Making education more inclusive in Sonoma, one book at a time
Ask a typical teenager what’s on their mind, and you’ll get a spectrum of adolescent concerns: What’s new on TikTok? Did my Insta story get likes? Will I ever learn to draw a cat eye with liquid eyeliner?
But Victoria Hernandez, 15, and Lily Gelb, 14, are not typical teens. They spend their time pondering weightier things. At the moment, what’s occupying their thoughts is the fact that many local children haven’t had the advantages they’ve had, and the likelihood that that inequity may penalize those kids forever.
Specifically, Hernandez and Gelb are concerned about what they see as a dearth of culturally inclusive reading materials in Sonoma’s public schools, books in which marginalized communities might recognize themselves. Race, class, gender, orientation: many of the books available to young readers disregard the diversity of the melting pot in favor of monochromatic characters and themes where white, middle-class, and cisgender is the norm.
“I’m Mexican,” Hernandez said. “The first time I read a book with a character like me in it was in the fourth grade.” That book was “Esperanza Rising,” described in its Amazon blurb as a “Mexican ‘Grapes of Wrath.’”
The book had a profound impact on the 9-year-old Victoria. “It gave me such a warm, happy feeling. I still remember it. I thought after reading it that maybe other kids might see me. That maybe other kids could put themselves in my shoes.”
The lack of access to relatable literary heroes even supplanted young Victoria’s imagination. An avid reader and creative writer as a child, her own stories had been overtaken by the narrow scope of her reading. “When I wrote stories, the characters would always be white,” she said.
When Hernandez met Gelb, who is Jewish, at Altimira Middle School, the two began brainstorming ways to correct what they saw as the district’s flawed reading curriculum. They discovered an organization called GENup, and what had been theoretical began to take actionable shape.
GENup is a student-led social justice organization that encourages young people to advocate for educational change. Kids establish local chapters in their towns to meet concrete goals, then work with regional “anchors” to meet them. The organization references their model as a “two-pronged approach,” foundational to eventual local policy reform. In the fight to promote an educational system that puts students first and allows equal access, GENup is harnessing the bottomless optimism and energy of kids all over the country to change the entrenched—and some might argue archaic—systems of public education.
While Gelb ended up choosing to attend Sonoma Academy, she and Hernandez were both planning to attend Sonoma Valley High School after graduating from Altimira last year, and so the high school’s reading curriculum seemed a good place to start.
After reaching out to the school district superintendent and multiple teachers at Sonoma Valley High, the girls soon learned that changing a high school’s curriculum may be beyond their reach.
“This was at the beginning of the pandemic,” Hernandez said. “There was a lot of chaos in people’s lives.”
After months of failing to find willing adults to introduce new titles to the high school reading curriculum, or even entice any other peers to join their cause, both girls briefly considered giving up. “I thought to myself, ‘Should I just quit?’” Hernandez said.
But quit isn’t part of the girls’ DNA. They kept pushing forward, looking for allies.
Hernandez’s mother, a family engagement coordinator with the La Luz Center who collaborates with local school principals as part of her job, suggested they reach out to El Verano principal Maite Iturri.
“We went down there and Ms. Iturri said right away, ‘Let’s get some books into the hands of some kids,” Hernandez said.
Iturri put Hernandez and Gelb in contact with Angela Ryan, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation (SVEF). “One week later we get an email, saying ‘Congratulations! $1,000 has been granted for your proposal,’” Gelb said.
The money will allow Gelb and Hernandez to supply each of the 17 classrooms at El Verano school with three new culturally inclusive grade-level books. Used for daily “silent reading” rather than as curriculum, getting new materials into elementary classrooms proved easier than getting them onto high school syllabi. “Elementary schools are easier because it’s not curriculum, “ Gelb explained.
Within a few weeks SVEF reached out again, offering another $700 in funding for Hernandez’ and Gelb’s GENup project. The additional money will allow them to furnish the classrooms at Prestwood Elementary in the same way, and eventually, they hope — with more funding still—all of the campuses in the school district.
Hernandez and Gelb spent much of the last year researching titles for classroom teachers to choose from. “We’ve easily spent 500 hours on this project so far,” Hernandez said.
“Hours and hours of research,” Gelb agreed.
By year’s end, they expect, local children will be pulling titles like “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners,” “Sofia Valdez, Future Prez,” and “El Deafo” off their classroom bookshelves, finding diverse characters like themselves in their pages.
“We made a book list for every grade level, dealing with gender, sex, ethnicity, race and disability,” Hernandez said.
“We wanted to present diversity on all issues,” Gelb added. “It must be so weird not to encounter yourself in your reading.”
While they work to stock local classrooms with culturally inclusive books, Hernandez and Gelb will keep meeting on Zoom with their GENup contemporaries from other cities, collectively strategizing about how to remake the world.
“One hundred to two hundred like-minded individuals on each call,” Hernandez said.
Gelb smiled at her collaborator, proud of what they’ve accomplished. “And not an adult in sight,” she added.
Contact Kate Williams at email@example.com