Shaena Reyes never learned about Juneteenth as a student at McAllen’s Nikki Rowe High School.
Reyes, who graduated in 2018, only learned this summer about Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery and became a national holiday three decades ago.
That educational omission is one of the main reasons she and five other McAllen ISD alumni formed The Grande Narrative, an organization with the mission of pushing districts to integrate more books by Black authors and stories of Black leaders into curricula.
Reyes, now a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, says focusing on what is being taught in classrooms is the heart of the problem.
“Racism is a learned thing, it is not a thing that is inherent in anyone,” she said.
Reyes made a reference to a National Institute of Health study which found that beginning at age 4, children make inferences about friendships with other kids based on their race.
“So it is all learned issues,” said Reyes, who is Filipino American. “And so if it’s learned, it can also be unlearned and we believe education is the best way to tackle that because that’s universal.”
The organization wrote a petition which proposes several action items to diversify students’ education, including a requirement of at least one book by a person of color in every English course, and for the establishment of “Celebrate Freedom Week,” in which students would learn about the oppression of the rights of Black people during the Civil Rights Movement.
Natalie Glasper, also a founding member of The Grande Narrative, said though she remembers reading books by authors of color in school, diversity often depended on the teacher.
“You might get teachers who made it a point to include those books and lessons, and you might not,” said Glasper, a 2018 graduate of McAllen Memorial. “And so we want it to be a priority and make it an important part in what people are learning because McAllen ISD serves a diverse community, and we want students to see their experiences reflected in their lessons and have the chance to learn about their own history.”
The petition has received almost 400 signatures so far.
Last year, McAllen ISD’s student body was 93.5% Hispanic, 4.4% white, 1.3% Asian and .4% Black.
Reyes mentioned a study published by the Center for Education Policy Analysis which found that the GPA of ninth-grade students after taking ethnic studies courses increased by 1.4 points, compared to the year before without it. Attendance also rose by 21%.
“So these whitewashed stories, this racism, is not only people to people, but it’s also systemic and it also hurts us when we don’t even realize it sometimes,” she said.
The organization has also compiled a list of books, movies and plays for all school grade levels that teach students about Black history and racism, and each one has a corresponding lesson guide.
In that list, Reyes suggested that middle school students read the fictional “Ghost Boy” by Jewell Parker Rhodes, about a Black boy killed by a police officer. Glasper added the 1959 play ‘A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, which reveals the struggles of housing discrimination through the story of a poor Black family living in Chicago’s South Side.
“I did not see a lot of representation of me growing up,” said Glasper, who is half Black and half white. “So I think it is very of interest to our community and in this school year, because when we see these whitewashed narratives we don’t see ourselves in it.”
Glasper is a junior at Baylor University in Waco, and said though its a predominantly white university, she experienced more racism growing up in McAllen, a minority-majority region.
“In the Valley I was a minority and I would say I definitely experienced way more anti-blackness in the Valley than I ever did now,” she said.
The Grande Narrative recently met with the McAllen ISD school board to discuss changes to their curriculum. Though the board has been open to the concept of the organization, the district’s curriculum is based on the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS, a state-wide standard for Texas public schools which already features several Black history topics.
“We applaud these young adults for their dedication and passion for this important topic,” Mark May, spokesperson for McAllen ISD, wrote in an email.
He said the district already includes some of the books The Grande Narrative is proposing in its curriculum. Following the TEKS standards, McAllen ISD also already observes “Celebrate Freedom Week” by learning about values and ideals the nation was founded on, along with the sacrifices that were made for freedom in the founding of the country.
“The TEKS do strive to include all ethnic groups within its curriculum. Our goal is to always provide the best education possible for our students,” May wrote. “As a district, we value the representation of ethnic backgrounds and agree that they have a place in our educational programs.”
According to May, McAllen ISD is helping The Grande Narrative reach out to the Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg, an office of the State Board of Education which sets the curriculum for Texas public schools.
In addition to the petition, The Grande Narrative has been using its social media platforms to teach others Black history lessons, along with the history of racism in the Rio Grande Valley.
One post on the organization’s Instagram page focuses on the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the region, marching through San Benito, Harlingen and Mercedes in the 1920s. In 1977, the KKK’s national leader Bill Wilkson visited Brownsville to demand a border fence.
“We targeted education because we thought people need to be more equipped to enter into conversations about race and be more comfortable with it, and it starts in the classroom,” Glasper said. “It is also in our core values that Black history and the history of people of color is American history, its part of the history of our region, so we couldn’t really serve our community if we did not do that in the first place.”
The organization strives for students to learn about Black history beyond slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, Glasper said, and more about the contributions Black leaders have made to the country.
“We kind of tend to start Black history with oppression but we don’t learn about all the progress Black people have made in this country and we don’t learn about all the art and the inventions of Black people in this country,” she said. “So it can kind of make a person feel either invisible or just not as important… I think that this project would really inform people to have a more positive conversation surrounding race, just because they would know more about the history behind it.”