Ethnic Studies won for Los Angeles public schools — interview with an organizer

Jefferson Azevedo of Workers World conducted this interview with Ron Gochez of Unión del Barrio in Los Angeles after a popular struggle won a districtwide Ethnic Studies program.

Workers World: Ron, can you, please, let us know about yourself and what struggles you’ve been involved with.

Ron Gochez — By profession, I’m a history teacher in Los Angeles. I’m also a member of Unión del Barrio, which is a community-based organization, and we do work in different areas. I am fortunate enough to teach some Ethnic Studies classes. I teach Latin-American history, Mexican-American studies, and I also teach African-American studies, but of the 94 high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, only 19 offer that subject.

It was important that all of the students of all of Los Angeles had the opportunity to take this class. That’s why a few months ago, different members of Unión del Barrio and other people that we spoke to thought it was important to start a campaign so that the LAUSD would make Ethnic Studies an actual requirement for graduation. That would mean that every single high school would offer these classes and that students would have to take at least one semester of some Ethnic Studies class to graduate.

We thought this plan would be supported on the School Board and we knew we could get support from the community, students, parents and other educators. On Nov. 18, we felt that we had done as much work as possible to get Ethnic Studies and, luckily for us, we had the right combination. We feel this was really historic because Ethnic Studies people have been fighting for it for many, many decades and now Los Angeles Unified is the biggest school district in the country that makes it a requirement to have Ethnic Studies.

WW: What is the importance of Ethnic Studies in the schools?

RG: The majority of the curriculum, the majority of the history that is taught and the textbooks they use now are very Eurocentric. Nearly all the content is either about Europe itself or about European-Americans on this continent. Contributions of people of color, of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latin Americans and many others are simply left out or whitewashed from history. Many students from many different ethnic groups really feel left out.

If students feel that their people have not contributed to society, have not done anything important, that really leads to a condition of self-hatred when the students have no pride in themselves. Then they are more prone to do things that will hurt themselves or their own community.

That’s why having Ethnic Studies is a life-changing experience for many people. Students who before were not engaged in their education, when they take classes like African-American studies or Latin-American studies and they start learning about their culture, their history, their roots, they all of a sudden become engaged in their education.

They see why they should care. They don’t just do well in their Ethnic Studies classes: studies have shown that students in Ethnic Studies classes do better in their grades in other classes. They have higher test scores on the standardized testing, they have a higher graduation rate than students who don’t take Ethnic Studies classes, and they also have a higher rate of going to college.

This has a tremendous impact on students because it gives them the pride and the self-worth to understand why they need to go to college so they can help their families, help their communities. We really believe that when a person has pride in themselves and in their community, it’s very difficult for them to do things that will hurt their own communities like drugs, gang-banging, any kind of violence against their own community.

They will have a historical understanding of why, instead of hurting each other, we’re supposed to help each other so we can better ourselves and society. Ethnic Studies is really important, and we think it’s going to keep kids out of prison. It’s not a perfect solution — I don’t want to romanticize it — but it offers the space where students can address the issues that are never addressed in chemistry, in world history, in biology, etc.

WW: In the L.A. School District what is the percentage of students of color? And in higher education?

RG: In the Los Angeles Unified School District, more than 90 percent of the students are students of color. The majority are Latinos and then African-Americans, then Asian-Americans. The majority of the students in Los Angeles Unified will for the first time be required to learn about themselves. We think that it’s a historic victory that will affect students at a national level. San Francisco, now, wants to pass Ethnic Studies as a requirement and many other districts across the country — we believe — are going to want the same.

Higher ed is different. When we look at what is called the school-to-prison pipeline, a lot more of our young people are going to prison than to university. At least, for Mexicanos, or Chicanos, here in this country, out of every 100 who start public school, about two will end up graduating from university. We think that Ethnic Studies will help increase those numbers by opening their eyes to the possibilities of something else.

I have students who say: “I’m so interested in learning about my culture, now, that I want to take Chicano studies in college; I want to take different classes.”


WW: We know that the adoption of Ethnic Studies in the schools of Los Angeles is due probably mostly to your work and your organization’s work. How did you do it?

