And in Omaha, 18-year-old Vanessa Amoah thought about how her high school taught Black history like it was “a different thing” than American history. She — like Amuri, like Ugbaja — decided it was time for change. All three teenagers, although strangers, unaware of each other and separated by thousands of miles, launched campaigns demanding their schools teach more Black history, among several initiatives meant to promote racial equity.
“The education system is where people form values other than what their parents have,” Amoah said. “George Floyd, Philando Castile — none of it would have happened if this country worked on proactively teaching anti-racist values.”
“It is a chain,” she said. “It starts with a racist joke, and not teaching kids about this in class, and it escalates. We have to start at the base.”
They are among a wave of young people throughout the country who are banding together to demand change wherever they attend school: at large public systems, elite private schools or small parochial institutions. Teenagers and recent graduates are publishing online petitions, sending letters to their alma maters and testifying at virtual board meetings. They are asking for the inclusion of more Black history in curriculums, a more thorough teaching of events such as the Civil War and a more diverse range of authors in English syllabuses.
Their demands extend beyond the classroom: Many are also calling for the removal of armed police in school hallways, the hiring of more Black and Hispanic teachers, and anti-racist training for students and staff.
Students have advocated for curriculum changes before in American history. But this moment is unique in several ways: For one thing, it’s taking place in the midst of a pandemic that has plunged the nation into crisis. Still, the shifting of human interaction online has actually played into students’ hands. More adept at social media than adults, teens are making canny use of sites such as Facebook and Instagram to plan their demands, put pressure on school officials and draw inspiration from other activists.
This effort is also being led by a younger cohort than previous pushes, many of which took place on college campuses. But what’s most striking, historians said, is the scope of the movement. While past advocacy focused on a particular high school or district, today groups of students are popping up everywhere. Although no one is tracking exact numbers, #DiversifyOurNarrative, a California-based initiative that helps students push for curriculum changes by offering them email templates and suggestions for anti-racist texts, said it has signed up more than 3,500 students in 250 U.S. school districts since its founding in June.
“It’s this sort of — how to put it? — national constellation,” said George Mason University assistant professor Mark Helmsing, who teaches a class on the history of education reform.
It is too soon to tell if students’ activism will see wide success, partly because administrators have been focused on deciding if and how to reopen schools. Under the decentralized American education system, local officials have wide latitude to determine what goes into their curriculums, and some school districts have already vowed to make changes. But bureaucratic red tape and resistance are common, and many teens are realizing that change may not come during their short high school careers — although they vow they will keep fighting post-graduation.
Karen Murphy, director of international strategy for Facing History and Ourselves, said she feels optimistic. Facing History, a nonprofit group that helps schools and teachers examine societal racism and prejudice, saw a large spike in interest this summer, Murphy said: Its online courses, workshops and two “equity summits” were all oversubscribed, with more than 9,400 total attendees. She attributes the sudden popularity partly to student advocacy, partly to the ongoing national reckoning over racism and the role of police.
But really what it means is that a lot of teachers want change, too, she said.
“I think young people have a real opportunity right now to engage the adults in their school community in a serious conversation,” Murphy said. “So — if you see books or authors or histories or historical events that are missing, ask for them!”
'We existed before slavery'
The need for improved education on America’s racist past and a more thoughtful consideration of its present, experts agree, is very real. This is especially true when it comes to slavery: What American children learn depends almost entirely on where they live, because every state has different requirements. Many teachers say they feel ill-prepared to teach about the subject, and textbooks often provide scant — or skewed — information.
Just five years ago, a ninth-grade geography textbook described the millions transported from Africa to America between the 1500s and 1800s as “workers,” not men, women and children enslaved and brutally oppressed. (After an African American mother’s complaint went viral, McGraw-Hill Education updated the language.)
It is also well established that White authors and White characters are overrepresented in American K-12 English classes. The problem first got mainstream attention in 2014, when a social media campaign — #WeNeedDiverseBooks — went viral, spurring the formation of a nonprofit devoted to providing schoolchildren with books written by, and featuring, people from diverse backgrounds.
Black students interviewed for this article agreed that slavery should be better taught, with more emphasis placed on the ways in which enslaved people resisted and thwarted their oppressors. But they’d also like to see Black history go beyond slavery — for once.
“The only thing we hear about African American history is slavery and the civil rights movement,” said Amoah, who is Black and graduated this year from Central High School. “We existed before slavery.”
Amoah joined with a small group of students and alumni to found What YOUth Can Do (WYCD), the group that is pushing Omaha Public Schools for change. They want a rich, full account of Black history integrated into the required curriculum. But that’s just one of five demands WYCD has submitted to school administrators, including requests to diversify the overwhelmingly White honors and AP classes, invest more in mental health resources and remove armed police officers from school hallways.
