Smiling for the Camera

Paula Values Diversity

I taught To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my English classes for decades. Both explore violent racism against Black people. I emphasized, of course, the anti-racist messages in the novels, but like pretty much all the other books I taught, they were written by White people, and a White perspective on racism was central to the stories.


My school was 70 percent White and about 20 percent Latino, with other races making up only 10 percent of the student body, so once every few semesters, I would have a Black student—one, in the entire class. They were often very quiet during discussions about these books. 


One year, though, I had three Black students in the same class. They gave each other support and could really speak up, and I finally heard just how painful discussing these books could be. In most other classes, they were all alone while White teachers and students had detached conversations about things that affected them very personally. 


Their bravery invited other students in the class to open up about how being Latino, Asian, or unrepresented in some other way meant feeling left out of literature and history in school. Where were their voices and their stories?


That’s when I added books like A Raisin in the Sun, Bodega Dreams, and American Born Chinese, all books with non-White authors writing about their own lived experiences. Every student deserves the opportunity to be represented in the curriculum. They deserve to see faces like theirs in the front of the room, but how can we attract a diverse educator team until we give them a rich, diverse curriculum to teach, one where their experiences are honored?


I don’t have all of the solutions, but it is past time for our educators and board to think deeply about the ways they may be contributing to decisions that unfairly impact students and colleagues of color, even if only by just accepting the current system. We have the responsibility to make sure Jeffco's marginalized students and families and have a voice and power in decision-making.