RG: Many other people have been doing this since the 1960s in Los Angeles and many other cities: fighting for Chicano studies, African-American studies and others. We believe that, right now, it was a political moment when we can get it passed in Los Angeles to make it a requirement for all students. LAUSD already has Ethnic Studies classes; the difference is that they elect those and they’re not a requirement. If the schools and principal sees it as an elective, they don’t feel it’s necessary to offer these classes and most schools don’t.

So we gathered a coalition of students, educators, parents, community members, community activists and we did a campaign. We collected thousands of signatures for online petitions, made hard copy petitions, passed them out to students throughout the district, and they collected more than 6,000 signatures. We raised funds for this campaign online, made people in the community aware, met individually with Board members, told them the importance of Ethnic Studies to convince them that this was something they should support. We were, obviously, successful. It involved many different people and different organizations. The day of the vote, we had to make sure that the Board understood that we had a lot of community support. We had at least six buses that went to different high schools and Cal State Los Angeles to pick up students. We brought teachers, different community organizations and on the day of the Board meeting — on that Tuesday — we had, at least, a thousand people there.

We packed up the room full of our people. We had the red shirts that read “Ethnic Studies now!” and there were so many people on the outside that we actually did a picket line around the entire building. We know that they were very, very clear that we were out there. We contacted the media, we got letters of support from professors from all over the country, letters of support from organizations and even from political elected officials.

Now that the Board has passed the resolution to have Ethnic Studies, the next part is we have to continue the struggle; we are not done yet. We have to continue to make sure that they provide the funding for the program, that they hire the teachers for the program, that they implement it in all the high schools by the year of 2019. We can’t back off and expect everything to happen.

WW: When will it take effect?

RG: It has to be fully implemented by the year of 2019. We are right on the corner — it’s 2015 — so it’s a four-year plan. For the next couple of years, there is going to be a pilot program where some of the schools will participate. They will have Ethnic Studies, and we are going to be creating the curriculum. There is also a committee that is going to be formed that will lead this work. By 2019, every single high school student in Los Angeles Unified School District will need at least one semester of Ethnic Studies to graduate from high school.

WW: A lot of young people got involved in the demonstration and helped to organize it. How?

RG:  At schools, we contacted student organizations like MEChA [Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán], or other groups were already there as natural allies. They wanted to join. We also contacted other very progressive teachers and asked them if they could help. The students went out to gather signatures and made posters. On the day of the event, the adults provided the buses and all the transportation; the students provided the people.

The majority of the people were young people, and it was a beautiful experience because they saw what can happen when the community organizes itself, that we can win if we organize. The next day, when they were at school, that was all they were talking about. They told me, “Look, I’m not going to have these classes because we are going to graduate soon, but my little brother, my little cousins will.” One student said, “When I have kids, some day, they are going to have Ethnic Studies classes.”

WW: There were many people with placards and signs that had the figures of Black Panther Party leaders, [Mexican hero Emiliano] Zapata and other figures of the social-revolutionary movement. Why was that?

RG: In the Black Panther Party, one of the main demands was for an education where they can learn about their true history. The Black Panthers are one of those groups not really taught about enough in our U.S. history classes. In that spirit of community organization, of self-determination, different organizations came and some brought placards of the Black Panthers — which was really powerful — and Zapata and others.

We are bringing these historic figures so that people have pride in our history. It’s beautiful to see young people holding up placards of historical figures, who now they see as heroes, that before, in regular history classes, they never would have heard of.

WW: I see that Ethnic Studies are very important for the movement. Why?

RG:  [Besides what I already said], students should take their history and take their schools in their communities and realize that it is theirs and that it is their responsibility to be active, to become involved. When the students see the videos of the Black Panthers, see the videos of the walkouts from the 1970s in East L.A., they are going to see young people who were very active, and we believe that having Ethnic Studies will create more students who are more politicized, more active in their communities, who are going to want to go to college so they can become professionals but come back to the community to help the community.

Ethnic Studies classes are so important because they provide that space that just does not exist otherwise. When thousands of students throughout the district take that, I really believe that it is going to make a difference to society. I think it will help the social justice movement.