How mandates create the harmony for The Consortium and the soundtrack of inclusive education in New Jersey
by Lizandaa Alburg
In April 2022, the National Education Association awarded NJEA a three-year grant titled “Cultivating Community, Action, Justice, and Understanding through the NJEA Consortium: Connections. Community. Curriculum.”
The Consortium is composed of NJEA staff members and three cohorts of member design-teams. It is partnered with more than 25 colleges and universities, museums and historical commissions, and social and racial justice advocacy organizations. The Consortium leads an innovative initiative that intends to infuse historically marginalized identities into K-12 teaching and learning.
Curriculum alone is not enough; the Consortium will also focus on developing high-quality professional learning for members and foster meaningful community conversations that will prepare all stakeholders to understand, embrace and celebrate New Jersey’s diversity.
To understand the work of The Consortium and its mission to create seamless, representative curricula and resources for educators statewide, we must begin with the basic histories and intentions of News Jersey’s diversity mandates.
The melodies of the mandates
The New Jersey Holocaust education mandate, created by the state Legislature 29 years ago, laid the foundation for the ensuing Amistad (2002), LGBTQIA+ (2019), Persons with Disabilities (2019), Diversity and Inclusion (2020), and Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI, 2022) legislative mandates. All were born out of passion, urgency and a strong need to include the histories, contributions and experiences of diverse communities in the education of all New Jersey students. Implementing the mandates has been slow and steady.
After 20 years, many New Jersey educators are unaware of the Amistad Commission and its efforts to infuse African and African American voices into K-12 education. The new executive director of the Amistad Commission, Dr. Patrick Lamy, is building on the legacies of Assemblymen William D. Payne and Craig A. Stanley challenging the false narrative of “your problem, your issue” and replacing it with a mindset of “our contributions, our history.”
“All I learned in school excluded the beautiful, contributions of many communities,” Lamy says. “I am proud that today New Jersey is leading the charge to intentionally develop more inclusive and diverse K-12 curricula.”
Carol Watchler, community outreach coordinator for The Bayard Rustin Center in Princeton and a retired educator of 37 years, began laying the groundwork for LGBTIA+ rights decades prior to legislative mandates. Her many accomplishments include successfully lobbying the state Legislature to strengthen the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination in 1985 to include sexual orientation as one of its protected identities, taking a pivotal leadership role in the incipient NEA Gay and Lesbian Caucus (later the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer+ Caucus) in 1988, and founding the NJEA Lesbian and Gay (later LGBT) Caucus in the early 1990s.
About a decade later, Watchler championed the creation of what became an NJEA standing committee: the NJEA Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee. Watchler testified for positive LGBTQIA+ legislation and continues to advocate for sexual orientation and gender identity concerns in schools and communities.
“We opened conversations with fellow educators by hosting a retreat where education and education-adjacent folks joined us to raise questions and offer potential solutions to an unfunded mandate that we knew would be crucial to improving educational and wellness outcomes for LGBTQIA+ youth,” says Kate Okeson, an NJEA Consortium Design Team Ambassador, who used awareness, conversations, and relationships to further the LGBTQIA+ legislation. Okeson, a teacher and association president in Rumson-Fair Haven, is also a founder of Make it Better for Youth, a nonprofit organization in Monmouth County comprised of education professionals and community partners who wish to improve outcomes for LGBTQ+ youth in New Jersey and around the county.
Make Us Visible NJ, which advocates for thoughtful and comprehensive inclusion of AAPI studies into K-12 curriculum for New Jersey public schools, researched previous New Jersey education mandates and modeled the AAPI curriculum after the LGBTQ+ and Disabilities bill. The group reached out to legislators, rallied, held press conferences, formed coalitions, and formed alliances with more than 60 organizations including AAPI Montclair, Asian Youth Act, Jersey City AAPI Coalition, Livingston AAPI Youth Alliance, and the Parents and Children Education Club.
Lamy pointed out one stakeholder group we should never overlook: “We forget the people we serve are students. It is important to include their perspectives.”
Make Us Visible NJ not only included students but empowered them in their work to create the AAPI legislation.
“We are so proud of our student activists,” says Sima Kumar, a West Windsor-Plainsboro teacher and Make Us Visible NJ education advocate. “They talked to their teachers, school boards, organized their fellow students, created video testimonies, wrote op-eds, called and wrote to legislators and testified at the Statehouse. They are amazing and melted legislators’ hearts. Their voices are incredibly important.”
