Diversify Our Narrative: Social Activism in the Digital Age

Illustration by Sofia Rizkkhalil

When I was in the tenth grade, my Honors English teacher assigned Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It was the first time that a book written by a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) author was used in my instruction, and more to the point, the first time anti-racist literature was used educationally to further my understanding of the Black experience in America. 

While some high schools incorporate BIPOC authors into their curricula and place the same emphasis on the educational value of their corresponding texts as those penned by white authors, the harsh reality is exposure to these narratives can often be limited for students before they get to college. The Diversify Our Narrative campaign hopes to rectify that.

Co-founded this past June by two Stanford rising sophomores, Katelin Zhou and Jasmine Nguyen, the DON campaign fights for the inclusion and integration of “anti-racist and diverse texts in English and Literature classes” within the United States. Galvanized by the nationwide protests that arose in response to recent waves of racial injustice, Zhou and Nguyen questioned where they learned about racial intolerance and the systems that are in place that perpetuate these inequities. They soon realized that it was not until they reached college that their education touched on these topics. From there, the idea for Diversify Our Narrative was born. 

The DON campaign is student-led and hopes to target school boards across the nation by mobilizing organizers and facilitating the lobbying process by providing the blueprint to take action. Regardless of whether a student attends a public, charter, or private school, those looking to get involved will find everything they need to get started on the Diversify Our Narrative website. The site features various resources ranging from action guides that carefully array every crucial step in organizing district appeals, to their recommended reading list, and all necessary templates for a myriad of petitions. 

Conducive to their chief objective, the first proposition that the group makes in their primary petition to diversify curricula mandates that “a minimum of at least one book in every English/Literature and Comprehension class be by a person of color AND about a person/people of color’s experience(s).” Not stopping there, the petition reinforces DON’s cognizance of the anti-Blackness rhetoric and sentiment within our nation and desire to address the ever-present racism through education by advocating for “at least one of the mandated books [to] be about the Black experience.” 

In addition to the strategies the DON executive team employs to simplify petitioning school boards, a lot of their success in organizing can be traced to their social media presence. In just under three months, their Instagram page alone has reached over 108K followers. While Zhou feels that part of the reason they have gained such traction is due to the sharable nature of their calls to action and the accessible language used in the educational posts, she attributes a lot of their success to the “momentum created by all the Black activists.” Correspondingly, Nguyen notes that “now that there’s all this conversation, we can take this power and change our school systems thanks to the Black and Brown organizers that have paved the way for this to happen.”

When asked about the posts on the page, Zhou explained the aim of their graphics extends past simply trying to get people involved in DON’s mission; they try to “create any sort of educational content that relates to something in the education system… and to race.” From their debriefs on certain books to their posts about specified microaggressions, this practice is exemplified by the diverse topic sets featured on their account. 

Now, as with any large social media presence, the group has also faced backlash in the comments section from students and adults not in favor of the proposed changes. Opponents often contend that the books read in classrooms should not be about the race of the author, rather the quality of the writing and that the “classics are classics for a reason.” Some even assert that the initiative is attacking white authors.

However, in response to those critics, Zhou wants them to know that DON is “not trying to eliminate authors because they’re white, we’re trying to expand the scope of what we’re reading in the classroom.” Failure to incorporate texts written by BIPOC into our education means that “we’re missing a fundamental component of our understanding of the world we live in,” Zhou elaborated. 

“Failure to incorporate texts written by BIPOC into our education means that ‘we’re missing a fundamental component of our understanding of the world we live in.'”

Addressing the classics argument, DON’s Co-Director of Communications and Yale rising sophomore—Katherine Matsukawa—wants people to consider that “who defined them as classics in the first place has a lot to do with white normativity… we’ve been trained by the systems in place that white equals normal, but there are books that are equally good and insightful that offer a different perspective.” Ultimately, the team is incredibly intentional about the language they use to avoid misconceptions. Even so, to help dispel these errors, they often further clarify their position by interacting with followers on Instagram live, answering direct messages and producing more educational content.  

With the campaign gaining so much traction, it is unsurprising that DON has already seen some of the fruits of its labor. This past July, organizers were able to get on the official board meeting agenda of the Manteca Unified School District. Moreover, there have been a “handful of districts speak at their board meetings during the general public comment section and a lot of them have hit 1,000 signatures” on their petitions, said Matsukawa. Nevertheless, the initiative is still well on its way to accomplishing its primary directive.

