Ethnic Studies: (Re)Discovering, Re-Membering and Empowering Ourselves Conference

By Peter Madsen, El Magonista ~ October 24th, 2016

On Saturday October 22nd, almost 300 students from every high school in the Long Beach Unified School District and from El Rancho High School in Pico Rivera, convened for the Ethnic Studies conference (Re)Discovering, Re-Membering and Empowering Ourselves at California State University, Long Beach.

This was the third semi-annual conference hosted by the LBUSD-CSULB Long Beach Ethnic Studies Initiative, and the program was packed with 2 keynote speakers, incredible panels, student presentations, workshops, and performances for the students to learn from and enjoy.

These students all take part in the foundational Ethnic Studies course U.S. Diversity and the Ethnic Experience, created as a partnership between local schools and CSULB. As participants in the second year of this program, students are able to choose from a range of first and second year courses offered for college credit by the Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian & Asian American Studies, and Chicano and Latino Studies Departments at CSULB.

The morning began with a moving Puvugna Opening Ceremony led by American Indian Studies professor Craig Stone and Gloria Arellanes, followed by inspirational remarks by LBUSD Superintendent Chris Steinhauser, who empowered the students by reminding them of the incredible opportunities provided to them by LBUSD, including the Long Beach College Promise and the Ethnic Studies Program Initiative.

In turn, Steinhauser introduced the first keynote speaker of the day, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, who spoke about the importance of the ground-breaking Long Beach Ethnic Studies program and its effectiveness at helping high school students understand their own ethnic backgrounds, and appreciation for those of others. He also inspired students by describing his advocacy for a stronger educational system through his California College Promise legislation, recently signed by Governor Jerry Brown, which created a $15 Million fund for California school districts to form similar programs as the L.B. College Promise. Mr. O’Donnell represents the Long Beach area and serves as the Education Committee Chair of the California State Assembly

After a morning of uplifting speeches, the students were excited to break off into their workshops, led by their very own teachers, the faculty of the Ethnic Studies Program Initiative. Each student took part in two workshops, including panels and presentations on interethnic alliances and media stereotypes, and activities on healing from micro-aggressions and on reflecting on their own, diverse backgrounds. The students were full of energy during this time and were heard raving about the workshops when they broke for lunch.

Upon coming back together after lunch, students were treated to a special performance presentation by Poet and Performance Artist Matt Sedillo, who recited a number of powerful poems that touched on subjects related to the topics students are reading about in their Ethnic Studies classes.

The students were undoubtedly moved by his words, erupting into cheers after each poem. It was clear through their reactions that they were able to relate to Sedillo’s work, both personally and academically. Indeed, many students were moved to participate in the open-mic session which followed Sedillo’s inspirational performance. Students were literally jumping at the opportunity to share their experiences with their classmates and colleagues, and each was met with incredible support and affirmation from the audience. Unfortunately, there was simply not enough time to give everyone who wanted the chance to speak, but Sedillo encouraged the crowd to channel this energy into organizing future open-mic sessions amongst themselves.

With the room full of joy, University President Jane Conoley shared praises for the Long Beach Ethnic Studies program, and introduced the closing keynote, Honorable Judge Kelvin Filer. Judge Filer shared with the students the empowering story of his journey from his childhood in Compton, California to his career as a Los Angeles Superior Court Judge in the very same city. He also encouraged the students to consider the impact that all of their decisions have on their futures, and advised them to avoid letting themselves be cast into restrictive stereotypes. The students were clearly inspired by Judge Filer’s persistence and continued dedication to his community, and how his father inspired him to pursue a law career.

Undeniably, the words of encouragement, motivation and inspiration, and by all they had experienced over the course of the conference, the students left campus empowered and with thoughts of a bright future on their minds.

Click here to view the Conference Program.

Peter Madsen is a L.B. Poly H.S. and Stanford University graduate, now pursuing graduate studies to become an Ethnic Studies high school and university professor. He serves as the California-Mexico Studies Center Administrative and Research Assistant.