A four-part harmony
While the mandates may seem to focus on vastly different topics, there are common themes that underpin each, such as:
- Awareness and education: Raising awareness about experiences, history, culture and struggles of marginalized and underrepresented communities.
- Elevating the importance of diversity: Highlighting the importance of diverse values and different perspectives by acknowledging the contributions and experiences of all communities, leading New Jersey to become more inclusive and equitable.
- Promoting empathy and understanding: Encouraging empathy, connections and conversations among diverse groups of people and promoting mutual understanding and respect. Working to create a more cohesive, compassionate society.
- Advocacy for justice and equality: The mandates advocate for justice and equality for these communities. Whether promoting greater representation, fighting against discrimination and oppression, or ensuring that these communities have access to the resources they need to thrive, New Jersey is committed to creating a more just and equitable society.
“One assumption I was shocked to confront in the public school space was the belief that literature by AAPI authors does not merit the same literary value as works by such authors as Fitzgerald and Hemingway,” Kumar points out. “The underlying assumption informing this belief is that English is a second language for AAPI authors, so the quality of their English prose is somehow inferior. While it is true that for some AAPI authors English is a second language, for others English may be their only language.”
Experiences such as these reinforce the need for inclusive curricular for all New Jersey students.
Inclusion: The soundtrack of education in New Jersey
Steve Koumoulis, a history teacher in Middletown Township and a NJEA Consortium Design Team Ambassador, notes that inclusive curricula means that the entire story is being told.
“As a history teacher that is the most important thing to me,” Koumoulis says. “The inclusion of all perspectives is important because when a group is left out of a story there is a gap in understanding and truth telling. With inclusive curricula, student learning has a greater sense of purpose.”
The first step in the journey toward inclusive curricula is self-reflection.
“It is important to know ourselves, understand our own identities and dwell in them to appreciate their meaning in our lives—then open our eyes to other’s identities,” Watchler reminds us.
How might we explore and express our intersectional identities without diminishing the identities of others? The Consortium Design Team Ambassadors are collaboratively exploring the answer to that question as they use an Understanding by Design framework to develop a macro-curriculum and representative resources.
“Part of the answer comes from our individual willingness to walk into each day with an understanding that we ‘don’t know what we don’t know,’” Okeson reflects. “I cannot know about my colleagues, my students—meaning that knowledge is not always there for me to see, so I need a community to walk with where I commit to sharing and listening and learning in connection with people. And when I do that as a teacher, showing that authority and knowledge is not absolute, I model for my students that this exploration and expression is a journey, not a single space to be occupied.”
Learn more about the Understanding by Design process.
The hook: The Consortium
We live in times where civility is a lost art, causing tremendous challenges when engaging in conversation with others who hold different worldviews.
“Had we invested in understanding each of us better and teaching from a lens of diversity, we would have been at a better place,” says Lamy. “With inclusive curricula we are headed in the right direction.”
The time for us to see, hear, respect and work together is now. Let’s begin with the unifying connections, community, and curricula of the Consortium.
After all, multiple voices sweeten the song!
Lizandaa Alburg is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information
The Summer Curriculum Institute, will be held the week of July 17 both in person at Paterson University and virtually. Visit njamistadcurriculum.net for details.
Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice
Email the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice at email@example.com or visit rustincenter.org and facebook.com/rustincenter to submit a guest speaker request, arrange for a field trip, or other programs, and for opportunities to volunteer/participate in the Princeton PRIDE Parade on June 17.
Look for Design Team Ambassador-presented workshops at the NJEA Impact conference on July 12, visit the Consortium space on the Exhibit Hall floor at the NJEA Convention, or send an email of interest to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Holocaust Commission surveys the status of Holocaust/genocide education; designs, encourages and promotes the implementation of Holocaust and genocide education and awareness; provides programs in New Jersey; and coordinates events that provide appropriate memorialization of the Holocaust on a regular basis throughout the state. Visit nj.gov/education/holocaust.
Make Us Visible NJ
Join the E Pluribus Project (TEPUP). This grassroots coalition advocates for integrated curricula that reflect the diversity of our state and our country. Write to email@example.com.