February 1, 2021

Will the MN House Act on Racial Justice? Why I Shared My Story

By Citlaly Escobar

Growing up as a Mexican-American in Minnesota, my experience in the public school system was, at a minimum, alienating and, at most, traumatizing. 

One of the moments that sticks out the most is when I asked the high school dean to help me apply for college as a senior in high school. As a first-generation college student, I didn’t know how to apply, and my white best friend encouraged me to see the dean because she’d had a great experience with her. But, when I met with my dean in her office, she didn’t even look at me; instead, she read my name on her desk and said, “Why do you want to go to college? Students like you don’t make it, so I think you should be happy where you are now.” 

It’s because of experiences like this that I testified in this week’s Education Policy Committee meeting on the recommendations laid out in the House’s report on racial justice. I provided public comment about what it means to have an education that prepares all students in Minnesota to be successful. 

I know what many of you may be thinking: “Wow, there’s no way this could have happened recently!” Or something like, “That dean is one in a million. People just aren’t like that anymore in normal school districts!” Well, I am here to tell you that this happened in 2016 at the Mounds View School District, one of the most-resourced districts in the state in Minnesota. And this horrifying experience I had is not one in a million; in fact, it’s a common story for too many students of color in Minnesota—including my three younger siblings who are still in the K-12 system. Even though I eventually succeeded in spite of my dean and the barriers I had to overcome, it is frankly unforgivable that the Minnesota school system was ever set up like this for students of color and that it continues to operate this way even four years after my graduation in 2017.

The report on racial disparities includes three central points that are fundamental to changing the experience of students like me: 

  • Hiring and retaining staff of color in Minnesota’s school districts,
  • Mandating culturally-responsive teaching and antiracism training; and 
  • Increasing access to dual-credit enrollment and rigorous coursework opportunities for all students. 
Time for Minnesota to Step Up and Lead 

Following the events of insurrection at the Capitol in early January, it is clear that Minnesota needs to step-up and be willing to lead the country in providing equitable and antiracist education for all its students, staff, and community members. One of the ways Minnesota can do that is by investing in the recruitment, training, and retention of teachers of color. This involves not only in investing in programs like tuition assistance and loan forgiveness, but also in changing layoff policies to ensure that teachers of color are protected. This is critical because, in my K-12 education, I didn’t have any teachers of color until my first year at Augsburg University, which is unacceptable.

Second, Minnesota must also be willing to take the initiative to mandate antiracism training and culturally-responsive teaching practices. The few teachers and staff of color employed by school districts should not bear the weight of serving as cultural liaisons for the school alone; instead, Minnesota should mandate these trainings to enhance the skill set of their entire education staff. This ensures that predominantly white staff will invest in their students of color as much as they do with white students and that future administrators won’t harm students. 

Third, Minnesota must also increase dual enrollment and rigorous coursework for students of color. Something I think about often is that I ended up being one of the lucky ones. Despite my dean, I was still able to take college courses in high school and now be part of the 10% of all Latinas nationally that graduate college. However, what happened to the students whose deans didn’t let them enroll in college courses in high school? Those with deans like mine, who refused to help them? It is essential that all students in Minnesota have access to dual-enrollment and rigorous coursework because their futures are on the line, and it is the duty of the state to ensure that all students have the opportunities to succeed.

Missing from the Report

While the report provided a lot of recommendations that will help to provide a better education for Minnesota students of color, there was one critical component that was missing: ethnic studies. Students are more likely to succeed when they see themselves reflected in the materials, and as Minnesota continues to diversify, its curriculum needs to expand to include narratives from communities of color to ensure the success of all students. 

If Minnesota truly desires to ensure all students’ success in the state, including for students of color, these steps are the bare minimum for change. It should go without saying why classroom materials, curriculum requirements, and school administration should be evaluated and restructured to educate all students—nevermind, why this change needs to occur now. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “justice delayed is justice denied.”