Agustin ‘Tino’ Diaz: The case for ethnic studies in Utah

BIPOC students should not have to wait for college and pay for a chance to learn more about themselves.

FILE - In this May 9, 2011, file photo, Carlos Galindo protests outside the Arizona Department of Education in Phoenix, along with other supporters of an ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. Arizona authorities are back in federal court in Tucson this week over a years-long legal battle against a 2010 state law targeting ethnic studies in public schools that resulted in the shuttering of a popular Mexican-American Studies program, launching tense student protests. (AP Photo/Matt York, file)

Growing up, I never learned about the depth of culture and history among Latinx communities. In other words, I never came to know about myself. As I meet other Latinx students throughout the state of Utah, I hear the same thing: I don’t know much about my heritage or the many histories of other BIPOC communities. Ten years later and the same concerns are still being felt among BIPOC youth and young adults.

Ethnic and Indigenous studies in the K-12 system is one possible intervention. The documentary “Precious Knowledge” demonstrates the gains made by ethnic studies in Arizona to increase school graduation and college matriculation. Scholars throughout the U.S. are reporting similar increases demonstrating that BIPOC communities fare better in schooling when curriculum and classroom experiences validate their histories and engage their stories. While high school graduation rates have slowly risen for these communities in the state of Utah, they have not kept up with population growth, and college enrollment remains relatively low in comparison to white groups.

Nevertheless, while educator-activists attempt to have Utah adopt ethnic studies within K-12 systems, various administrators have argued that social studies curriculum already addresses concerns for diversity. There is even an argument that Latinos in Action also deals with these concerns. However, these assumptions are mistaken.

Social studies curriculum in Utah high schools does not do what ethnic studies does. It does not center the role of BIPOC communities and their knowledge, nor does it problematize the dominance of Western histories and whiteness in our society. BIPOC students ought to learn more about their histories such as the Black Panthers, Borderlands theory, Afro/Indigenous-futurism, the colonial history of the Pacific and local colonial relationships with Indigenous peoples and the current policies that harm them.

Latinos in Action also does not do this, which does not mean that those spaces are not valid. They just don’t do what ethnic and Indigenous studies does, because LIA is mostly dedicated to service and Western paradigms of leadership. LIA also grants Latinx students in Utah their own spaces in high schools and offers opportunities to perform cultural dances; however, dance does not solely represent us. To assume so is racist in that we only dance, wear colorful clothing and speak another language. In fact, all BIPOC communities are diverse and complex.

Neither social studies or LIA creates a means to engage with this complexity or the troublesome histories of BIPOC communities and their treatment by U.S. policies. Instead, ethnic and Indigenous studies provides a healthy ethic by which students and their communities can learn about and advocate with each other, and there are already educator-activists who are achieving this.

West High School in Salt Lake City school district will be piloting its first ethnic studies course this fall. Salt Lake Community College is also offering concurrent enrollment ethnic studies courses to several schools in Granite school district. Two of Utah’s higher education institutions, the University of Utah and Salt Lake Community College offer courses and degrees in ethnic studies with Utah Valley University and Weber State University soon to follow.

The need for ethnic studies is not a question of if, but when, and BIPOC students should not have to wait for college and pay for a chance to learn more about themselves and the rich and complex histories of their communities. Instead of hearing about how BIPOC students never had the chance to learn about themselves, I hope to hear countless accounts and have beautiful conversations of when they do.

(Photo by Erik Flores | UVU Marketing) Agustin (Tino) Diaz

Agustin “Tino” Diaz, is a Ph.D. student in communication and education at Utah Valley University and a program director at UVU’s Center for Social Impact.

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