Omaha, like most American school districts, has the power to comply with the students’ requests. Unlike with subjects such as math and science, there is no nationally agreed-upon set of standards for teaching social studies and history — each state is allowed to craft its own requirements (although states that have adopted Common Core standards must ensure that students are able to meet them). Within states, districts take guidance from state officials but exercise significant discretion in developing coursework.
“This country has an extremely decentralized system of education,” Helmsing said. “Different regions of the country have different contextualizing effects on the subjects that are taught — for example, California teaches history in a much more progressive and LGBTQ-focused way than, say, Louisiana.”
In Winooski, Amuri has joined a small group of students and young alumni — dubbed “Winooski Students for Anti-Racism” — to petition the school board for an ethnic studies program. The group, formed just after the nationwide protests began, is also asking that the school system overhaul the curriculum so it conforms with “anti-racism standards, expectations, and pedagogy.”
But switching up the curriculum will have little effect if the school doesn’t hire more teachers of color, Amuri said. He is frustrated that Winooski — Vermont’s only majority-minority school district, with a large immigrant population — has a faculty that is almost completely White.
Amuri, who moved from Tanzania in 2015 with his family, said he found it difficult, during his first few years in America, to attend a school with an almost entirely White staff. He sought in vain for a mentor, someone who understood why he was confused and who could explain the strange culture of his new home.
When he finally found one of the only Black staffers, a man who had emigrated from Rwanda, Amuri felt saved.
“Having someone who is also Black, from Africa, who went through that transition — just talking to him was liberating,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many kids in our school could use that kind of help.”
'I have a lot more to say than I did before'
Whether school officials are listening is an open question.
In Winooski, students and recent graduates haggled for months with administrators over the language of their demands, which — after several rounds of revisions — the school board voted unanimously to adopt Wednesday night. In a statement, board chair Tori Cleiland said the vote means Winooski can better “[combat] racism in all its forms,” and ensure that all students “are truly afforded life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Indra Acharya, a Bhutanese American alumnus who helped craft the demands, said change is long overdue.
“I’m beyond happy that the board passed our demands last night, [although] approval of our demands is just the beginning,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
Asked about the changes, a school spokeswoman emailed a copy of a public letter, authored by Winooski’s top school officials, that thanked Acharya and his colleagues.
Winooski “is incredibly proud of the student voice and activism that has emerged these past two months,” the letter read. “We applaud the passion, collaboration, advocacy and strength demonstrated by students . . . to ensure that we as a community move quickly to become an anti-racist school district.”
But Winooski is a bright spot.
In Omaha, top school officials, including the superintendent, agreed to meet with members of WYCD — and allowed them to hold a socially distanced rally at a high school — but have done little else, said Amoah and Mekhi Mitchell, 18, another Central graduate and WYCD founder.
The two teenagers said they came away from most meetings feeling the adults weren’t really listening. Every request for change was met with insistence, Mitchell said, that the school system was already tackling the issue.
“They pretty much claim they already have this stuff, or they’re working for it,” Mitchell said.
“Well, where is it?” Amoah interrupted. “And where was it when I was in school?”
Omaha Public Schools did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Although Amoah and Mitchell are both slated to head to college soon, they plan to keep demanding change until they get it. “I think they think we’ll forget about this,” Amoah said. “But we won’t.”
At Belmont Hill School in Massachusetts, Ugbaja said, officials’ response was a mixed bag. After he and two friends penned a public “Call to Action” — which asked for the removal of the bell, as well as more Black authors and Black history taught in classrooms — the head of school requested a meeting.
During the get-together, the head of school seemed passionate, “like he wanted to fix this,” Ugbaja said. Still, the head of school also warned that not all of the requested changes could happen right away, according to Ugbaja. A curriculum renovation, for example, is underway but will not be finished in time for Ugbaja’s senior year.
A Belmont Hill spokesman said in a statement that student and alumni voices “have accelerated progress on our Diversity Action plan, which includes commitments to improving multicultural curriculum,” examining the school’s history and hiring a more diverse staff.
The bell, at least, is on its way out.
Donated by a wealthy family in the “early days of Belmont Hill,” according to a recent letter to families, the bell has been a fixture of campus for decades. In July, Belmont Hill’s school board voted unanimously to remove it because of its “direct ties to slavery” and because “the lessons from our history are eclipsed by the need to make our environment more comfortable and inclusive for all of our students,” according to the letter.
Ugbaja will be glad to see it go. Sometimes, he said, White classmates rang the bell. As the chimes died away, they turned and stared at him, the only Black person nearby.
That used to feel intimidating.
“But after all this, I feel — no, I know — I have a lot more to say than I did before,” Ugbaja said. “Being one of the only Black kids at the school is not a hindrance now. It is a power.”