ING founder Maha Elgenaidi’s comments at the California State Board of Education on the model curriculum on ethnic studies

By Maha Elgenaidi, founder and Chief Innovation Officer

March 18, 2021

Good morning. Thank you State Superintendent Thurmond for the invitation to speak with you all today.  Based on AB 2016, we are very happy to see the first version of the ethnic studies model curriculum being voted on today. This comes after years of input by community members of which some continue to seek additional changes, and I expect that the process will never be fully complete because the subject matter of ethnic studies is both deeply personal and directly impactful to marginalized groups.

Speaking as an Arab and a Muslim American, I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s at a time when Arabs were taught about, not in the context of the rich history of Arab Americans but rather in the context of American foreign and domestic policy interests. So in the 70’s, Arabs were framed in the context of the Oil Embargo by the Saudis, and the October War between Egypt, Syria and Israel where Arabs in both cases were portrayed as ‘enemies of the state’ working against the interests of the US, which was and continues to be interests in oil.

That image of the Arab as the enemy continued to get worse and became conflated with Islam and Muslims after every major conflict in the Middle East where the US was involved, from US involvement in Iran (not an Arab country), which led to the hostage crisis in 1979, to our military involvement in Lebanon in the early 80’s, to the first Persian Gulf War in the early 90’s, our invasion of Iraq in the early 2000’s, followed at home by the NSEERS/Special registration program for people of the Middle East, the war against ISIS in Iraq, and so forth.

This all led to the point in the presidential elections in 2016, as many of you will recall, where the candidates were literally competing with each other on who disparaged Muslims the most, all of which continue to reinforce a completely distorted representation of Muslims and Arabs today.

And these misrepresentations didn’t begin in my lifetime. They began as early as the Crusades and really take concrete form during the colonial period, and become incorporated in the creation of “whiteness” in the US. So distorted narratives about Arabs and Muslims who are now racialized as non-whites have a very long history in the US.

An Arab woman in hijab like myself, who is Muslim and non-white, experiences the cumulative effects of multiple forms of discrimination which for our children in schools is especially critical. For educators, much of this requires knowledge and lesson plans.

These and other reasons are what makes ethnic studies so important and so relevant. It’s not just about marginalized groups. It’s really about understanding America from the perspective of the American people.

Therefore, the CA government attempting to do this is quite remarkable, although not without its challenges as we’ve all experienced.

And so this current ethnic studies model curriculum is a good start for the government, but it is also a work in progress. And it will be one of many useful documents that will be made available by the state, including documents by community groups, that will guide teachers in their teaching of ethnic studies in the classroom.

Our organization, Islamic Networks Group (ING), is one of these community groups offering material for educators. We were happy to contribute to the California Department of Education (CDE) a number of lesson plans relating to Islamophobia and its relationship to other forms of bigotry. In fact, two of our lesson plans were incorporated in the model curriculum specifically on the topic of dominant narratives.  You can find the rest of our anti-racism lesson plans on our website here.

We were also very happy to join the CDE’s “Education to End Hate” program by conducting a webinar on Islamophobia, which provided educators with teaching tools. And again at our website under our Educator School Kit, we have dozens of other lesson plans relating to Muslims in the context of religious and cultural pluralism. And we also provide educators with panels of live speakers and presenters on dozens of related topics.

Finally, I want to end with sincere gratitude to State Superintendent Thurmond and his team for being great allies to work with. I know how hard they’ve worked and the pressure they were under in pulling it all together.

I encourage the board to approve this version of the model, and as I do community groups to continue working with the CDE and each other on this incredibly important project of ethnic studies for the sake of our children.

Maha is the founder of Islamic Networks Group (ING) and author of training handbooks on outreach for American Muslims as well as training seminars for public institutions on developing cultural competency with the American Muslim community. She received an M.A. in religious studies from Stanford University and B.A in political science and economics from the American University in Cairo. She has taught classes on Islam in the modern world in universities such as the University of California at Santa Cruz, and has been recognized with numerous awards, including the “Civil Rights Leadership Award” from the California Association of Human Relations Organizations, the “Citizen of the Year Award” from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, and the “Dorothy Irene Height Community Award” from the NAACP-Silicon Valley. She is currently a member of the Council of Advisors for the Freedom Forum that helps shape American views on the First Amendment; the County of Santa Clara’s Hate Crimes Task Force; and the Ethnic Studies Committee of ARUSD in San Jose, CA. Read Maha’s blog here.

ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.