Dr. Pritpal Kaur and Naindeep Singh: Advocacy Works As California's New Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum To Include Sikh Stories 

Since March of 2020, the Sikh Coalition and the Jakara Movement have worked alongside members of the California sangat to ensure that the Sikh voice was heard in the course of the ESMC conversation

Dr. Pritpal Kaur and Naindeep Singh
March 26, 2021 | 3.5 min. read

For more than a year, the Sikh community has worked to make its voice heard in California as debate raged around the state’s new Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC).

Thankfully, just last week, we saw a major step forward as the California State Board of Education voted to approve a version of the ESMC that will share Sikh stories with public schoolchildren across the state. While the curriculum is imperfect and our work is far from done, these efforts represent a step forward for the Sikh community in particular.

Ethnic Studies as a discipline is deeply meaningful to marginalized communities, not least of all because it presents a critical opportunity for children from our communities to see themselves and their histories reflected in educational materials.

Moreover, when all students get the benefit of learning about cultures and peoples often left out of standards and curricula, this increased cultural awareness decreases otherization - including bullying, which Sikh children (especially those who keep their articles of faith) suffer at a disproportionate rate.

On the whole, a robust Ethnic Studies Curriculum that represents all groups who are a part of the academic field is critical to advancing anti-racist education for all.

Since March of 2020, the Sikh Coalition and the Jakara Movement - two Sikh community organizations with staff and constituencies in California - have worked alongside members of the California sangat to ensure that the Sikh voice was heard in the course of the ESMC conversation. 

A year ago, our organizations submitted comprehensive recommendations for improving the ESMC, along with a draft lesson plan; we then worked with 52 gurdwaras on a letter supporting the proposal, and recruited more than 1,200 petition signers to do the same.

Over a number of additional public comment periods, our two groups supported more than 700 Sikh community members to submit either written comments or spoken testimony in favor of Sikh inclusion in the ESMC. After subsequent drafts continued to minimize the Sikh community in California, we met with CDE officials to discuss the ESMC and recruited a bipartisan group of 25 California assembly members and state senators to join a letter in support of our efforts.

Ultimately, all of this work - and the tireless advocacy of the California sangat - yielded results. 

The ESMC approved last week by the California State Board of Education includes the Sikh Coalition and the Jakara Movement’s lesson plan about the Sikh-American community in California.

Additionally, it includes references to Sikhs throughout the curriculum, including the anti-colonial and anti-imperial contributions of Sikhs through the Gadhar movement, which has links to activists who founded Stockton Gurdwara; an exploration of Sikh identity within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities; information about historical figures such as Dalip Singh Saund and Bhagat Singh Thind; Sikh immigration stories (from working on the transcontinental railroads to the Punjabi-Mexican community); and the Sikh experience of the past 20 years, specifically with reference to September 11 and the tragedy of Oak Creek. 

Despite this success for Sikh Californians, it is important to recognize that the ESMC comes with well-documented flaws.

There are several communities that are not represented as they should be, and the Sikh Coalition and the Jakara Movement stand by other marginalized groups who continue to advocate for more accurate representation - including the Arab American community, who are traditionally and importantly featured in Ethnic Studies. Accordingly, we continue to work with allied groups like the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute to make sure that legitimate and comprehensive educational materials are created and implemented in classrooms at the school district level. 

It is also important to recognize that the ESMC is not the end-all of the California sangat’s education-related work, either. While it builds on the hard work to include Sikhism in the History and Social Science Framework back in 2016 and provides educators with many rich examples of content to teach about Sikhism, the ESMC itself does not guarantee that this material is actually taught to students. Sikh parents must continue working with advocates and school officials to ensure that information about our culture and history makes it into classrooms. 

All told, we can view California’s ESMC in many ways.

On the one hand, it is simply one more step in the long fight to make sure that Sikhi is included in an accurate and constitutionally appropriate way in U.S. classrooms. It is also an important reminder that expanding the definition of who is represented in educational materials is, whether we like it or not, up for political debate - and that the sangat has a moral obligation to stand alongside other marginalized communities in those fights. But above all else, it is a critical reminder that together, our relentless activism can help us achieve meaningful victories as we continue to work together for a generational shift in Sikh awareness that starts in schools.

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Dr. Pritpal Kaur is the Education Director at the Sikh Coalition. Naindeep Singh is the Executive Director of the Jakara Movement.


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