As the implementation of this initiative ultimately happens in the classroom, support from educators is pivotal. Fortunately, Zhou notes that “for the most part, a lot of the teachers the school districts have reached out to have been supportive,” even going so far as to sign the petitions themselves. 

While DON has yet to get a school board to approve its proposed changes, its reach, solidified in such a short period, represents the importance of timing and intersectionality when it comes to racial issues. Sandy Nguyenphuoc, DON’s Director of Design and incoming UCSD freshman, was one of the people “inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement… it helped [her] see that [she] needed to step up and take action,” sparking her involvement with the campaign. 

Beyond that, Diversify Our Narrative represents a victory for mobilization in the digital era. In an age where social media activism is quickly gaining momentum, ensuring the success of any given cause requires easing the burden for those looking to get involved. Getting people to take that initial action can be heavily dependent on steps like reducing the time constraint or creating a link tree for easy access.

For some, sharing an educational post might be the extent of their advocacy. Others might want to become further involved but are not necessarily equipped with the knowledge on how to go about doing so. That is where Diversify Our Narrative truly shines; it encourages activism on all levels and lays the roadmap to serve as a guide. Skarlette Castejon, Co-Director of Communications and UCLA rising sophomore, explained that “many students of color experience real life issues within the education system, but don’t know what measures to take to change them, and this campaign gives them a way to do that.” 

Moving forward, Zhou stressed that organized efforts to combat racism through education bring us “just one step closer to having more empathy and understanding for different groups of people.”

Fortunately for me, my teachers in high school were always extremely cognizant of that. They knew that knowledge is not limited to a single source; they could give us John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald while also exposing our minds to the works of Zora Neale Hurston and Isabel Allende. Learning from one text was never mutually exclusive to learning from another. 

As a biracial student, I knew the world looked different than the one painted solely by the classics, but analyzing the work of BIPOC authors helped contextualize that reality. More importantly, it made me feel grounded in the realm of academia, where often so many students of color can be made to feel as if they are on the outside looking in. It was a bridge between my education and my ethnic background, one where I felt the pages of my narrative represented. 

While there is an inherent power in that, there is also no denying the general benefits of being exposed to anti-racist and diverse texts early on in your education. It will indisputably focus the lens through which you view the world, make you more receptive to perspectives that differ from your own, and shed light on realities that you might have otherwise been oblivious to. We should all want a future where the way people think of racism has nothing to do with where they fall on a political spectrum, where a history of oppression is not something to be debated or simply acknowledged, but remedied. Although calling for the inclusion of these texts is still ways away from the finish line, it is a necessary step in the right direction. 

If you are looking to get involved with Diversify Our Narrative, I encourage you to visit their website to learn more about how you can help change the literature curriculum in your district.

illustration of boy sitting at desk with image of Royce Hall in a dream bubble


illustration of boy sitting at desk with image of Royce Hall in a dream bubble

Illustration by Alvaro Hernandez

In the affluent Westwood, Los Angeles, I find myself surrounded by young adults and college students just like myself. But as pretty as Westwood is, there is still something off. I look around and compare myself, and rarely do I see similarities. Even on short walks to Target, I am guaranteed to pass by students wearing designer clothes. The streets are full of boosted boards and fancy cars, and the bright store lights radiate capitalism. It is like high school again where I found myself singled out. 

In high school, I was amongst the few students of color in my classes. This didn’t affect me at the time because I was unaware of the importance of everyone’s voice being heard. I was too worried about myself and what was going to affect me. However, each year I would see the same types of people in charge and making decisions. My mindset shifted from myself to my community, and I began to finally question why there was no change to this formula. I wanted to hear people like me represent our views and ideas in conversation, but first there needed to be more people from my background to even have a chance. My high school attracted affluent, white students from the suburbs so having more Latinx students was a challenge in itself. That’s why after getting accepted into college, I hoped to see more diversity and relate to more people like me. 

Coming to LA was a dream for me. I would spend the next four years of my life living in Los Angeles, going to school, and enjoying everything that Southern California has to offer. Most importantly, I knew that I would be more immersed in Latinx culture. I imagined so many students of color would be around, both in class and around campus. They would be like me, enjoying the college life but also working towards a degree. While I definitely saw an improvement in the number of Latinx students, it still lacked diversity for me. I wondered why, after everything I dealt with in high school, there was again another struggle of representation I would have to deal with during college. Living in an affluent part of Los Angeles made me realize how lucky some people end up becoming; they are rich and wealthy enough to buy nice clothes and expensive cars. For the vast majority of people, they are surviving. Paying the bills and providing for the family comes first. Suddenly, education is out of the picture. 

