While school children are taught about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, few would recognize the name of Bayard Rustin, the man responsible for staging the non-violent protest, where King delivered his speech in 1963, in Washington D.C., until now.
On July 14, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful (FAIR) Education Act to law, which will require instruction about Rustin, an openly gay man, and the role he and other LGBT and disabled Americans played in history.
“Accurate history lessons are a key component of creating safe school environments for all kids – especially those who may be or seem different from the majority,” said Lorri L. Jean, CEO of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center. “As has been true with the leaders of many oppressed groups, the great LGBT trailblazers of the past have been inexcusably closeted by our history books.”
Jean said a real danger exists in hiding the truth from children, and that members of the LGBT community not only existed, but also influenced the course of history.
“Rustin was a major organizer in the pacifist movement and civil rights movement,” said Paul Von Blum, faculty member in African American studies at UCLA. “He was a very vigorous organizer who was largely ignored, probably because he was gay, which is one of the reasons we have this legislation, to give them the public attention and greater recognition they deserve.”
Judy Chaisson, coordinator in school operations for LAUSD, celebrated the announcement and its potential impact on education across the country.
“We have had inclusive curriculum for seven years now and we were probably the first in the country that included sexual and gender identity,” Chaisson said.
The district has begun to look at the effects of inclusive texts in LAUSD classrooms, which Chaisson added would only be helped by the FAIR Act.
“Preliminarily, we are looking at a lot of positive effects in terms of social climates, reducing bullying, and have received some very positive preliminary surveys from students,” Chaisson said.
However, the major issue districts face is finding textbook publishers who offer inclusive material, because there has not been enough demand on the publisher to produce those textbooks.
“When we went to adopt a new book, which happens approximately every seven years, we wanted to have a book that was LGBT inclusive, but couldn’t find one,” Chaisson said. “The FAIR Act calls for schools, as they adopt new books, to include that as a factor we would look for. I am hoping that because of this act, publishers will now make available books that are inclusive.”
Through the district’s perseverance in finding appropriate texts, which include discriminated groups in history and a guided vigilance at local schools, Chaisson said that they hope to eliminate bullying behavior through education.
“When all students learn about the accomplishments of such notable figures as Bayard Rustin, Barbara Jordan, Alexander the Great, Tennessee Williams, Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Harvey Milk, Billie Jean King and so many others, they will have a more complete understanding of the vibrant diversity of the human race,” Jean said. “They will be better prepared to succeed in a society that includes everyone.”
In addition to seeking out inclusive textbooks to help educate students and defer stereotypes and discrimination, members of the LAUSD attended a summit earlier this summer, hosted by the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, to come up with a comprehensive plan to end LGBT youth suicide and reduce homophobia in the nation’s second largest school district. Prompted by last year’s spate of LGBT youth suicides, the center initiated Project SPIN (Suicide Prevention Intervention Now) and together, with members from the district, the groups envisioned LAUSD as they would like to see it, and created a wish list of ideas and practices to incorporate into day-to-day school activities.
Earlier this year, Fairfax High School created the Safe School Ambassadors (SSA) program to teach students how to protect each other from and recognize the signs of bullying.
“I think every school needs to include this kind of awareness as part of what we do in schools,” said Bev Meyer, SSA program coordinator. “Kids need to be observing when other kids are being excluded, put down, or in the extreme, being assaulted. But the program is even trying to get them to see how it starts in small ways.”
Meyer said that students learn to be aware of what is going on around them when they are with their peers, and how to act in those situations.
“At lunch and at the bus stop where the kids are among themselves, that’s where they can take action to create an environment where this sort of thing doesn’t happen, to reach out to one another and step in,” Meyer said. “Even the simplest name-calling and exclusion is a big part of the way kids can be really cruel to one another. It’s to develop awareness and empower the kids to see how much power they have to create an environment.”
Meyer added that even though school is out for the summer, the SSA group has been organizing meetings and is now working with a group of incoming freshman in a summer bridge program. After learning about the FAIR Act being signed into law, Meyer immediately printed out information for the SSA students. Now, coupled with updated curriculum the SSA program may become even more successful.
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