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Commentary: Flashpoint Over Struggle To Preserve Mexican-American Studies in Arizona

In 1967, MIT linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky wrote the seminal essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” where he argued, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and expose lies.” Forty-four years later, this statement is relevant to the struggle over ethnic studies in the Tucson Unified School District.

For several years, the state of Arizona has embarked on eliminating or dismantling TUSD’s highly successful Mexican American Studies (MAS) program on the premise that its classes:

• Promote the overthrow of the United States government.

• Promote resentment toward a race or class of people.

• Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group.

• Advocate for ethnic solidarity.

Having never set foot in an MAS classroom or conducted an audit, former State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne embedded these allegations in the 2010 anti-ethnic studies law HB 2281. The law mandates that a school district can lose 10 percent of its state funding if it is out of compliance, and this was how Mr. Horne singled out MAS as his last act in office.

Within this context, TUSD Board President Dr. Mark Stegeman unilaterally proposed changing ethnic studies classes into electives instead of core courses. Dr. Stegeman argued he would be better able to defend the classes as electives. This would, however, effectively dismantle the program because it would force students to take additional English or history classes.

At the state level, Mr. Horne was succeeded by current Superintendent John Huppenthal, who ran campaign advertisements claiming that if elected he would “stop la raza.” He did not claim he would stop ethnic or raza studies; rather, he would stop la raza. It is doubtful he would have run ads claiming he would stop the Blacks or Asians, but won his election demonizing Latinos.

As a new Ph.D., and with many racist lies in the state of Arizona, the question becomes: What is my role in the movement to preserve ethnic studies? I have become aware that the Ph.D. after my name carries weight that can serve to debunk falsehoods. At the request of leadership within the movement, I was asked to speak about the program’s efficacy using my statistical training.

For the 2010 graduating cohort, low-income MAS students substantially outperformed their non-MAS peers. District-defined low-income students graduated at a rate of 7.8 percentage points higher than students who never took an MAS course, and, for very low-income students, the gap was 14.7 percentage points, again favoring students who completed MAS courses.

This was part of a strategy of bringing community members from all walks of life to speak regarding the program’s impact during the April 26 meeting where Dr. Stegeman introduced his proposal. Many thought this effort to speak out in favor of the MAS program would be in vain because he appeared to have the three votes needed to pass his measure. Regardless, many lined up to testify to the program’s efficacy.

Fifteen minutes before the meeting began, a group of nine students approached the front of the room. They rushed the stage and proceeded to chain themselves to the board members’ empty chairs. The group organizing this demonstration, U.N.I.D.O.S. (United Non-discriminatory Individuals Demanding Our Studies), said, if the board would not listen to students, the students would take over the school board. They proceeded to unveil their 10-point resolution and, in the process, were able to cancel the board meeting.

While most of the media coverage focused on the civil disobedience, there was an equally important behind-the-scenes story.

The students, after weeks of being ignored by board members and the superintendent, made a simple, profound discovery. The board had to have a meeting to pass the resolution. If there was no meeting, the resolution could not pass. This act of civil disobedience put the students in physical and legal jeopardy, but they said preserving their education was worth the risk.

The struggle continued as the meeting was rescheduled for the following week. So the students were temporarily victorious, and they taught many of us important lessons regarding planning, courage, creativity, and, above all, hope. Before their actions, many thought we would wake up on April 27 with ethnic studies dismantled. It took the actions of idealistic youth to snap us out of fatalism.

This rediscovered hope was immediately tested because, after the meeting, tensions escalated as more than 100 police officers, a bomb squad, SWAT unit, and even a helicopter were deployed. Seven people, including community elders, were arrested, while others were forcibly removed.

Outside, students and community members were roughed up. At the end of the meeting, we still had ethnic studies in place. There is always work to do in preserving ethnic studies, and my role evolves constantly. Sometimes I run statistics regarding this incredibly successful program, sometimes I speak publicly, and sometimes I write op-ed pieces. The students and teachers are the true organic intellectuals, but they are not afforded the deference I am. Therefore, the responsibility of those “intellectuals” involves finding methods to bridge the grassroots and the ivory tower. Ultimately, what good are academic degrees if they cannot be used to support the promotion of equality? D

— Dr. Nolan L. Cabrera is Assistant Professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the College of Education of the University of Arizona.

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