Through public schools, most families do not have to worry about spending excessive amounts of money on their child’s education. They can go from kindergarten to high school and still receive quality experiences. I went to public school and benefited from every free thing offered to me. After high school, pursuing a higher education becomes expensive. Money is usually the biggest issue in attending college because families have to pay for tuition, room and board, and expenses for textbooks and other miscellaneous items. The University of California Admissions page estimates that for in-state students, the average cost is $36,000. The CSU campus cost of attendance reports that undergraduates have to pay $5,742 before room and board fees. All these costs and fees paint the picture of higher education as only being accessible to the wealthy. It becomes a struggle for the average family to send their kid to college and afford the whole expense. I was fortunate enough to be given the chance to go to UCLA, but for many, the accessibility of college is limited by the cost it required to attend. 

By not offering equal access for all students to continue their education into college, we leave the system to choose from a disproportionate amount of applicants, to begin with. The fear of college costing too much turns away students who are afraid they will not be able to pay for their education. I feel affected by the results of this. I go to class in Young Hall, CS50, which seats hundreds of students. Seats that are filled with privileged students, and the class is lacking in diversity. I walk into La Kretz 100, and I see the same results. It is never the class that matters, but the whole school has issues with diversity. I almost always find the same types of students in my classes, and struggle to connect when there’s a lack of a broader range of students. 

It saddens me that despite how much money circulates in Westwood and other affluent areas, there are still students that have issues paying for a college education. People have more than enough money to buy luxuries, but on the opposite spectrum, people are fighting to pay rent and bills. College is not as accessible as I imagined it. College becomes the dream, the imagined idea that if they did have money, they could go. 

Academia is Getting Hard

Intellectual masturbation. I first heard this phrase from a student who spoke at a demonstration against police brutality at Meyerhoff Park in UCLA. The student who spoke these words expressed that the gathering would only be productive if the work against these injustices committed on People of Color continued outside that immediate space.  He described the gathering of students as an “intellectual masterbation,” because it revolved around discussion and not enough long-term action. This was some months ago, yet these words stayed with me ever since.

This winter quarter I attended a lecture titled “On the move: The Changing Dynamics of Mexico-U.S. Migration” by Professor Filiz Garip from Harvard University. Her new book addresses the question of why Mexicans migrate to the United States. Professor Garip argues against the heterogeneity placed upon migrants and their reasons for migration.

Her lecture was interesting but the scholars from the audience began to ask many questions pertaining to her data and her methods. This back and forth of question and answer felt so useless. Intellectual jargon kept being thrown around and I began to feel like I was wasting my time.

What is the point of all your criticism, suggestions, and overall discussion? How is this even going to connect back to the people you are actually talking about? What does all this even mean to them?

Intellectual masturbation.

I left that lecture as soon as it was over and felt like I wasted an entire hour and a half of my life.  I proceeded to the Chicana/o Studies Research Center for a Nahuatl Studies workshop that was part of a two-day program. The workshop was hosted by the UCLA Nahuatl Studies group composed of graduate students and faculty. Many of the students and faculty leaders were white, with a couple of male Latinos in attendance.

One graduate student began the workshop by very briefly introducing the document we looked at. She failed to introduce the other students and faculty that belonged to the group, nor the purpose of the group itself. She handed out copies of the document, which the group expressed was not worked on for 6 months. As soon as everyone had a copy of the document, the graduate students and faculty went straight to work. Instead of a workshop I felt like I had intruded into a group working party. I was completely excluded. The group went straight into trying to figure out specific lines and words by using technical methods that I was completely unfamiliar with. So I just sat there, trying to listen and observe their processes.

I felt like everything was their interpretation. Thus, I did not fully trust these sources because they are being translated by outsiders. The irony: here we have a bunch of white people trying to figure out what their ancestors purposely destroyed some hundred years ago.

Intellectual masturbation.

All this Ivy tower privilege disgusts me. I do not want to remain in this space.  Most of the time this knowledge is kept here and not relayed back to the communities it belongs to.

Educational beacon of light in Boyle Heights

People United to Enrich our Neighborhood Through Education (PUENTE) learning center is a not-for-profit organization located in Boyle Heights that focuses on the improvement of its community by providing educational resources to predominantly first-generation students and immigrants.

