An illustration by the author, Maya Bhatt, reads "Racist and whitewashed history textbooks need to go now." (Maya Bhatt, @colorforcauses)
Editor’s note: It’s KQED Youth Takeover week. From April 25-29, we’re featuring stories by high school students from around the Bay Area.
Growing up as a brown girl in America, I was often tested by the power of invisibility. The world around me didn't seem to include me in anything. The long-legged models that popped up on my Instagram feed didn’t have the same chocolate, brown skin. My favorite Disney Channel shows made Indian American actors speak with a thick accent. The whole world seemed to have us figured out, yet their perception was completely wrong. The real me was completely invisible in mainstream media.
My love for reading sprouted from a young age. And as I advanced in my reading skills and grade levels, I began to see a trend that many of my white counterparts were oblivious to: our school’s curriculum lacked diversity.
The invisibility I had experienced my whole life was even present in the classroom in my majority-white East Bay suburb. The first time a teacher ever made my class read a book by a person of color was last year in the 9th grade. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson took me through issues of race in our justice system, and especially opened my eyes to young kids being tried as adults in court. These issues had been invisible to me for so long, and if it wasn’t for that teacher I’d still be in the dark. I’ve made an effort to expand my horizons by reading Alice Walker’s The Color Purple on my own, and I want to see more books like these—for example, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings—included in my school curriculum.
Now that I’m 15 years old, I’m done feeling silenced and invisible. How come every page I turned to in my history textbook was a white-washed story, covering up the tracks of “heros” like Christopher Columbus? There is so much more to learn about the many diverse communities that have shaped the history of the Bay Area and the United States as a whole, and I feel as though I have missed out on this throughout my school career.
I wasn’t the only one who was faced with invisibility. Stanford University students Jasmine Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American, and Katelin Zhou, who is Chinese American, were also at a point where they realized that their whole high school career was filled with white-washed media, books and teachings. So, they decided to do something about it.
In June of 2020, when the whole world was in lockdown due to COVID-19, they used their voices and started a new organization: Diversify Our Narrative (DON). At first, their main goal was to push for diverse texts in English classrooms, but it later blossomed into something much more.
Now, in 2022, DON has over 900 chapters nationwide, and has also broadened their vision to push for diverse curricula in subjects such as history, STEM and the arts. Their work has reached millions of people from across the world as their Instagram has amassed over 217,000 followers in just two years. More than 6,000 young changemakers have joined them in their fight for antiracist education. Together, these student activists have put together action-based toolkits, organized marches and created petitions.
“DON has helped me realize the importance of collective resistance in making change,” Nguyen said. “Especially focusing on local change.”
Shalvi Kamble, an Indian American senior at Leland High School, discovered DON through Instagram and was immediately intrigued: “When [DON] made the point that we’ve never had books written by people of color in our classrooms, I realized I had never seen myself represented,” Kamble said.
DON provided Kamble a “wake-up call” as she realized that she was always looking for books written by someone like her. Now, she leads the San Jose Unified School District chapter.
Through her chapter Kamble is campaigning for her school district to require each English class to assign one book by a BIPOC author a year. In addition to this mandate, Kamble has also been working with teachers individually to help shift to more diverse book choices in their classrooms.
With the main goal of diverse curricula, Kamble also wants to make sure her branch addresses different issues like climate change, LGBTQ+ rights, Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate throughout the year.
“The thing about issues is, don’t just want to talk about, for example, LGBTQ+ in Pride month. You want to educate and talk about it everyday because these are real issues that affect real people everyday of every year,” Kamble said.
Sofia Bruno is the district lead, along with Trisha Nguyen, of the San Francisco Unified School District chapter of DON. “I have always been interested in these types of issues,” said Bruno, who is Latina and Vietnamese.
Bruno attends Lowell High School, which has been at the center of a debate surrounding equity in recent years because Black and Latinx students are underrepresented on its campus. Bruno’s main goal through her chapter is to raise awareness and advocate for diverse texts in classrooms, like Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club.
“Our nation’s history should be a composite of all cultures and perspectives. Not just white-based,” Bruno said. “As many minority groups have been [and] are still being oppressed, it’s important to acknowledge them, so we can learn from our mistakes and forge a better future.”
Bruno believes that the country must bridge its past and present so that Generation Z can be ready to lead the future.
Diversify Our Narrative has accomplished a lot in its two years. Two young women who had big dreams of advancing a change now have more than 6,000 passionate student activists joining them from all around the country. Many like Kamble and Bruno have used their voices to protest in Sacramento in support of AB 101, which created an ethnic studies requirement for California high school students. Governor Gavin Newson signed the bill into law in October 2021, and it will go into effect for the graduating class of 2030.
With all of the success and progress they have made over the course of two years, there is still a lot of change that needs to happen regarding diversity and inclusion in the classroom. With May fast approaching, the organizers are working on information and toolkits for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
“In April, we’ll mainly be preparing for AAPI month and transitioning our chapters to new leadership as seniors graduate,” said Nguyen.
The impact that DON has had on Generation Z has been nothing short of amazing. As for me, a young brown girl, I would have never thought that my voice was powerful enough to spark a change. But projects and organizations like DON have shown me the power that lies within youth, and how much change youth can actually accomplish. This passion of using my voice to ignite a change led me to starting my own platform, Color For Causes, a place I use to share my visual and written works to inspire other youth and educate them on real-world issues. Just like DON, I hope to make an impact, big and small, on the world and generations to come.
Maya Bhatt is a 15-year-old writer and activist who attends Monte Vista High School in Danville. She loves to create visual and written works that help inspire a change in her community through her organization, Color For Causes. If she isn’t crafting an article or drawing, she can be found engrossed in a good book while snuggling her dog.
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