Youth activists unite to fight for ethnic studiesFriday, June 17, 2011 By Alexis Lopez
Early this year, students and others came together to protect ethnic studies courses in Tucson Unified School District. The group, called the United Non-Discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies (UNIDOS), believes that ethnic studies courses are an essential part of education and should not be converted to electives, which the TUSD board has proposed. “Our main focus is to help the youth protect their education,” said Elisa Meza, a UNIDOS member and University of Arizona student. The courses focus on the history and literature of Mexican American, African American and Native American communities and discuss the contributions to history each culture has made. They are currently counted as traditional history or literature class credits. The group formed after Gov. Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281 into law last year. The law “prohibits a school from including in its program of instruction any course or classes that are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnicity or promotes resentment towards a race or class of people.” The bill does not acknowledge the roles that Hispanics have played in history, said Daniel Montoya, an 18-year-old Rincon High School graduate and member of UNIDOS. “It was like a slap to the face when people say these ethnic studies classes should be electives.” Meza said there are about 15 members, including students, alumni, and concerned members of the community. Mark Stegeman, the Tucson Unified School District Board President, described how the courses have inspired students to score highly in Arizona’s high school exit exam. The group’s purpose is to protect student education, Meza said. The students who are involved in the group organize non-violent protests thanks to the help they receive from adult organizers. “Ethnic studies helps educate the community,” said UNIDOS member Erin Cain-Hodge, a University of Arizona student who took Mexican American history and literature classes while at Tucson High School. Cain-Hodge said the group is fighting to protect the ethnic studies programs because the classes offer more opportunities. UNIDOS has protested at several TUSD board meetings this past year. On April 26, nine people chained themselves to the governing board members’ chairs to disrupt the meeting. “I was surprised at their actions and I feel they went beyond what was appropriate,” Stegeman said. Stegeman released a proposal in January stating TUSD’s position on the ethnic studies program and how it wishes to improve the courses. “The main idea is to get the ethnic studies course involved with the entire history courses offered at the schools,” Stegeman said. “Most of the courses in the district have room for improvements, so the purpose of the proposal was to make the program stronger.” The group and TUSD have spoken with one another about the matter, but little common ground has been found. Stegeman said he has tried to meet with UNIDOS, but legal issues have kept the group from meeting with the entire board at one time. “UNIDOS has become the new face of what activists are, as these students come together to protect their cultures in the system of education,” Montoya said.