Sister Jennie Lechtenberg was the pioneer of the organization. Sister Jennie began her mission when she discovered that the students who struggled most in school came from households that lacked English proficiency, which resulted in “establishing the foundation for PUENTE as a family-oriented, multi-generational educational organization.” ­

I took a first-hand look at PUENTE as an organization where I was able to interact with the multi-surface composure of the learning facility. PUENTE underlines the organization’s goal of providing primary or supplementary educational program to improve graduation, literacy and employment rates of their students. Boyle Heights is predominantly composed of Latino residents, where the average median household income is about $33,325, which is low for the city of Los Angeles and the county. The low-income has a lot to do with the minimal educational attainment of constituents in Boyle Heights. In a community where less than 5% of its residents who are of the age 25 and older have a four year degree, and less than 33,620 out of 99,243 have a high school diploma there is a representation of how learning facilities like PUENTE serve to combat against the alarming statistics.

The first day I stepped into PUENTE, I was marveled by the architecture of the building, which stands out compared to the surrounding buildings. The crisp glass-like building is two-stories tall with several classrooms and a charter kindergarten. The structure of the learning center’s program is tailored to help families by allowing them to leave their children downstairs in school, while they participate in the English Second Language (ESL) classes upstairs. I was able to alternate between both groups and I found that they both embraced the opportunity of education, regardless of their age. I interacted with students who were only four years of age but they demonstrated a sense of willingness to learn.

Upstairs there were retired people learning English. One of the students was a retired cafeteria worker, who worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District for about thirty years. She told me that all her life she wanted to learn English but since she had to provide for her family she never had the opportunity, and now that her kids were all grown up she finally pursued her dream.

PUENTE also incorporates other programs to their facility such as after-school enrichment programs, high-school tutoring, SAT preparation, adult high school diploma preparation, job training preparation, job referrals, computer repair A+ certification and even programs to help veterans.

In total, they have served over 85,000 students since their inception in 1985. The administrative staff that runs the organization are all dedicated to serve others through education, which highlights a principal problem in the Boyle Heights area. Puente in the Puente in spanish means bridge in English which is exactly what the learning center is doing, slowly diminishing the gap between the lack of education in low-income communities and the achievement of students.

To find out more about the PUENTE learning center and their mission to help students, feel free to check out their website:

Parents Challenge Language Barriers in Parents’ Weekend

Expressing support for their children, Latino, monolingual parents eagerly attended UCLA’s 2014 Parents’ Weekend. While filling lecture halls and beaming with pride over their college students, Spanish-speaking parents proved the language barrier was not a hurdle.

UCLA’s 15th annual Parents’ Weekend, held from October 31st through November 2nd, is a family event that draws in thousands of families from around the world. Unfortunately, this three-day event offers lectures and workshops exclusively in English.

Despite the language barriers of Parents’ Weekend, Latino, monolingual parents make a point to attend the annual event.

Among such parents are Hector Hernandez and Jovita Hernandez, both of whom originate from Michoacán, Mexico. Despite a limited understanding of English, they make an effort to attend the event.

For the Hernandez family, Parents’ Weekend allows them to rally behind their daughters Alia Hernandez, a second year human biology and society major, and Elena Hernandez, a UCLA alumna with a degree in history.

Because their daughters are first generation college students, they feel the need to go above and beyond to express support for their children.

“Es importante alimentar al bebe, hasta en los 24 años,” said Hernandez.

Originally from El Salvador, Pedro Alarcon Quijada and Rosa Alarcon Granadeño also make sure to participate in Parents’ Weekend to support their son, also a first generation college student. They note that parents’ support is crucial for graduation and retention rates.

“El tiempo de calidad con nuestro hijo es muy importante. El se tiene que sentir soportado por nosotros para que no sienta que no se va a graduar,” said Pedro Alarcon Quijada.

After attending lectures and expressing gratefulness for UCLA, both families expressed desire for Spanish presentations, “o por lo menos aparatos de traducción,” said Quijada.

Despite a limited understanding of English, both families enjoyed the kind environment created by UCLA, where parents from numerous backgrounds stand united in support of their students.

“Es una gran experiencia poder conocer a profesores tan educados. Estoy muy agradecido por lo que UCLA ha hecho por mis hijas,” said Hector Hernandez.

We are all Ferguson. We are all Ayotzinapa.

On October 22, 2014 Black and Brown UCLA students joined forces to stand against police brutality and to demand justice for the 43 disappeared students of Mexico.

The students met in Meyerhoff Park in front of Kerckhoff Hall at around noon.  The rally began with a brief introduction to the issues being discussed and was followed by a moment of silence for those who have died at the hands of the authorities.  Then various participants took turns reading the names of those who have been killed by police in the United States as well as the names of the 43 missing Mexican students.

