These teenagers want to dismantle America's racist history curriculum

A notification on an iPhone about being a part of the movement that dismantles systemic racism, star...
Part of an Instagram post made by Ritika Sharma to draw attention to her petition. [Courtesy of Ritika Sharma]
Decolonize This
ByJazmin Kay

Ritika Sharma is a 17-year-old student attending Denmark High School in Forsyth County, Georgia. As social media became a rallying and organizing outlet for thousands of students in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd, Sharma began sharing information on her personal Instagram about the racist past of her home county and the need to reform Georgia Studies, a mandatory eighth grade course across the state, to reflect this history. Soon after, in response to her posts, an Instagram account called “educationforequalityusa” sent her a direct message encouraging her to start a petition demanding changes to her school’s curriculum.

Inspired by the account, Sharma started a letter addressed to her school superintendent and board members of the Forsyth County School District asking the county and other schools located in Georgia to craft a comprehensive plan to address systemic racism, police brutality, and systems of privilege at all levels of education. Furthermore, the letter demanded that the plan go into effect this fall. Quickly, the petition gained traction with over 400 signatures from students, teachers, alumni, staff, and parents. “Social media is probably your best friend when it comes to spreading this message, because I know like five people,” Sharma tells Mic. “So to get the petition signed by like more than 400 was more than I expected.”

“I've already been through Georgia Studies and a lot of people my age and above who have been through this history class felt like, ‘Oh, it's too late,’” she adds. “But this is about future generations getting an accurate curriculum that is not biased and really talks about systemic racism and the different policies that hurt so many communities.”

[Courtesy of Ritika Sharma]

In response to the petition and growing pressure from the community, Forsyth County School District is revisiting its Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan (DEI) and is working to put forth a more accurate portrayal of history and the integration and acknowledgment of Black figures throughout all school topics such as English and STEM classes.

Despite recent disapproval from President Trump on this issue — he tweeted earlier this month that the Department of Education should deny funding to schools that teach The 1619 Project, the sprawling Pulitzer Prize-winning exploration of the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans spearheaded by New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — Sharma is just one of many students across the country who have taken up action to urge their school to decolonize its curriculum.

Judy Zhang, 18, is the director of education for Diversify Our Narrative, a national movement fighting for racial justice by demanding diverse, anti-racist texts in high school English and literature classes. Started mid-June by two Stanford University sophomores as Black Lives Matter protests were breaking records across the country, Diversity of Our Narrative currently has over 125,000 Instagram followers, over 5,000 student organizers, and 712 chapters across the country and growing.

“The education that people get in high school is very important, but it’s also very lacking in content that's diverse and not Westernized. We did a post [on Instagram] that was the top 10 most popular books that are taught in English classrooms. The top 10 are literally by all white men, aside from Harper Lee, who is a white woman,” Zhang, a freshman at the University of Chicago, tells Mic. “I think that's really reflective of our educational system, and it just shows how students don't really want to be forced to read all of these old texts by Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald or something like that.”

“When I was in high school, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I have to read another book for English.’ And they're all written by people whose experiences I couldn't relate to.”

In the days after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other unarmed Black people were thrust into the national consciousness, anti-racist booklists shared were widely across social media and online. Books like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow sold out temporarily on Amazon. Yet for many students, asking them to seek out additional texts on these topics when they are already required to do other, less-inclusive assigned readings at schools is not practical — and in fact misses the point.

“When I was in high school, I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I have to read another book for English.’ And they're all written by people whose experiences I couldn't relate to,” Zhang says. “But a lot of my white peers could,” she adds, “because it was telling their story and it was telling their narrative. For so many people of color, it’s really hard and disheartening for them because they could go through their entire high school career and just not read a book that reflects who they are.”

In addition to English classes, many students are explicitly focused on overhauling and modernizing the American history curriculum. The National Youth Council for Real History Education is a youth-led coalition of over 60 students focused on changing how history is taught in schools across America. “The people on this council aren't necessarily history fanatics. It's more that we've all gone on our life's journey and realized that the history we were taught was not only not empowering, but not entirely truthful. If we do really want to change the society that we live in, this is a first step,” says Daniel Ardity, an 18-year-old member of the council from Coral Springs, Florida.

An Instagram Story posted during the National Youth Council for Real History Education's Youth Summit. [Courtesy of Daniel Ardity]
An Instagram Story posted during the National Youth Council for Real History Education's Youth Summit. [Courtesy of Daniel Ardity]
1 / 2

The council held a Youth Summit earlier this month to listen to what young people feel is missing from their history classes. In particular, students like 17-year-old Sereena Knight, a member of the council from Laurel, Maryland, demanded a more intersectional approach to the teaching of history and contemporary issues. “The value of intersectionality and how we teach history is key for us,” Knight says, noting that climate change is a prime example of a topic that requires a more intentional focus. For her, a complete lesson on climate change would include discussions of environmental racism and inequality.

Overcoming the school bureaucracy

As students prepare detailed policy documents and lists of ways that their education is failing to be diverse and equitable, the next step is generally to present their findings to their local school board, school district officials, or their state board of education. Unfortunately, this is the part where ideas and activism run into the infamous stone wall of bureaucracy. And in the case of education, even teachers struggle when raising these concerns and challenging their superiors.

