Common Hour with Curtis Acosta

Education for Social Change in Action

By Professor Andrea Dyrness

On Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012, the Educational Studies Program at Trinity College was proud to present Curtis Acosta, an educator from Tucson, Arizona’s banned Mexican-American Studies program, who came to share his first-hand experience developing and teaching in this unique program and later organizing with students to defend it. Prior to Curtis Acosta’s visit, students in my Educ 316: Education and Social Change class knew that the Mexican American Studies program was declared illegal in 2011, found in violation of a new Arizona state law that prohibited classes designed for particular ethnic groups or advocating ethnic solidarity. (The law, HB2281, was signed by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer in May 2010.) They knew that the program taught students critical consciousness through a culturally relevant curriculum based on Mexican and Chicano history and literature, and that it incorporated the ideas of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed they read during the first month of my class. But Mr. Acosta’s visit—first to our class and then for a public presentation during the common hour—conveyed a key piece of the story that we would not have otherwise learned: the tremendous life-changing impact of the program and its banning on the young Chicano/a students in Tucson. As a professor who has been following the events for the past few years, what most struck me about this presentation were the powerful images and voices of empowered teenage students, and their skilled and courageous activism in the public sphere. In discussions with my students afterwards, this was also what most stood out to them. As the following reflections show, Acosta’s students embodied the connection between knowledge and action, between education and life, that is at the heart of education for social change.

Curtis Acosta's presentation, "Banned Histories: Mexican-American Studies and the Struggle for Educational Justice in Arizona" was amazing. His method of teaching and relationship with the students embodied all of the theories in Paulo Freire's Pedogogy of the Oppressed and truly changed the lives of these teens. He was so humble and it was apparent that he was speaking from his heart. The clips that he showed of the students' protests were heart-wrenching and powerful. They truly believed in the program and they were not afraid to take a stand. I was astonished by some of the blatantly racist statements that were made by Arizona's officials and the amount of disdain and contempt they had for the program.

This presentation made me think about the type of banking education that I received for most of my years of schooling. The Raza/Chicano studies course gave the students an outlet to think and take control of their educational experience. The convinction and poise that they showed throughout the protests and times of adversity shows that Acosta has taught them well. As a high school student, I was rarely given the chance to take a look at society's flaws and to understand my cultural history. Acosta's program promoted the importance of social change, which empowered these students to feel like they have the ability to positively change the world. In American society, there are structural boundaries that prevent many people from realizing their power as human beings. This program gave the students a voice.They voluntarily took their education outside of the classroom, which shows that it has had a significant impact on their outlook on life. This presentation has encouraged me to try to enact change in society in any way possible and it has further solidified my choice to pursue a career in public administration. Having an education is useless if you are not going to attempt to make the world a better place with the knowledge that you have acquired. - Xonana Scrubb, Class of 2014

Curtis Acosta’s visit was nothing short of inspirational.  After listening to Acosta speak about the Mexican American studies program and seeing how the program had affected students, the element of the program which stood out to me most was its commitment to transform the students’ communities and to work towards a better future for the Chicano population.  During his presentation we were able to see his students being active citizens, participating in politics and powerful activism such as their creative sit-ins at school committee meetings, protests, and interviews with politicians.  It was amazing to see the goals of the program come to life.  The education these students were getting was so empowering!  The students were so infused with this passion and feeling of power, that they were capable of and willing to making a difference, which was the true goal of the program.  Reflecting upon my own high school education, the goal was never betterment for my community, but to get a good job in the future.  I know that my schooling would have been much different and more effective had the goals of the Chicano/Raza studies program been implemented.  What this shows is that there is a fundamental misplacement of emphasis in the goals of the majority of schools, as I am not Chicana and am part of the “dominant” group.  The goal of community betterment found in the Chicano/Raza Studies Program should be implemented everywhere and for all cultures.  This is the type of education we all need.  An infusion of life, not a transfer of facts.  -Danyelle Doldoorian, Class of 2014

 The testimonies of students and educators in the Mexican-American Studies program brought home the words of Chicano activist César Chávez, “Once social change begins it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person that has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Mr. Acosta’s common hour talk can be viewed online (https://vimeo.com/50741543) and was co-sponsored by Educational Studies, American Studies, History, Multicultural Affairs, La Voz Latina, Sociology, Hispanic Studies, and Psychology, in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.

For more information on Mexican American Studies in Arizona, see the Precious Knowledge film, available at: http://www.preciousknowledgefilm.com/ (and in the Trinity College library), or visit SaveEthnicStudies.org.