Looking into the tear-streaked faces of four Arizona high school students projected on a college auditorium screen this evening, I felt a now familiar wave of tingling inspiration. As has been true in so many of these instances, I also felt the confusing sting of privilege.
Surrounded by nearly 100 of my predominantly white peers, we took in scenes of a Tucson High School classroom where teachers dared to tell the truth about American history–unveiling systems of oppression, stereotype, and unequal opportunities that have defined our nation. We watched as educators told the stories behind the lines of nationalistic social studies textbooks authored in Texas. Rather than rattle off facts about Benjamin Franklin’s kite innovation and Founding Father glory, they authored a curriculum that includes social justice movements, hidden realities, and a Civil Rights Movement that is still being fought today.
In these “Raza Studies” courses, Tucson students learned the values of love, respect and self reflection through lessons centered on Chicano and Latino culture and tradition. Moving beyond the knowledge of standardized tests, teenagers understood social justice pedagogy. They were empowered to express themselves and embark on deeply personal journeys of self-exploration and philosophical discovery. Bridging their communities with their classrooms, they are learning holistically. Armed with a sense of purpose in education, the teachers of these Raza Studies courses are transforming the dysfunctional relationship most students have with school into an almost familial relationship.
Erin McGinnis, the woman seated quietly at the back of this St. Olaf College auditorium, was the force behind the camera filming these passionate kids. As they took on a project to “fix social problems” in their school, she was observing from a tiled corner. When the students organized to put on a Unity Festival (filled with student-written and performed rap pieces, artistic murals, and organized fundraising,) she had a front row seat. When her lens found the sunburned white face of Tom Horne, the current Arizona Attorney General and former Education Superintendent of Public Instruction, we movie-watchers realized the necessity of her presence.
Like the teachers and students she films, Ms. McGinnis is a storyteller. In her tale, there are villains and victors and underdogs. Throughout the course of McGinnis’ 70 minute PBS documentary Precious Knowledge, we juggle themes of hope and loss.
In her time spent at Tucson High School in the 2008-2009 school year, Erin McGinnis witnessed and recorded one of the biggest political and Civil Rights battles the state had seen in decades. Fueling the fire are Horne and his band of conservative compatriots–politicians and community members spewing concerns about the “un-American” nature of a curriculum that includes Mexican culture. Horne paints his strange dystopian picture again and again, asserting that classes which cover historical figures like Marx, Chavez, and Che must have communist agendas. “Red Scare” rhetoric in tow, Horne disguises his argument as one of “equality.” In one opening interview, he claims that dividing students at all on the basis of ethnicity is anti-American. Instead of acknowledging Latino roots, Horne claims that we should all just “see personality.”
In each of his comments, Horne pushes the idea that we are a society that has surpassed the need to talk about race or disparity. Though he never took the time to visit a Raza Studies classroom himself, Horne’s political agenda revolved around cutting the program–saving valuable American tax dollars from a program designed to “turn kids into angry radicals.” Horne tookd pains to depict Tucson High School educators as hate-filled and divisive–failing to read a curriculum based on concepts of love and open to students of all ethnic backgrounds.
As Horne spoke in conference rooms and legislative meeting halls about nationalism and the threat of students who learn about protest, I wondered: Shouldn’t American “nationalism” include the histories and traditions of other nations? Are we not a country founded by immigrants? Are we so elitist that we believe any knowledge of other cultures is a threat to our nation?
When Horne and his followers pushed a Bill to ban the Raza Studies program (which was originally implemented via community demand and school board approval,) the students organized. In beautiful bouts of creative protest, articulate teen testimony, and crescendos of hope, they fought back–demanding ownership of their educations. This was liberal arts at its finest and most authentic.
Despite the epic soundtrack, the Civil Rights resistance scenes, and the inspiration behind individual stories, the underdog community of this moving documentary ultimately lost a battle. A bill was passed, the program cut, and a group of High School kids and teachers were demonized by a high-stakes public relations campaign.
And yet, McGinnis tours the country with this DVD. All four of the students she followed went on to college. Their proud Latino teachers continue to fight–teaching open classes on Sundays, drafting appeals, and setting up court dates. They could focus on implementing their innovative program in Charter Schools (ruled privately and released from much bureaucracy.) However, they’d miss out on the population that needs these ethnic classes most. They’d leave hundreds of district public school kids un-empowered and struggling to find a sense of place in a country and a system that doesn’t seem to want them at all. One that ignores the truths of history and heritage.
I watch this film and I feel the familiar rush. “I want to be a part of this,” I think. And then I remember. I am a white suburban female with a soon-to-be bachelor of arts degree from an ivy-towered liberal arts college on a hill. What can I share? What can I say to my future Latino students hailing from lower income communities?
I cannot teach a course on Chicano history with the power of the educators in this film. I cannot speak Spanish to a group of parents with so many unanswered questions. I cannot change the color of my skin or the circumstance of my upbringing. But I can acknowledge my ignorance…and my passion. I can learn from and alongside my students. I can address the complexity of history and throw myself into a new community.