Myra Lee, an eighth-grade teacher of Georgia Studies at Haynes Bridge Middle School in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, tells Mic that she noticed a damning discrepancy in the curriculum she was teaching. Specifically, Lee says, “We were studying about white supremacists being essential to Georgia and the development of Georgia, but we didn't really talk a whole lot about the fact that they were white supremacists.” The short-sightedness and Eurocentrism permeated the entire class: “We only taught about Black people as it pertains to slavery and the civil rights movement,” she says, and “even when we got to talking about the entertainment industry — we're here in Atlanta, Georgia, [and] there was no mention of Tyler Perry and his influence.”

Myra Lee at a protest earlier this year. [Courtesy of Myra Lee]

As Lee watched the Black Lives Matter protests on TV and heard from students like Sharma in neighboring counties, she connected with other teachers in her community to pursue change. One of them was Rachel Hicks, who has taught Georgia Studies at Taylor Road Middle School in Johns Creek, Georgia, for eight years. Together, Hicks and Lee started the organization Georgia Educators for Inclusive Curriculum, hoping to provide a space for teachers to share information and resources to help ensure their classes tell the stories of marginalized people.

But after contacting their state board of education, Lee and Hicks were told that the curriculum could not be changed for another three years. In the meantime, in their individual classrooms they were “more than welcome to add additional information, as long as we taught the standards,” Hicks says, but nothing would be made official.

During a public meeting of the Fulton County School Board Education on June 29, the two women asked the school board to add an African American Studies course and to amend the Georgia Studies curriculum. While the school board has not altered the Georgia Studies curriculum, it did add an optional African American Studies elective in high schools in response to their concerns — but the course is still only available if a particular school decides to offer it. When Hicks and Lee asked about instituting an African American Studies course statewide, like Texas has recently done, the State Board of Education responded that all Georgia teachers were free to create their own African American Studies course, but there would be no statewide standards to follow, nor would there be state-provided materials to guide them.

For many teachers who are already feeling overwhelmed in response to the sweeping shifts to teaching during a pandemic, additive work such as crafting these courses is simply not feasible — not to mention the fact that without official backing, it’d be easy for their efforts to be shelved later on.

“It's actually a federal law that requires local bureaucracies to consult with tribes and tribal leaders and elevate them as authentic, whole partnerships. But there are countless school districts throughout the country that completely continue to ignore these laws.”

Across the country, in Los Angeles, student organizing group Our Turn has created the LA Student Standard to put pressure on the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to change its curriculum. Our Turn argues that Indigenous voices and history have been erased throughout the LAUSD system — the second-largest public school system in the country — and called on the district to conduct meaningful tribal consultation with Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash people, who were native to the Los Angeles area.

“We want to hold LAUSD accountable for ... acknowledging the land that they're on,” says Desiree Martinez, 25, a former LAUSD student and Our Turn’s manager of organizing in Los Angeles. “It's actually a federal law that requires local bureaucracies to consult with tribes and tribal leaders and elevate them as authentic, whole partnerships. But there are countless school districts throughout the country that completely continue to ignore these laws, LAUSD being one of them.”

While some local school board officials have been responsive thus far to their calls for a more complete curriculum, there have yet to be any substantive policy changes. “I think part of our role right now is trying to figure out how to push elected officials to have the political courage to make some of these changes, especially centering the voices of Black and Indigenous people of color,” Martinez tells Mic.

Keeping up the momentum

As new organizations and groups continue to push for comprehensive reform in America’s classrooms, activists and practitioners who have been doing this work for decades are cautious about how long the national attention will last.

“Everyone's trying to do a book club, but we have to move beyond the theoretical into the application,” Natalie McCabe Zwerger, the director of the Center for Strategic Solutions at NYU Metro Center, which works to embed educational equity in schools, tells Mic.We need to be explicit about race, but not exclusive about it — if we want to talk about race, we also need to talk about gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, disability, language, and all of the intersectional components that fuel racism.”

Alex O'Sullivan questioning a panel on equity in school resources and budgeting. [Courtesy of Alex O'Sullivan]

Yet many students see this moment as a catalyst for providing more young people with an overdue seat at the table in pushing for institutional change. Alex O’Sullivan, 16, is a student representative on the D.C. State Board of Education. While some of his work to increase equity and reform curriculum among D.C.'s schools may take time to come to fruition, O’Sullivan is passionate in the meantime about encouraging students to take action now and build relationships with their school boards. “It's important that students remember they are the most qualified to talk about these issues,” he tells Mic. “We are the main stakeholders. There's no one who knows better than us.”

The teen, a junior at BASIS D.C., also knows that overhauling lesson plans will take buy-in from many individuals. And that might be hard to come by. We’ve all been influenced by the education we received, after all, and to consider fundamental changes to the American education system is a referendum on the information we already learned.

But O’Sullivan hopes people will be open to doing the work. As he puts it: “You have to decolonize your mind before you decolonize any other place in the world, before you try to decolonize your society or the classroom.”