Dale Allender, co-editor of the high school ethnic studies textbook Our Stories in Our Voices

The Sacramento State University assistant professor discusses the important of letting diverse groups speak for themselves

PHOTO by Michael Mott

Dale Allender’s home was built by a Japanese internment survivor. It hosted the Black Lives Matter Sacramento Freedom School reception. It’s also where Sacramento State professors, high school teachers, legislative aides and activists crafted the state’s—likely the country’s—first high school ethnic studies textbook. That process began after a Sacramento City Unified School District survey found students were concerned about interethnic student violence and an education that lacked cultural relevance. Allender, a Sac State assistant professor, co-edited the textbook with the university’s Asian American studies program director, Gregory E. Mark. Our Stories in Our Voices weaves together rich local histories from perspectives of people of color. In the wake of police shootings, a divisive election and ongoing racist violence, Allender hopes more schools join in: “If it can happen here, maybe it can happen elsewhere,” he said.

When did you first learn about ethnic studies?

In elementary school. A nonprofit gave me a child’s dictionary of mythology. I went to 12 different schools and would always go into the libraries and look for more mythology. I began to see Greek mythology, and if I was lucky, Native American, but I kept wondering where mine were. I didn’t find it until I took black lit classes in college.

Why is ethnic studies important?

The brain works by going from the familiar to the unfamiliar. … Hearing stories of what people have done—for survival, for thriving, for cultural sustenance—it should inspire folks to understand that they don’t have to live in a colonial structure, whatever their background. They can form coalitions. … Let’s give folks the narratives, information and activities to deconstruct and reconstruct their world. That’s really what we’re doing.

Does ethnic studies change with privilege?

We’re talking about empathy. There’s a biological basis for that. Another neuroscience principle is Neural Darwinism. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Unless you really work with those neurons and that mindset, you have limited capacity. One goal of ethnic studies is a sense of indigeneity. That everyone has a sense that, “I come from somewhere.” You should also have a sense of understanding hegemony: That what we experience isn’t the natural order of things; it’s human-constructed with power and purpose toward an exploitative end. The next sense is decolonization—that people have done things by themselves and worked with others to change that. That’s how we structure the book: Knowing who I am, knowing where I’m from, knowing where I am and knowing where I’m going.

What might be surprising to people who don’t know Sacramento’s ethnic histories?

There’s a chapter in the book on redlining, right here in this community. It talks about neighborhoods, covenants, individuals, companies and laws, and is called “No Utopia,” written by Damany Fischer. He connected me with Billy X, an assistant to [Black Panther leader] Huey P. Newton who lives here with one of the four Black Panther archives. People also don’t know about Black Panther history in Sacramento. They marched on the Capitol, yes, but there were also strong community and literacy programs. People might not know about the trials and murders, when a police officer was shot in Oak Park and the Panthers were blamed. They were eventually exonerated. … Other chapters talk about Japanese farming and Chinese railroad workers forming alliances with United Farm Workers. People might not know, in general, about the richness of California’s Native American peoples. These folks are still around and can reach back a generation or two to family who knew these stories.

What happens if we don’t become more empathetic?

Repeated experiences change the brain. We are seeing the effects of that. I don’t think we were about to overcome racism, but we were moving to a different place. … If we don’t do things to heighten empathy and strengthen our students’ and communities’ sense of self and self-worth … we can go way back. It’s scary, what could happen. In this era, we have to be doing it differently. The increase of violent interpersonal attacks … I feel like we took a sharp right. And you can correlate the timing with the increase in social media hate speech. That’s why we need clear and critical information about diverse ethnic communities, coming from the point of view of those communities, that is evidentiary-based.

How will the book change going forward?

They wanted more stories about interracial, mixed folk. There are two chapters already: One, a social science-y piece, and the other a personal narrative by Tony Tinker. I liked her narrative a lot: She talks about being a little girl in this neighborhood and talks about names of streets, neighborhoods and schools, through a black-white lens. But they wanted more. A number of African-American female students and Latino students said they were glad to have their stories told. Several white students expressed a sense that they were glad to learn more stuff. Some white students asked, “Where am I in this?” I don’t think we’ve done enough of that in this book.