High school senior Tina Vo can't recall a time in American history class that she got to learn anything about people who looked like her, aside from when she studied the Vietnam War. Even then, the war "was portrayed in a very Eurocentric way" and "didn’t really show anything to be proud of, because it was a war," said Vo, who is 17 years old and attends Franklin High School in Portland, Oregon.
"I know that the people that look like me did something more to advance America, but it's not being taught," Vo said.
Vo is part of a group of students who are working to get their school district to offer ethnic studies classes. The students -- all involved in a group called the Asian Pacific Islander Leaders for the Liberation of Youth, or "ALLY," a branch of the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon -- have been working for the past few months on a campaign called "Missing Pages of Our History" to make their cause known.
The campaign calls on the district to offer at least one ethnic studies course in every public high school within the next four years. The groups says it wants the classes to be counted as social studies courses and to include "Asian studies, Black studies, Latino and Latina studies, Pacific Islander studies, Arab studies, Native studies and queer and trans people of color studies."
"We want classes to focus on our histories of oppression, but also our histories of resistance," said Karn Saetang, a lead organizer at APANO who has been working with ALLY youth.
Youth in ALLY decided to lobby the school district for ethnic studies classes several months ago, and are planning to draft a resolution for the board of education to consider. In the meantime, they're meeting with individual board members, holding events to push their agenda, raising funds and circulating petitions.
About 150 young people are involved in ALLY, although Saetang says there are about 25 core members. The students want the history they learn to be more representative of the students the district serves. As of October 2014, nearly 50 percent of Portland students were non-white.
"Ethnic studies is U.S. history, but instead teaches U.S. history through people of color’s perspective and their contributions," said Vo.
School board member Mike Rosen has met with the ALLY students and says he supports their campaign. Whether or not the district implements ethnic studies classes is largely a matter of budget and timing, he said.
"In other districts, I've heard it could be tough because the community might not be receptive. In Portland, I don’t think that’s the issue here. It's going to come down to dollars and cents," Rosen said.
A high-quality ethnic studies curriculum can increase student engagement, improve academic achievement and make students more socially and democratically engaged in society, said Nolan Cabrera, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Ethnic studies courses have become increasingly common in schools across the country.
"Ethnic studies, if done appropriately, has some of the greatest potential as an educational intervention to promote greater social equity and deal with our increasingly multicultural society," said Cabrera.
He noted that the campaign in Portland is part of a national trend in which youth are demanding to see themselves better reflected in their school curriculum.
"It’s a very interesting perspective, because the dominant paradigm I keep hearing is this millennial generation only cares about texting and Twitter and Snapchat," Cabrera said. "But in many respects, their engagement with this technology and ability to be connected is phenomenal."
"I hope people will have the wisdom to take them seriously," he added.
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