As our country has commemorated National Hispanic American (Latinx) Heritage Month over the past few weeks, we’ve seen countless expressions of gratitude for the contributions of Latinx people. There have been celebrations of our culture and heritage. Tributes to our heroes and trailblazers. Love letters about our food. I am a proud Xicana— that is, of indigenous Mexican ancestry— and being a daughter of East San Jose is central to my life and every part of who I am. And yet, my feelings about the thirty days spanning September 15 – October 15 are complicated.
I love the idea of as many people as possible honoring the richness of Latinx culture and contributions. Many educators build material into their curriculums around the focus of the month and it reminds us to be inclusive. But as the Latinx leader of an organization that focuses on culturally responsive leadership and helping educators allow all students to feel seen, heard, celebrated and held to the highest academic standards all year long, I’m also thinking about the young people celebrating this month in schools that are not culturally responsive – schools where the only focus on Latinx heritage happens during this lone thirty-day period. Or schools where students of color are painted with a broad brush of low expectations and monthlong celebrations only mask the deeper issue of students not feeling seen at all.
That lack of belonging can be a tremendous threat to student success. It’s a story that The Leadership Academy’s own Senior Director of Information Technology Alex Negron knows well and recently shared with our staff.
“My elementary school experience was rich. As a Puerto Rican kid surrounded at school by other Black and Brown kids, I always felt embraced. My culture wasn’t questioned – it was celebrated and woven throughout our curriculum. I vividly remember being in a school play where I wore a traditional Jibaro outfit and danced Bomba y plena. Learning in that environment felt like home.
By eighth grade, my mother wanted to send me to a school where she thought I would get a better education, so I transferred to a school that was vastly different than anything I’d known. I experienced higher academic expectations but I also experienced fewer kids who looked like me. I went from a school where being Puerto Rican was celebrated to one where other students saw it as a detriment. They perceived my Puerto Rican heritage as a negative, and the school curriculum simply did not see me at all.
My school experience deteriorated rapidly, and at the end of the following year for High School I returned to a more diverse school – a place where I felt a strong sense of belonging, but where I once again experienced low academic expectations. I didn’t have the language for it at the time, but today I realize what an impossible choice I faced. Leave to Succeed in order to attend a school with high academic standards but where I felt low self-worth or return to a school where I felt connected to my culture but saw no viable path to a successful future.
I eventually encountered a difference-making teacher who encouraged me, advocated for me, held me to the standards she knew I was capable of, and pushed me to be better. I owe a big part of my ultimate success to her. But I often wonder what would have happened if she hadn’t convinced me that I could achieve greatness despite the low expectations.
I also wonder what my story would be if I had continued on after eighth grade and attended the high-performing high school, and if my experience there would mirror the isolation and loneliness I’d felt during middle school. Though there was deep academic rigor I felt invisible and excluded. A sense of belonging should not come at the cost of being challenged and engaged. That is a price that no student should have to pay and it’s why I’ve spent the past twenty years of my career creating culturally responsive rigorous communities through our work at The Leadership Academy.”
Alex’s story perfectly illustrates the burdens we place on our young people when we don’t provide them with learning environments of inclusivity and belonging. No single month’s celebration of heritage could have made him see himself as a part of the fabric of that school. But his story also demonstrates what happens when we don’t subscribe to the foundational belief undergirding the work of culturally responsive leadership – that every single student can academically thrive and flourish. Alex is an incredibly valuable leader of our Information Technology team at The Leadership Academy today. He found his way, but his schools and school leaders could have done so much more to make his path easier.
Culturally responsive leadership is intentional. Yes, it recognizes, embraces, and appreciates every child’s heritage, culture, and traditions beyond food, fun and fiesta. But it also creates high expectations for every child every day while accounting for the biases we all hold in this endeavor.
Can it include curriculum units focused in some way around these monthlong celebrations? Sure. But there’s no need to hold your curriculum units about the beautiful, rich, contributions of Latinx or Black, or AAPI, or Indigenous people for any one particular month on the calendar. I challenge us all to remember that these are lessons that can – and should – be taught year-round.
I’m grateful for every effort made to pay tribute to all of the ways that Latinx people have shaped this country and continue to contribute to its potential and promise, but as this month of Latinx celebration winds down and Filipino Heritage Month takes root, it’s important to remember that heritage month celebrations only serve to complement the work that we do daily to dismantle inequities and create learning experiences built to meet the needs of every child. They are not the replacement for it. And it is critically important that we all do our part to make sure they aren’t the only time that any student feels a sense of belonging.