Just Us in Davis: Celebrate youth equity leadership

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What: Annual student research presentation by students in Race and Social Justice in U.S. History classes

When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 14

Where: Davis High School Library, 315 W. 14th St.

Admission: Free

“I am so sorry for what we did to you people!”

The year was 2009, not long after the first inauguration of President Barack Obama. The place was a movie theater in downtown Davis. I was with my husband and children, the latter 12 and 9 years old.

A white woman in her mid-60s approached me, an African-American, after studying my Smithsonian Inauguration sweatshirt featuring Barack Obama. She blurted out the statement above, sincerely with some pain.

My first thought: Awkward!

My second thought: How should I respond for the greatest benefit of my children?

My third thought: How long has she been waiting to say that to somebody?

I asked and listened to her brief family story. Her dad had been a school district superintendent in a Southern state. His district had been the first in that state to fully comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 17, 1954, order to desegregate the nation’s schools (Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas).

Her father’s leadership was courageous and dangerous. My family and I had just a little time together for her to recount how it cost her father and her family dearly, before our movies beckoned us to separate theaters.

I wish we knew one another better, especially when it comes to issues of race and justice. I wish there were more safe arenas to talk about what has been challenging — no, downright hard — in our lives regarding race and racism.

We live our lives together, but reflect in isolation.

We need places to celebrate even our small victories and acts against injustice. We need places to be heard. To be seen as the people we long to be together. We need to teach our children about the hard work that wrought our nation’s present, lesser degrees of racial inequality in schooling, in housing, in health and health care, in law enforcement and judicial outcomes.

We need to experience spaces of celebration and remembrance, to equip the next generation to deal with the racial and social inequality they will inherit from us.

This Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision that dismantled segregation in public schools and eventually in other spaces where we now come together. We had planned to celebrate the work of Davis youths, educators and community this Saturday, highlighting in particular the exceptional, inspiring youth leadership that helped create a unique course at Davis High School — Race and Social Justice in U.S. History. We need to postpone that celebration until the autumn.

Sheer exhaustion makes this postponement necessary.

The Race and Social Justice in U.S. History course (RSJ) meets the U.S. history requirement for graduation, is an A-G college prep course and features a yearlong group research project that explores dysfunctional, historical scripts of social inequality, as we are potentially still living them out today in Davis.

The goal for the inaugural year of this course, 2007-08, was to have 29 students sign up to adequately fund a teacher for one period. I hope the story is well known among Davisites that 108 students signed up that first year, necessitating three class periods, all taught by the course’s developer, award-winning history teacher Kevin Williams.

Based on student demand, there are now eight RSJ periods, taught by Williams and two other Davis High teachers, Fern O’Brien and Chris Lee.

Williams and I were sternly warned by district officials in 2007 that the performance of Race and Social Justice students could not fall short of students then currently taking what the University of California website terms “traditional U.S. history.”

Why would the teaching of American history through the lens of both white and non-white racial groups who struggled and struggle to be considered fully American … why would we think that curriculum would be less academically rigorous or otherwise harmful to individual or to the collective of Davis High students?

In fact, in the five years before the start of the RSJ class, the percentage of students who scored proficient or advanced on California’s STAR U.S. history test was 59 percent. “Despite” the increase in Davis High students today choosing to take RSJ, that percentage of all students between 2008 and 2013 scoring proficient or advanced has increased to 78 percent! During this same period, the percentage of all students who reached advanced levels in U.S. history increased from 41 to 51 percent.

Again, we have postponed this grand reunion of young people from as far back as 2003 until the fall. But we still can celebrate the research accomplishments of this year’s cohort of RSJ students. On Wednesday at 5:30 p.m., the current RSJ students will host their annual research poster presentation at the Davis High School Library, 315 W. 14th St.

It is an opportunity for us to come together, to think deeply about social justice in the context of our community, to talk with enthusiastic youths, to remember and recall our own and our families’ courageous pushing of the boundaries for a better, more inclusive America. It’s a time to remember and share in community. Your heart will burst with pride and hope.

In closing, let me share my choice of candidates for June’s election, candidates who I have watched provide important, courageous leadership in especially social justice issues that make our community into one in which every child and family can thrive and be heard. I am voting for Joe Krovoza for state Assembly, and for Robb Davis and Rochelle Swanson for City Council.

— Jann Murray-García, M.D., M.P.H., is a Davis parent and pediatrician. She shares this monthly column with Jonathan London. Reach her at [email protected]

Jann L. Murray-Garcia

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