In this episode of Who Belongs?, we speak with Lara Kiswani, Executive Director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center based in San Francisco, and Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, to discuss the efforts to develop an ethnic studies curriculum in California. On September 30, California Governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 331 which would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement across the state. For more than a year, Professor Montaño has been a part of an advisory committee tasked with drafting a model curriculum based on the anti-racist principles of ethnic studies.
The curriculum provides sample lesson topics on things like housing segregation, Central American immigration, Filipino labor organizing, and Indigenous struggles over land, just to name a few. Lara Kiswani’s organization, AROC, is part of the coalition promoting the inclusion of lessons related to the experiences of Arab-Americans. The guests help us understand why ethnic studies is needed, why the bill was vetoed, and what comes next.
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Related news & resources:
- Save Arab American Studies Coalition
- Arab Resource and Organizing Center
- This is not the time to water down ethnic studies on CSU campuses (Cal Matters)
- What happens now that Gov. Newsom vetoed high school ethnic studies requirement? (LA Times)
- California governor vetoes bill requiring ethnic studies in high school. Here’s why. (Washington Post)
Lara Kiswani: Our young people have said in the hearings that ethnic studies saved their lives, literally saved their lives in a country where they're otherwise disenfranchised, invisibilized, hyper-visiblized, showing them as criminals or enemy combatants.
Marc Abizeid: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast from the O&B Institute at UC Berkeley. I'm Marc Abizeid here with co-host Erfan Moradi.
Erfan Moradi: In this episode, we speak with Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center based in San Francisco, and Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at California State University, Northridge, to discuss the efforts to develop an ethnic studies curriculum in California.
Marc Abizeid: On September 30th, California governor Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 331 which would have made ethnic studies a high school graduation requirement across the state. For more than a year, Professor Montaño has been part of an advisory committee tasked with drafting a model curriculum based on the anti-racist principles of ethnic studies.
Erfan Moradi: The curriculum provides sample lesson topics on things like housing segregation, Central American immigration, Filipino labor organizing, and Indigenous struggles over land, just to name a few. Lara Kiswani's organization AROC is part of the coalition promoting the inclusion of lessons related to the experiences of Arab-Americans.
Marc Abizeid: Our guests help us understand why ethnic studies is needed, why the bill was vetoed, and what comes next.
Erfan Moradi: Here was our conversation.
Marc Abizeid: So we want to get into the significance, like just more generally, about ethnic studies, about its importance in high school curriculum or K-12 curriculum. Before we get into that, we just wanted to address this big shocker. I think it was a shock to a lot of people who thought that this was really the moment for something like this to pass considering all the momentum that was carried over the last few months after George Floyd was killed and the hunger for people to learn more about race and social structures and all of these dynamics. And so I think a lot of people were just like shocked when the governor vetoed the ethnic studies bill.
So the first question is really, I guess, to both of you, maybe we can start professor Montaño, how do you explain what happened?
Theresa Montaño: The way I explain what happened is — I was just as shocked — but by the time the bill got to the governor, it had been so gutted from what it originally was, which included funding for the implementation of ethnic studies, which was considered to be a focus on the traditional ethnic studies disciplines, which was considered to be needed in order to implement the model curriculum that was being developed by the state department [of education], and that was advocating for a standalone ethnic studies graduation requirement. By the time it got to the governor, it had been gutted and there had been additional language, quote-unquote "safeguard language," that was a compromise to many conservative right-wing [groups], some of the Jewish Legislative Caucus, including 80 groups who had lobbied against it, many of those who felt that they should be included in the curriculum.
And so while many of us were troubled by what it had become, the reasons given by the governor for vetoing it was a kick in the stomach. I mean, to me, it was acquiescing to those forces in the community that did not understand the need and reason and for who ethnic studies was really written for, and much more of acquiescing to like this multicultural, global lens of kumbaya curriculum, for lack of a better way of saying it.
Marc Abizeid: And so that reason that he gave was that it wasn't inclusive enough.
