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New London students testify in Hartford for bill on African-American, Latino curriculum

March 7, 2019

Hartford — A dozen New London students joined the voices of other youth activists at the state Capitol on Wednesday to tell legislators “black history is American history.”

Members of the New London-based social justice group Hearing Youth Voices and others testified before the Education Committee in support of the inclusion of African-American studies into public school curriculum, House Bill 7082.

“This bill is important to me because being a biracial woman, I want my history to be taught beyond the flashbacks of slavery and beyond the Rosa Parks and MLK reruns,” testified Eliza Brown, a junior at New London High School and member of Hearing Youth Voices.

While those people and things are very important, she said, “my history cannot be compressed into one week in February. I no longer trust my history in the hands and at the leisure of my district.”

Brown and others, some representing the New Haven-based Students for Educational Justice, advocated for the inclusion of the history of race and racism in the United States as part of the African-American studies and racial bias training for teachers and administrators to “expose subconscious racial biases.”

Hearing Youth Voices last year provided suggestions to the New London school district for a new course, “A look at U.S. History through ethnic studies,” which the district started in December. The group also has pushed for the firing of a high school history teacher in part because of his alleged racial insensitivity.

Many spoke about the experiences of brown and black students in school systems where the percentage of students of color far outnumber teachers of color — 80 percent versus 19 percent in New London.

“The problem with our curriculum is that it in no way, shape, or form empowers minority students through their education,” said Ayzel Morales of New London, a student at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point in Groton. “The only history taught regarding people that represent us is their demise and struggles but not their success.”

“This bill is important to me because it is beyond time to have a comprehensive representation within our education that is reflective of my ancestors’ contribution to this country,” testified Mercy Yalartai, a student at Mauro Sheridan Communications and Technology Magnet School and Metropolitan Business Academy from New haven.

“It is time for students to truly understand who and where they come from, and what history shows of who we can become,” she said.

She said the history is told through the lens of “winners,” and her only memories of African-American education are of slavery and individuals like Frederick Douglas, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., with no mention of people like NAACP founder Ida B. Wells; Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress; and civil and gay rights pioneer Bayard Rustin.

Others testified on behalf of a companion bill, HB7083, that would add Puerto Rican and Latino studies to the public school curriculum.

Zeraiah Ramos, a senior at the STEM Magnet High School in New London, said she wanted to know more about her own Puerto Rican history.

“I have a portrait in my house that has three women — one African woman, one Spanish woman and one Native American woman. I’ve been taught this is what it means to be Puerto Rican. Yet this only left me with more confusion,” Ramos said.

She said part of the answer could be “a history designed to bring my curiosity to rest and find peace to know myself.”

Taylin Santiago, a New London High School student, said that being a “biracial Afro-Latina, life gets a little tricky for me at times.”

“I know very little about either of my histories other than the fact slavery and genocide were involved in both,” she said in written testimony.

“Education is something that builds bridges,” she said. “This class could help build a bridge of unity and understanding those not part of the black or Latinx communities. Ignorance comes from not being knowledgeable and the ignorance and prejudice I face in school could lessen or be taken away because of this class.”

State Rep. Geraldo Reyes, D-Waterbury, said he was shocked to find, in the wake of the hurricane in Puerto Rico in 2017, how many people don’t understand that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the U.S. and that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.

Howard Sovronsky, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, spoke in favor of the proposed bills and said they were no less important than the bill approved by the legislature last year that provides for Holocaust and genocide education and awareness in public school curriculum.

State Department of Education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell testified in favor of the bills and said the amendments to the existing statute allows her to direct her department to create resources, such as professional development workshops and teaching guidelines, for the districts.

While the bills call for the implementation of the curriculum to occur at the start of the next school year, Wentzell said it would take two years to implement if passed.

g.smith@theday.com