The demonstration consisted of displaying artistic representations of tombstones with pictures of Black and Brown youth who have been killed by police.  The students also placed photos of the students from the Escuela Normal Rural of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero, Mexico next to the tombstones.

In addition, other participants took the initiative of writing chalkboard messages on the walls of Kerckhoff Hall in solidarity with the protest.  However, UCLA administration immediately requested a cleaning service to wash out the messages, even before the students finished writing them.  Out of consideration for the worker, the students decided to help him clean the walls and wash out the messages they had themselves written.

At the end of the demonstration, everyone was invited to join the march in Downtown Los Angeles for the National Day Against Police Brutality.  Meanwhile in Mexico, thousands of people around the entire nation marched for the students of Ayotzinapa.

Here are pictures from yesterday’s demonstration at UCLA.

Created with flickr slideshow.

October 22 National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality

On October 22, 2014,  the Stop Mass Incarceration Network from Southern California led a march against police brutality from Olympic and Broadway to the Los Angeles Police Department in Downtown Los Angeles.  The Stop Mass Incarceration Network is a project of the Alliance for Global Justice and is a registered non-profit organization.  However, the origin of the fight for a “National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation” dates back to 1996 with the October 22 Coalition.

This march took place at 2 pm on Olympic and Broadway.  Once at the Los Angeles Police Department in front of the City Hall, various people articulated their demands and frustrations along with their sorrow for those who have been killed at the hands of the authorities.


Created with flickr slideshow.

Outraged Demonstrators Demand the Return of Ayotzinapa Students

On October 9th, about 35 demonstrators met in front of the Los Angeles Mexican Consulate, located near Macarthur Park, demanding justice for the 43 disappeared Mexican students in the state of Guerrero. These students were taken by the municipal police of Iguala and members of the criminal organization, Guerreros Unidos.

On September 26th, students from the Normal Rural School from Ayotzinapa were assaulted by municipal police officers. The students were headed to the city of Iguala in public buses to raise funds for their school until they were intercepted. In the assault, police killed 6 students and wounded at least 25.

Days later, some burned and dismembered bodies were found in various pits located in the hills of Iguala. Guerrero’s chief prosecutor stated that at least 17 of the 28 bodies in the pits pertain to the normalista students that disappeared, but there are reports that more tests are being ran to identify the bodies. Still, the 43 students are currently missing. The school is known for being an educational institution whose students actively organize manifestations against unjust policies and corrupt governments.


The collective of activists from various organizations in Los Angeles began the demonstration at 11:00 am. With a microphone in hand, speakers expressed their grievances toward the Mexican authorities for their negligence and complicity in the disappearance of the students.

“This is not the first time that the government attacks its own people and kills our own sons, our students. Have we forgotten? Have we forgotten the year 68? Who remembers it?” said Lilia Trujillo to the crowd of protesters.

Lilia Trujillo lived in Guerrero for 25 years. While studying in the University of Chilpancingo as a biology major, she met “estudiantes normalistas” from the Normal Rural School from Ayotzinapa and described them as prominent social fighters.

“They have fought, they have manifested, and they fund their own education because the government does not cover their educational expenses,” she said.


After several protesters spoke, Assigned Counsel Juan Carlos Mendoza Sánchez came out to address the protesters. The crowd argued with Sánchez about his responsibilities to the events in Iguala until he agreed to sign a letter addressed to Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto that repudiates the crimes of the state and municipal government in Guerrero against the normalista students. The letter also made a list of demands, among them the resignation of current governor of Guerrero, Ángel Heladio Aguirre Rivero, thorough investigation of the assassination of the students, and punishment towards the culpable.

Jali Mejia, a member of the student activist group Yo Soy 132 from Los Angeles (which originated in Mexico as a result of student’s inconformity to the Mexican political system) and a native to the state of Veracruz, retrieved the letter signed by Sánchez. She hopes that the protest will bring attention the repression that is happening in Mexico.

“If the government will not change current situation, then the people have to take responsibility to make these changes,” she said.


After the signing of the letter, Ana Quintero, named all the missing students. Each time a student was named the crowd lifted their fist and chanted “En pie de lucha!”

This demonstration was one of many others that spread throughout various cities in the world including Barcelona, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Bogota, and London. There has also been protests and indignation in Mexico, including San Cristobal de las Casas, where Zapatistas mobilized in a silent march.