In summary

Ethnic studies promises a higher level of engagement for marginalized student groups and a heightened awareness of cultural engagement.

By Karen Korematsu, Special to CalMatters

Karen Korematsu is the founder and executive director of the Fred T. Korematsu Institute and the daughter of the late civil rights icon, Fred Korematsu, info@korematsuinstitute.org.

This is a pivotal moment in our nation’s history. We continue to face a global pandemic, but also an epidemic of prolonged racial, ethnic and social injustice in our country. 

Anti-Black and anti-Asian hate violence is on the rise. Each day I am reminded about the importance of “Standing Up for What is Right” to honor the legacy of my father, Fred T. Korematsu, who resisted the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II and fought to uphold justice for marginalized groups throughout his life.

The fight for justice, racial equity and human rights begins with education. There is no place more important than the public education classroom for sharing the truths, histories and voices of all peoples.

I am the founder and executive director of the Korematsu Institute, named after my father, which works to bridge his story with various topics in history including other civil rights heroes and movements, World War II, the Constitution, global human rights and Asian American history. 

We make connections to present-day civil rights discrimination and political scapegoating, such as mass incarceration, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia. Fundamental to our work is how we raise awareness by developing programs to promote civic education, and supporting policy and legislation. We build partnerships and educate our communities on the importance of broadening the narrative to include historically marginalized groups, and we bring people together on issues of racial and social injustice.

This month, the California Board of Education will vote on a draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, created to provide educators with the resources and guidance needed to integrate the histories and contributions of historically marginalized communities including African Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Chicana/o/x Latina/o/x peoples and Native Americans. 

California has been developing an ethnic studies curriculum for high schools since 2016. The central goal of this project is to honor the diverse experiences and provide students from varying backgrounds the chance to see their stories reflected in their learning. 

Ethnic studies promises a higher level of engagement for traditionally marginalized student groups, heightened awareness of civic and cultural engagement, and a broader acceptance for the experiences of others. Noble in its challenge, this robust effort has not been without its detractors. Still the process has been rigorous, including tremendous stakeholder input, multiple rounds and revisions, and significant debate.  

I am proud to say that I have been part of this process, central in helping to shape the formation of ideas and the robust and content-rich curriculum that highlights the experiences and perspectives of Asian Pacific Islanders. I have not only participated in elevating the voices of Asian Pacific Islander stakeholders, but I have joined friends and colleagues in providing feedback as well as real lesson plan examples that will underscore the accomplishments of our vibrant Asian Pacific Islander community. 

The path ahead will never be without controversy, but the struggles against injustice need to be embedded in the lessons that become our common history. I strongly support the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum and encourage our schools and education system to embrace this historic change that will lead our youth and our country to a greater sense of understanding, respect and equity.

Joining me are Asian Pacific Islander scholars, Cynthia Chang, president of the Asian Pacific Islander School Board Members Association; ethnic studies professor Edward Chang of UC Riverside; Gordon Chang of Stanford University; and Chinese American Historian Connie Young Yu. Contributions were also made by Rosalyn Tonai, executive director of National Japanese American Historical Society, and Grace Morizawa and Stanley Pesick of the NJAHS; and Mandy Diec of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. 

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Other commentary on the Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum

Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum draft a victory for equity, justice and California’s students

Students need ethnic studies that is true to the legacy of the discipline

Let’s aim toward an authentic ethnic studies discipline

Draft Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum is what our students need in this moment  

California students will fight for the ethnic studies education we deserve

Inclusion of Jews in ethnic studies curriculum is essential

Meaningful representation of Sikh Americans in ethnic studies would show progress for inclusion

Another version of ‘ethnic studies’

Ethnic studies will help students become better informed citizens in our diverse democracy

High school ethnic studies – the third version

4 forms of bias to avoid in designing ethnic studies for high schools

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