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WEA educators help lead state Ethnic Advisory Committee

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OSPI Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee

As women of color, WEA members Denisha Saucedo, Brooke Brown and Dr. Verónica N. Vélez know firsthand that ethnic studies can make a real difference in how students experience school — and life. That's why these three educators have been serving as co-facilitators of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction's Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee.

Saucedo, who teaches 6th grade at Kent Elementary School and is a 2018 regional teacher of the year, sees this learning as critical to helping students succeed.

"Ethnic studies builds relationships with the community, restoring belief that we are all able," she says. "This is important to me because it can foster an environment in which students can grow and meet their full potential."

Brown, the 2021 State Teacher of the Year who teaches English and ethnic studies at Washington High School in Parkland, was an ethnic-studies major in college.

"Ethnic studies to me was healing, it was validating," she says. "I had a great education K-12, but I often didn't feel represented in what I was reading, what I was studying. I studied ethnic studies in college and felt seen."

Vélez, an associate professor of secondary education and education and social justice at Western Washington University, talks about what's lost when the school curriculum fails to account for students' unique experiences.

She cites the example of Apache students in Arizona, who learn sophisticated mathematical ways of thinking from a young age when they go out to the desert to harvest mesquite. Because the wood is so far away, they learn to figure out how to load trucks and minimize the number of trips. Even though they've already developed these sophisticated mathematical and spatial skills in the mesquite harvests, standard math classes never show them that connection between that and what they learn as "math" and they don’t understand the value of what they already know.

"If Apache youth never see themselves in their classrooms," Vélez says, "they think they're terrible at math when they have so much more to offer."

Some educators may not know where to start when talking with students about race and ethnicity, and that's why the 2019 and 2020 Legislatures passed SB 5023 and SB 6066 mandating creation of the committee. The 23-member group of educators and community members works together to help define the state's academic expectations and grade-level requirements in education about race and culture.

In addition to Brown, Saucedo and Vélez, these WEA members are on the committee: Rodrigo F. Renteria-Valencia (United Faculty of Central); Nu'om Fariz (Edmonds, WEA-Retired), Amanda Hubbard (Seattle EA), Amie Jette (Mukilteo EA), Harpreet Parhar (Mukilteo EA), Isabelle Tetu (Federal Way EA), Martin Louie (Edmonds EA), Tina Gilmore (Federal Way EA), Linda J. Clifton (WEA-Retired) and Pamelia Valentine (Shelton EA). Michael Peña from WEA's Center for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice also is on the committee.

Recently, their work has resulted in the newly launched Washington State Ethnic Studies Portal, which provides those guidelines and helps connect educators to the materials and resources they need.

Vélez stresses the importance of an ongoing dialogue with students and educators about the materials and getting educators the training and support they need.

"We can't just put something up on a website and call it done," she says.

All three educators have seen things that highlight the importance of valuing a wider variety of people and experiences.

"Students are fighting against a system created for some students to fail. I was that student expected to fail," Saucedo says.

In a 2017 KING 5 interview, Saucedo talks about how discouraging and isolating it was to feel stereotyped as the daughter of a Jamaican immigrant single parent: "None of my teachers looked like me, and my experiences weren't the best." Ultimately, this inspired her to become a teacher.

Denisha Saucedo student letter
A student's thank you note to Kent educator Denisha Saucedo.

Some question whether a focus on race is divisive, but Brown says, "It's never about shame or blame or guilt. It's always about being curious and just wanting to learn more."

Saucedo agrees, emphasizing that the committee's goal is anti-racist: "It centers healing, community and the belief that we are all capable of learning."

Her students' words speak volumes about what it means to feel seen and supported in the classroom. In letters, they've thanked her because, "I know that I can go into the real-world and be confident in who I am and what I can achieve" and "Dear teacher, you have truly given me wings." 

Denisha Saucedo birthday poem
Ethnic studies can make a real difference in how students experience school — and life.

For Vélez, the pandemic brought a moment of clarity. Like a lot of people, she was inspired to start a garden even though, "I've never done a garden in my life."

She called her mother, an immigrant from Mexico who grew up on a farm.

Vélez's mother said, "Well, I've been trying to teach you these lessons all your life."

"She taught me about soil, spacing plants, everything," she says. "She just taught me all this knowledge and the garden was incredible. I had so many tomatoes I had to give them away."

Vélez says, "I called her and said, 'I didn’t know you were such a genius!'" 

Her mother answered, "How would you know? School didn't teach you to look at me this way."

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