Students Take the Lead in Correcting Curriculum
Fighting for inclusive, empowering education.
Donning their brilliantly-colored “African Queen” dresses, four young women, students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College (DMLK), read the Know Justice, Know Peace resolution to the Denver Public Schools board on September 24, 2020:
“Whereas DPS is committed to… providing all students the opportunity to achieve the knowledge and skills necessary to become contributing citizens in our diverse society…” (the district must revise its curriculum) “to lift the voices and experiences of the Black community, and systemically marginalized communities in a transformational, humanizing, anti-racist, and asset-based manner,” they read.
Jenelle Nangah, Dahni Austin, Kaliah Yizar, and Alana Mitchell presented this district-wide action as a continuation of work begun in fall 2019, during a school trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. DMLK Principal Kimberly Grayson took 17 students and a few teachers to gain a deeper understanding of Black history, the struggles and strides. Students, teachers, and administrators recognized holes in curriculum and began a path toward inclusion.
As Black Lives Matter protests arose in Denver this summer, Nangah, Austin, Yizar, and Mitchell took action at their school, a place where they could safely and bravely affect change for themselves and other students of color. Nangah’s background in YouTube vlogging sparked the idea for the Know Justice, Know Peace: DMLK’s “The Take” podcast. With the help of Grayson, other DMLK staff, and H-Soul, community member and host of The R.A.G.E. Podcast, they launched the project on July 4 with episode one: “Your Independence is Not Ours.”
Recording (socially-distant) from a DMLK activity room, the hosts engage community members in anti-racism discussions; analyzing the construction of race and racism, sharing accounts of stress or trauma, and seeking strategies for healing.
“Using our personal stories brings a more warm feel to our podcast,” says Mitchell. “We’re sharing our personal stories with you, you share your personal stories with us, and then we come together as a community. And when you are vulnerable to other people, they’re going to be vulnerable with you, too. I think that’s how we build as people and as a community, by opening up to each other, realizing where we went wrong, and fixing it.”
Yizar added she’s heard parents and community figures share how they’ve changed ideas about the role they play in children’s lives in response to what they heard on the pod. “The Take” guest and DMLK Assistant Principal Rachael Sutherland shared her experience at the NMAAHC in 2019 was eye-opening: “Even in college, even in grad school, my history courses were very whitewashed. I could carry on a conversation about the general timeline of American history, and knew the ‘facts,’ but that museum trip was the beginning of a history course for me.”
As Word Gets Out
People are taking notice of what the young women are putting out. There’s been much local and national coverage of Know Justice, Know Peace; an expanding platform Nangah is grateful for. There’s also been challenges to their work. Some history teachers, for example, were offended when they first heard critiques of their curriculum, says Austin, but teachers who were willing to learn more in order to help students began to see the point.
Grayson received hate emails declaring her leadership and their discussions were not appropriate for a school setting. It seems absurd to Nangah, because history, race, and school affects everyone in the building.
“If you watch any of the podcasts, especially the parts about trauma and whatnot, you can really see the negative effects this has on kids and communities,” says Nangah. “For [people] to push back and say that this is something that’s negative or something that doesn’t need to be talked about, acknowledged, and doesn’t need to be changed is really crazy to me. There’s not really a way to cope with it besides just keep pushing.”
“As Black women, we’re going to be attacked no matter what we do,” adds Yizar, underlining a national conversation about the need to protect Black women. “If anything, we’re doing more service to ourselves and our community by not listening to that hate. … Hate has not influenced how we’ve expressed ourselves or how we’ve gone about this podcast.”
Encouragement and positive relationships — especially with their grandmothers, mothers, siblings, and DMLK staff — has spurred the leaders on.
Nangah’s passion also comes from the desire to see a better world for her brothers. She’s witnessed how the “traps set out for Black people in general to not succeed in life” have taken her older brother into incarceration and her younger brother into fearfulness of the police.
“It makes me think of how many other kids are out here, and how many other families have that same experience, and it’s like, why do we all have that same experience? Knowing that we’re all different people, we all really think differently. Why is it that so many people are in that same familiar state of oppression and that same situation and predicament?” says Nangah.
The podcast hosts and guests revealed their own struggles with identity, self-hate, and other mental health concerns that came about as a result of their experiences in the world as Black people. Rather than sweeping their concerns under the rug, their resolution calls the school to action in learning and/or unlearning about BIPOC experiences.
Creating Comprehensive Curriculum
The Know Justice, Know Peace resolution, written by the young women, urges a comprehensive curriculum in all subjects, going beyond “sprinkles of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and slavery,” says Yizar.
“If I’m learning just about slavery or just about the Civil rights Movement, that means I’ll always have to face struggles,” she adds. “If we see examples of Black kings and queens, and Black artists, and Black musicians, and Black people who have succeeded, that empowers us more to overcome those struggles that we face every day.”
The same goes for their Latinx, Indigenous, and peers of color who are under- or misrepresented in teachings in all subjects, said Austin during the resolution reading. Members of the school’s XOCO LatinX girl’s group stood alongside the young Black leaders, and shared their own statement.
Nangah, Yizar, Austin, and Mitchell look forward to taking the resolution beyond DPS, and encouraging other students to use their voices.
“All we had to do was take that step and actually speak up,” says Mitchell. “We didn’t think we would ever make it this far, but here we are.”
Good intentions, staying true to the goal, and gathering allies were also key to their success, add Yizar and Nangah.
“I truly do believe that in the future, students that are coming into DMLK now as middle schoolers, they’re going to be able to see our movement and feel empowered and know that they have a student voice and that actually matters,” affirms Yizar. “It’s not just some slogan or like this idea of ‘student voice.’ It’s attainable. It’s real. And with the right support, especially here at DMLK, it can become a reality.”
The DPS School Board voted to adopt the Know Justice, Know Peace resolution on October 22.