Theresa Montaño: Right.
Marc Abizeid: So Lara, can we get your perspective on that veto?
Lara Kiswani: Yeah. I think again, like Theresa said, we were all pretty shocked that that happened, given that the pro-Israeli interest groups that were changing the curriculum altogether and the graduation requirement of ethnic studies had been celebrating the fact that they were able to include some guardrails in the bill that would eventually address the concerns they had. And so for the governor to then veto it, it was very clear from the statement that he put out that it was specifically hinged on the idea that the ethnic studies model curriculum, which is what we've been fighting for for the last year now, was what was quote-unquote "controversial and concerning." And what was controversial was the fact that it was centering the values and principles of ethnic studies, which is anti-racism, anti-colonialism, and in addition to that, the inclusion of Arab-American studies. That was really what was the problem for the pro-Israeli interest groups and that led to the governor vetoing the entire bill.
I think, given that Trump had just implemented an executive order against anti-racist lessons and curriculum across the country and trainings across the country, for Governor Newsom to then veto a bill on ethnic studies in California was very troubling for us.
Marc Abizeid: So the bill, there were several revisions to it, and as Professor Montaño explained, had been gutted by the time we even got to his desk. So I'm wondering what was still included in even this like gutted version of the bill that was so contentious about Arab-Americans particularly?
Theresa Montaño: I don't think any of the groups are named in the bill. It's not like AB1460, which was the CSU bill, did list the groups that comprise the ethnic studies. By the time it got to the Governor, it was simply a symbolic gesture that ethnic studies needed to be included in the K-12 curriculum. It gave a number of ways, including some language about embedding it into existing curriculum which would have removed the standalone course. So by the time it got to him, it was very, very weak and nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Most of the things are still happening on a local level, but it wasn't strong at all.
Lara Kiswani: Yeah. The issue for them with the bill wasn't the requirement itself. It was the curriculum that would have been attached to that requirement, which is the ethnic studies model curriculum and that Arab-American lesson plans that had been included. And that's where the ethnic studies discipline in its integrity was also reflected.
And I think what it comes down to are these interest groups that are more interested in redefining ethnic studies, and that is really what's put to question now, who gets to define ethnic studies. Governor Newsom obviously is aligning himself and his office with those who believe that folks who are not in communities of color, not ethnic studies practitioners, people without a history or background in the discipline or the field but have political power are the ones who define what ethnic studies is in this moment.
Erfan Moradi: Can you two tell us a little bit about what the sort of thrust and vision of ethnic studies is and how this was reflected in the model curriculum?
Theresa Montaño: How was it reflected in the original model curriculum? Absolutely. I think that whenever I talk about ethnic studies, I always say that there's critical points to ethnic studies and definitely within the state of California, even more pronounced, because of the fact that ethnic studies rose from a political struggle. It rose from Black, Chicano, Latino, Indigenous students at San Francisco State and elsewhere arguing for a curriculum that reflected their realities, both their historical and contemporary social political realities.
That lends itself to two things in an ethnic studies curriculum. One, you center race at the middle of the curriculum. It has to be anti-racist and it has to address the needs of racialized communities of color. Two, it's a decolonial project connected to a more global struggle against colonialism, and [to] their self-determination. So that those of us who are demanding this curriculum be developed should be the ones to define what that curriculum is. It's basically saying: "You have excluded us from the curriculum for over five hundred years; now it is our turn to tell the truth about who our people are, what our people did." And It is intended to address — no longer the minority of the state of California — but the seventy-six percent of students who represent those racialized communities, and that includes Arab-American studies.
Marc Abizeid: One of the things I'm still trying to figure out is that even in this last version, you saw that the Jewish Caucus was on board with it, the Anti-Defamation League — which is not a progressive group by any standards — was on board with it, but there were still some like fringe elements that opposed it. So I can't even figure out why even they had enough pressure to convince Newsom to veto the bill.
