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Student activists join forces with CUSD Against Racism to pursue educational changes

The spark for Olivia Fu and Solei Sarmiento came in June as they helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest deep in south Orange County. The former San Juan Hills High School classmates connected with other student activists and pondered new ways to promote racial tolerance.

“What are some more concrete things that we can do?” they asked.

That question led the college students to look closer at their experiences in the Capistrano Unified School District and, before long, that question led to the formation of CUSD Against Racism, a student-led advocacy group comprised of district students and alumni seeking changes in Orange County’s largest school district.

With the support of students, adults and teachers, the all-female organization has built a platform around curriculum and discipline reform, equity and student well-being.

Their list of “asks” includes the infusion of more books from diverse authors, more school counselors, education for students who use racist language, empathy for students harmed by racism and more flexibility in bus schedules for low-income students.

CUSD Against Racism recently presented a report to the district’s Board of Trustees on strategies to combat racism and racial inequality at district schools. The presentation, on Aug. 19, was supported by research and passionate testimony, and marked the coalition’s third major speaking engagement before the district since June.

“Amazing,” school board member Amy Hanacek said after the report. “I couldn’t help but think, COVID-19 is horrible and these young people have been interrupted, and they’ve turned their attention and lenses to helping.”

In preparation for the meeting, members of CUSD Against Racism assembled via Zoom on almost a daily basis throughout the summer, sometimes brainstorming and working for four hours per session.

The committee counts four founders, another dozen or so student organizers and several teachers among its ranks.

CUSD Against Racism also has created anti-racism task forces at most high schools in the district. The unit believes Capistrano Valley High is starting its own task force.

Besides the district board meetings, CUSD Against Racism has talked individually with district officials, civic leaders, concerned parents, legal experts and hosted a community “coffee chat” on Zoom.

“These women are incredible,” said Fu, who overcame a bout with COVID-19 in March. “I’ve never been part of a group that has worked so well together and everyone puts in so much time on top of their regular (schedules).”

Fu, who is taking the semester off from Stanford University, is an experienced student activist. While attending San Juan Hills in 2018, she helped organize a walkout protest after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, to bring awareness to gun-related deaths.

She was the committee’s lead-off speaker on Aug. 19.

Fu also is friends with Stanford classmate Rachel Kim, who helped organize a similar movement at her alma mater, Santa Margarita Catholic High School.

Fu founded CUSD Against Racism with Sarmiento, Esther Mafouta and Stephanie Hu.

Sarmiento, who attends UC Berkeley, is the group’s jill-of-all-trades. She concentrates on community outreach and research.

Mafouta, a key senior on San Clemente High’s girls basketball team that reached the CIF-SS Division 2A finals in February, brings a passion for social justice issues.

In high school, she was president of Cool 2 Be Kind, an anti-bullying club. The Columbia University freshman and fellow group member Victoria Mendez, who is attending Stanford, are members of the National Association of People Against Bullying.

Hu is CUSD Against Racism’s social media wizard. The Tesoro High junior operates her own Instagram called “Dear Asian Youth,” an organization that she founded in May focusing on Asian activism. “Dear Asian Youth” has nearly 35,000 followers.

CUSD Against Racism shares its mission across Instagram (cusdagainstracism), Twitter and Facebook and maintains a website:

The website includes an open letter from students to the district delivered in June that challenged leaders to take a stronger stance on racism and police violence following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a White police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.

The open letter and the shared experiences of racism it drew from other CUSD students, present and former, were critical to the organization’s birth.

“It wasn’t just our personal experiences that we went through,” said Mafouta, who also spoke at Black Lives Matter protests over the summer. “It was over 800 people who were really sharing our pain and were going through horrific things. We wanted to make sure that it didn’t happen again or at least we address those issues on our school campuses.”

For its presentation on Aug. 19, Marisa Quezada, a Chapman University student, coded about 850 testimonies of experienced racism in the district to discover the patterns that frame the group’s platform.

“It was (a) 50-hour (project),” Hu said of the effort. “This has been a really great learning process.”

Quezada’s research found the most common types of racism students said they encountered were: verbal comments between classmates, lack of consequences, inadequate curriculum and unequal treatment from an authority figure based on race.

District board members expressed concerns after hearing the Aug. 19 report and the district is collaborating with CUSD Against Racism.

“Unfortunately, as it turns out, our disparities in the students who are suspended or are expelled does fall even more heavily on our Hispanic population,” school board member Patricia Holloway said about the research’s finding that a higher percentage of Hispanic students have been suspended or expelled compared to White classmates, despite comprising a much lower percentage of district enrollment.

“That’s something that I really do think we need to take a close look at and methodically understand,” she said, “So we can maybe make some changes in how we identify students for suspension and expulsion. “

Some CUSD Against Racism members have been asked to join the district’s Cultural Proficiency Task Force, now it its second year, which seeks to foster an inclusive and diverse learning environment.

CUSD Against Racism also is celebrating the piloting this spring of an ethnic studies course in Capistrano Unified. District spokesman Ryan Burris said the district is also providing anti-bias training to all staff, starting with principals.

“There’s been so many good suggestions and thought processes for us to explore,” school board member Judy Bullockus told the group. “We have a lot work ahead of us in terms of curriculum (and) authors.”

The group credits the district for being receptive to its message and acknowledging issues with racism.

“We are happy that they are working with us, but there are things we need to address within the schools and we don’t want to be putting the blame on the teachers,” Sarmiento said. “The district can do a lot more with its power to support these teachers.”

CUSD Against Racism is interested in more chances to work with the district. It also plans to promote voting initiatives.

And while the members are aware of recent national developments that have prompted continued protests, including the shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, by police in Wisconsin, their focus, they said, is on making changes at home.

“It all starts with the youth,” Mafouta said. “Learning about different backgrounds, different cultures, is necessary to open peoples’ minds to address the implicit bias a lot of us have.

“All these students grow up to be our police officers, grow up to be our teachers. That’s how we can really make a change by influencing them when they are younger.”

Source: Orange County Register

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