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Education

A course created to make space for Black history will graduate its first class

The students who took part in the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy received copies of “1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History” to read in between their weekly virtual lessons.
Grant Gerlock
/
IPR
The students who took part in the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy received copies of “1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History” to read in between their weekly virtual lessons.

A group of students is set to graduate from an ethnic studies program based in Iowa City that was created to give Black students a place to learn and talk about Black history.

The students in the class, all Black girls from the Iowa City and Des Moines areas, started meeting virtually in early March for two hours per week outside of their normal middle and high school classes. They've learned stories about the civil rights movement and African civilizations that they never came across in school. They met local Black business owners.

The Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy came in response to the Iowa City school district declining to make an ethnic studies class mandatory, according to Lisa Covington, the director of the program. She said it also came together after state lawmakers passed HF 802, which includes a provision that bans schools from teaching that the state of Iowa or the United States are systemically racist.

Lisa Covington is the director of the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy, a virtual class where students focus on African American history.
Courtesy Lisa Covington
/
Lisa Covington is the director of the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy, a virtual class where students focus on African American history.

“We decided to not wait for a school system or any institution to tell us what we should be learning, what our children should be learning and how,” Covington said. “The whole point of the Ethnic Studies Leadership Academy is to provide a space for Black youth to understand who they are and why we are important because the schools are incapable of doing so.”

On Monday evening, ten students will be recognized for completing the course at a ceremony being held at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City. The event will include a keynote by Denisha Jones, co-editor of the book Black Lives Matter at School. It doubles as a fundraiser for future programs and an effort to promote ethnic studies in Iowa schools.

When HF 802 was passed, Gov. Kim Reynolds said it would prevent schools from teaching critical race theory, a social theory that examines how racism is embedded in American institutions. Republican lawmakers in several other states have introduced or passed their own bills restricting how history and racism are taught in K-12 schools.

Iowa’s law does say that teaching about slavery, racism, sexism and racial oppression are allowed, but Andre Wright of Iowa City said teachers are less likely to go in-depth or off-script on those topics since it was passed.

“What it was is a preventative measure,” Wright said. “And so I'm glad that we're starting to build our own infrastructure and we can build our own systems that actually look and reimagine what education looks like.”

Wright’s eighth-grade daughter took part in the 13-week course. He said she felt motivated to be in a class with other Black girls.

“I think what she's learned in the class is that she can be outspoken and she can use her voice,” Wright said. “I feel like she's gained a sense of empowerment by being amongst others and seeing others speak out.”

A look inside "1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History."
Grant Gerlock
/
IPR
A look inside "1001 Things Everyone Should Know about African American History."

The ethnic studies course was organized by Black Lives Matter at School with funding from the Iowa City Human Rights Commission.

Last year, the Ames school district came under scrutiny from Republican lawmakers for hosting events during a Black Lives Matter at School week of action. District officials defended it as an attempt at “centering Black students,” but lawmakers accused the district of “indoctrinating” students.

Dawn Thomas of Coralville said she entered her daughter, who will be a high school senior, into the virtual ethnic studies course so that she could learn history centered on the African American experience directly from Black women.

“There's this massive misunderstanding that we're here bashing what white folks have done, and we're really, literally not talking about what white folks have done,” Thomas said. “This is about what Black people have done, and this is what we are doing, and this is what you can do.”

Learning about Black history, and doing it with other Black youth, can also improve how the student do when they are back in school, Covington said.

“A lot of this work is necessary because we know Black children, their self-esteem improves when they learn about themselves, when they have Black educators,” she said. “We know they feel better about themselves and their community.”

Covington hopes to offer similar classes again, but said it depends on what funding becomes available.