Lara Kiswani: I don't think they're actually fringe groups. So the Jewish Community Relations Council of Northern California was quoted a celebrating Newsom's veto, and that's definitely not a fringe group. So I think there has been some attempt to separate different groups out from this decision and who was opposed and who wasn't opposed to the guardrails that were put forth in AB331 bill, but ultimately it's clear it was coalescing of not only pro-Israeli interest groups and the Jewish caucus, but also other right-wing forces who [aren't?] concerned with ethnic studies period. They're not invested in ethnic studies. They actually aren't at the receiving end of racialization and oppression. And they have a vested interest in challenging it everywhere where there's an advancing of the discipline itself.
So that's really what we're seeing, because like you said, it was confusing. At the time we knew that they had put these really flawed guardrails into the bill to begin with, which disappointed all the folks who fought for this from the start, and yet they still ended up vetoing it. And we had to dig up some research and understand who was behind this veto. And ultimately you have the JCRC's representatives, JPAC representatives, Jewish Federation representatives celebrating this veto. And that tells us that it's not just a bunch of fringe groups, it's actually the center really advancing their interest in challenging ethnic studies. That's really what this is about. You know, for us, the attack on Arab-American studies, the attack on Palestine as part of that Arab-American studies lesson plan, is actually an attack on ethnic studies. That's really how we understand it given that tenets of ethnic studies that Theresa so eloquently laid out.
Marc Abizeid: We also, I don't think, can miss this larger national context about what's happening with Trump, clamping down on diversity training. He had his whole spiel on critical race theory and he also attacked school curricula, which he called unpatriotic and was talking about how it shows the racist foundations of the country was built upon and stuff like that. And then he even — you probably know — announced that he was forming what he called the 1776 Commission, I guess as like a response to the 1619 Project which is being used in some school curricula. So I was wondering if either of you could speak about what's happening in California with the veto and kind of the national context, if you see connections there?
Theresa Montaño: I do see it as a dichotomy, because on the one hand, President Trump and his administration's attack on things like critical race theory and the 1619 Project definitely — as we address the need for ethnic studies as an anti-racist project — does validate the fact that you cannot dismiss or pretend that racism doesn't exist when it comes from the highest office in the nation. It gives us some discourse that we can use in promoting ethnic studies and to showing the need for ethnic studies within the state.
On the other hand, it emboldens those forces that Lara was talking about, that we actually see [those forces] now moving into districts and into universities beginning to say... I see universities throughout this nation now looking at their curriculum and saying, okay, well how do we define which are the tenets [of ethnic studies] that the president says we can't do, and which are the more softer kind of, like I said earlier, kumbaya tenets of diversity? What can we teach, what can't we teach?
And so in other states, I really do think there's going to be a clamp down on the movement for ethnic studies. In our state, I do think it is going to embolden those forces who are against ethnic studies and make us all the more conscious and guarded, as well as being stronger advocates, because it is going to have a definite impact on our work.
Lara Kiswani: Yeah. I also think you can't separate out Gavin Newsom's veto from what we are seeing on a national level. It would have meant something, it would have sent a message had the governor of California, after Trump comes out and executive order against diversity training, come out and say, we are actually going to mandate ethnic studies for high schoolers across the state of California. And instead he vetoed the bill, in essence, aligning with Trump's agenda, and that's not what California historically or even in current times has generally done. That's not the direction it's been going in.
So I think it is quite concerning for educators across the country, for youth and students across the country who are now going to be tasked with figuring out how to navigate the fact that the state has vetoed the bill, which has emboldened as Theresa said, the right-wing groups and forces that are against ethnic studies, but also this is going to be weaponized against teachers. It's going to be weaponized against academics. It's going to be weaponized against all of those who are teaching ethnic studies.
I teach in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. We pride ourselves on being able to really talk about critical issues and about colonialism and racism in this country and have our students come out thinking critically about them so that they can actually be agents of change. And if this is now going to be weaponized against college students, against high school students, where it becomes concerning or controversial, or even in some cases — and this is something we've been keeping our eye on — is how would this actually be used against teachers and to be criminalized for teaching ethnic studies, let alone Palestine or Arab-American studies in the classroom.
