In March, 2021, California’s State Board of Education made its last few changes to the newly created Ethnics Studies curriculum for public schools across the state. After going on an 18-month-long campaign to urge the Board to better represent Sikh culture and history, the Sikh Coalition succeeded in incorporating more accurate and representative information about the community in the curriculum.
The objective of the Ethnics Studies course is to highlight the stories and contributions of minority or ethnic groups like Native Americans, African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Asian Americans that are often obscured from current educational curricula.
Initial drafts of the curriculum provided limited information about the Sikh community, as they were only referenced in the context of post-9/11 Islamophobia. The Sikh Coalition, the largest Sikh civil rights organization in the nation, was founded after 9/11. Education director of the Sikh Coalition, Pritpal Kaur, and other members of the Sikh community were disheartened by the little representation they had despite having over 125 years of history in California.
“It’s absolutely really important to talk about discrimination and hate crimes against the Sikh community,” Kaur said. “Hand in hand with that, we thought it was important to also acknowledge their contributions to the state.”
The Sikh Coalition later partnered with the Jakara movement, a nonprofit focused in the Bay Area and Central Valley, to embark on an 18-month campaign to push for more representation in the Ethnics Studies curriculum, in which they submitted a new lesson plan to the Board. The Board later revised their curriculum and were able to incorporate more of Sikh history and contributions into the course.
“The specific topics which the curriculum now gives opportunity for exploring in the classroom are anti-colonial and anti-imperialist movements,” Kaur said. “For example, the Ghadar movement, which has links to Stockton Gurdwara, which was the first ever Sikh place of worship in the US […] And then Dalip Singh Saund, who was the first ever Asian American, the first South Asian, the first ever Sikh American to be elected to Congress.”
Through the Ethnic Studies Curriculum, Kaur hopes that the lessons bring light to marginalized communities, allowing them to share their perspectives that are often obscured by media and school lessons.
“It’s so important for students to see themselves reflected and represented in the classroom. Sikh students typically face, a bullying report found, a rate of twice the national average based on their religious identity,” Kaur said. “Opportunities in the classroom are so vitally important where they see themselves reflected and represented [and] where others have an opportunity to learn about them and their backgrounds and their immigration stories and their contributions as well.”
With the curriculum undergoing countless changes and revisions throughout the process, Kaur conceded that it was still an “imperfect curriculum,” as other communities’ voices may still not be heard through the ethnic course. Facing much controversy, the Ethnics Studies curriculum faced debates such as whether it should be a graduation requirement, or the lack of Arab-American content covered in the lesson plans.
“We’ve been working with Sikh communities to let them know, ‘Look, these are the opportunities that exist within the state curriculum’,” Kaur said. “But there are problems with the state curriculum as well. We’re in touch with other groups like the Liberated Ethnic Studies Institute, which is working with school districts to create materials and content based on the original guiding values of ethnic studies, and working with the school districts directly as well.”