the Executive Director of Generation Citizen’s California site.