Marc Abizeid: I had a question for Professor Montaño, as an advisor to the committee and as someone who's clearly very passionate about the curriculum, I think a lot of outside observers may not be aware that inside academic spaces and activist spaces, when issues around Arabs or particularly Palestinians get brought up, they're often excluded because they're seen as a liability and they don't want to jeopardize like the larger goal or the larger objectives that they're trying to achieve. But from your remarks, from what I've heard you say so far, this isn't an option for you. It may not be an option for the committee just to say, we're just going to dump Arab studies because that'll just undermine the whole purpose of ethnic studies.
So I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that idea of what it means to you, as a Chicana, to include, to keep — like deliberately keep — Arab studies included in the model curriculum.
Theresa Montaño: Again, when you talk about ethnic studies being a discipline that is raised out of struggle, out of a decolonial project, anti-racist struggle, that doesn't mean it's just for your own people, right? ... Even before the pushback, when we sat in the advisory committee and we began to look at what groups had not been given sufficient attention in the model curriculum, I knew we were not done as an advisory committee. We knew that there was work we still had to do.
But one of the things that came up was that we needed more attention to communities that we had not given enough attention to, and one of them was the Palestinian voice. That was not debated on the advisory committee. There was no dissent on the advisory committee. I don't even think we had more than a discussion about, well, who's going to develop the lesson plans and how do we put it in there? Because there was already a consciousness among those folks who had been doing this work for so long that there's an element of solidarity within this work. We even included a lesson plan on Palestine and Mexico because of the struggle in the Southwest and issues related to settler-colonialism.
But I'll tell you one thing that this latest phase of my life, I think, I have never been someone that would consider herself an activist for Palestinian rights. I think I always had it in my heart and I knew intellectually what it meant. But this pushback, this right-wing agenda, this effort to silence your voices really has cemented my solidarity for the Palestinian community. And I think that's happened for a lot of the non-Arab, non-Palestinian folks within the model curriculum advisory committee, as well as ethnic studies activists.
Marc Abizeid: Lara, what's your reaction to Professor Montaño's statement?
Lara Kiswani: For me, her statement and her solidarity and that spirit of it is really rooted in the tradition of ethnic studies. This is what ethnic studies was about. It was about struggles of people against oppression and colonialism and building solidarity across communities. And while on the one hand, this attack on ethnic studies and on Arab-American lesson plans and Palestine has been a stark reminder for all Arabs and Palestinians [of] the uphill battle we face here in this country as it relates to U.S. foreign policy, but also as it relates to the Zionist institutions and their pressures domestically on decision makers; the flip side of that is that we have seen an outpouring of solidarity, a re-commitment to including Arab-American lessons and Palestine. If anyone attended any of the hearings that have happened with the California Department of Education on this topic, you heard from all communities coming out and saying, "we want ethnic studies, we are defending ethnic studies, and we are defending and wanting the inclusion of Arab-American lesson plans and Palestine," because that is ethnic studies. I think it's a beautiful testament to what ethnic studies is.
Early on when we faced some of the backlash from the right-wing groups to this curriculum, decision-makers were then asking us how does Arab-American studies fit into ethnic studies? You know, can you explain, can you make your case? Because they started to doubt that we actually had a place in the discipline. We got a letter from Third World Liberation Front and Black Student Union veterans from San Francisco State University and Berkeley from 1968 — who started ethnic studies, who were those students strikers. They collectively drafted a statement and signed on saying, that is what ethnic studies is: advancing the conversations around anti-colonialism, around Palestine, around Arab-American experience in this country. I think that's really what the overall takeaway is, is that the more backlash there, is the more solidarity that also gets built, because it exposes who our opposition really is. It exposes apartheid Israel. I mean, the fact that pro-Israeli interest groups are at the forefront of attacking ethnic studies speaks to what the nature of apartheid Israel is really about, the state of Israel is about, the interest of settler-colonialism back home in our homeland, in Palestine, but also how it intersects and relates to [the] settler-colonialism of this country.
Erfan Moradi: And with this assault on ethnic studies, and developing an ethnic studies program, what does this mean for Californian youth? What does it mean to first have racialized populations be represented in the curriculum? And what are the ramifications of this absence?
Lara Kiswani: Our youth program came out with a report earlier this year that actually documented and surveyed representation of Arab-Americans in high school curriculum, and the findings, even for us, were shocking. Less than five percent of people learned about Arab-Americans in their classroom, and most learned about it through the internet or social media. So for us, the idea that there would be a curriculum shared with the rest of the state around how to teach Arab-American studies was a huge opening for our young folks to see themselves as part of society, to see themselves celebrated, and to really roll back some of the systemic oppression and racialization they're feeling in the classroom and in society.
Many people have come forward, including our young people, have said in the hearings that ethnic studies saved their lives, literally saved their lives. In a country where they're otherwise disenfranchised, invisibilized, hyper-visibilized, showing them as criminals or enemy combatants, the fact that ethnic studies celebrates them and their struggles for social change and their contributions to a better world and what can be made possible, actually saves people's lives. So stripping that from young people has a serious impact on students, especially at a time of heightened racism, Islamophobia, police violence. I mean, this is the time where we should be advancing ethnic studies, not gutting it and ceding to political interest groups.
Marc Abizeid: We want to wrap up with just like maybe one or two more questions about the road ahead. Where do we go from here? What are the next steps? As far as the bill has been vetoed, but what do we need to see as far as the process, as far as new campaigning, as far as updates, revisions? What's going to happen now?
Theresa Montaño: I think while we do live in the Trump era, we also live in the Black Lives Matter era. While what the governor did gives me pause, the youth today give me hope. And I don't think they're going to go back to a time when there was no ethnic studies or no call for ethnic studies. So we're going to move this agenda. We're committed to it. You don't legislate everything. A student once told me recently, "You don't legislate the revolution, profe."
So the thing is, I know that there are legislators that are ready to move a bill forward, both for K-12 and for the community college. That gives me hope. But I also know that district by district, school boards are passing ethnic studies as a graduation requirement. So our work isn't done by any stretch of the imagination. We're going to continue this work. We struggled for fifty years, we can struggle for another five until we get the ethnic studies bill. But we're not giving up [on the] seventy-six percent. I was saying this to someone else, "There are more of us than there are of them." Seventy percent of this state is students of color, students from racialized communities. They will not give up until they see themselves included in the curriculum.
Lara Kiswani: And there's also we're mobilizing to the November 18th Instructional Quality Commission meeting with the California Department of Education. CDE still has the opportunity to do right by its communities of color here in California, and to make good on their promises to have a robust ethnic studies curriculum shared out with the state that is centered around the principles and values of ethnic studies, and includes Arab-American lesson plans. And so we're waiting to see what the results of their work and edits and revisions will be. And we are planning on having our communities turnout on November 18th for that meeting to ensure that the ethnic studies model curriculum is reflective of the struggles for ethnic studies for the last fifty years and does good to our communities. And so just like Theresa said, that's one part of the struggle, and we are going to continue to work locally, district by district to make sure that our teachers are equipped with what they need to be able to advance ethnic studies in the classroom.
Marc Abizeid: And that wraps up this episode of Who Belongs?. Thank you to our guests, Lara Kiswani, executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center based in San Francisco, and Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, for taking us through their efforts. And the obstacles they've encountered to adopting ethnic studies curriculum for California
Erfan Moradi: For links to resources related to the issues discussed on this podcast, visit us online at belonging.berkeley.edu/whobelongs. This has been Erfan Moradi.
Marc Abizeid: And this has been Marc Abizeid.
Erfan Moradi: Thank you for listening.