Young Women's Leadership Academy.
In San Antonio, DON groups have been formed at Incarnate Word High School, Central Catholic High School, and Young Women’s Leadership Academy (pictured here). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

With the new school year underway, some San Antonio high school students have more changes on their minds than just those necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Joining with a growing national initiative called Diversify Our Narrative (DON), students from at least three local high schools are looking to bring lasting curricular change to their campuses. 

DON was founded by Stanford University sophomores Jasmine Nguyen and Katelin Zhou in June as protests for racial justice around the country sparked conversations around inclusion and representation.

The group aims to participate in building new educational models that reflect a diversity of voices and are explicitly anti-racist in order to effect lasting institutional change. DON founders are motivated by the belief that large systemic and societal changes can come from key changes in the educational system.

DON has quickly grown into a national movement with more than 5,000 student organizers in over 700 chapters nationwide.

In San Antonio, DON groups have been formed at Incarnate Word High School (IWHS), Central Catholic High School (CCHS), and Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA). Using materials, templates, and instructions from the DON website, these student groups have created the beginnings of what they hope will be lasting change. 

Incarnate Word High School

IWHS junior Lilliana Orozco, who started the school’s chapter in July after hearing of DON on Instagram in June, said the effort is important to her because she was “looking for something that I could do to make change, starting in my own school community.”

Madison Ramos, also a junior at IWHS, was asked by Orozco to help start a chapter at their school. Ramos said that she was eager to be involved because she sees it as a way to further educate herself and to “use my white privilege for good.”

The DON student group at IWHS, which was granted status as an official student club, has grown to more than 50 members since the start of the school year.

The group has presented the results of a student and alumni survey along with their recommendations around anti-racist education and BIPOC representation in the school’s curriculum to administration and faculty leaders. 

The group has met via Zoom with members of the English department on several occasions and has already begun offering text, vocabulary, and lesson suggestions to be implemented as early as this school year. The group has also been able to speak to large student and faculty groups to introduce the initiative.

Orozco said that the IWHS school community has been “incredibly receptive” to the initiative. The few concerns raised thus far have centered on time constraints in Advanced Placement classes, where curriculum is dictated to a large extent by what’s on the Advanced Placement test for a particular course.

IWHS English teacher and instructional leader Kelly Daughtry has worked closely with the school’s DON team since before the start of the school year.

“The girls are interested in changing the systems that deny access, deny rights, and deny truth, and I couldn’t be prouder as an educator, a mom, a woman, and a person who is also learning from their efforts,” Daughtry said. “They are aiming to begin a legacy of conversation and action.”

Orozco hopes the IWHS chapter can be a model and resource for students at other schools where faculty and administration may not be so immediately receptive.

Young Women’s Leadership Academy

Nayeli Arizpe, a junior at YWLA, said she founded a chapter at her school because watching the protests over the summer left her wanting to do more than just “posting on social media and signing petitions.” 

“Change can really start in our education system and in the books we read,” Arizpe said. 

Carolyn Lanford, also a junior and an early DON member at YWLA, said that when she began talking with peers about the idea of reading more works by BIPOC authors, she found that conversation inevitably shifted to The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. 

She said she thinks that particular book became a touchstone in her dialogues with other students because “that was probably one of the only texts we had ever read that was written by a multicultural or a BIPOC author.”

The diversity of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) demands an accordingly diverse curriculum, she noted, one that features opportunities for all students to “read about people that look like them and to read about people that have similar experiences.” 

Some people, according to Arizpe, have expressed worry that the initiative is “some kind of brainwashing” or have more practical concerns about implementing such changes at the district level.

But for Arizpe it’s a path to a richer, broader, and more inclusive education for all. She said the initiative could help the teachers learn alongside students as they endeavor to explore new texts and seek out diverse narratives together.

The YWLA DON group currently has 36 members representing six SAISD campuses.

While email communication with administrators at YWLA hasn’t yet led way to meetings or strategy sessions, Arizpe said that the group did get a chance to meet via Zoom with SAISD’s diversity officer Tiffany Grant.

She said she was reassured by the district’s seeming willingness to listen and by the fact that Grant expressed support for the group’s goals of diversifying representation in the district’s curriculum. 

In lieu of an interview with a district representative or a YWLA administrator, the district offered the following statement on the initiative:

“The district’s diversity officer has met with the student group. We encourage our students to become leaders in their communities, and this group’s initiative to advocate for culturally relevant textbooks is of great interest to us. We look forward to continuing this conversation with them.”

According to Arizpe, students from schools around SAISD have expressed interest in starting chapters and collaborating as a larger district group as well. She believes this growth will allow the initiative to become more representative of the district’s population. 

Central Catholic High School

Albert Wylie, a junior at CCHS, said that he started the school’s DON chapter as a way to make a concrete impact on the future of his school.

He hopes that people will “set aside politics and just look at the exclusionary nature of what we think and teach about culture … in schools, and how that affects how we treat each other.”

“Changing up our curriculum is a great way to open up people’s perspectives,” Wylie said.

While the initiative is in its early stages at CCHS, with 5 members at the moment, Wylie said the team has met productively via Zoom on a few occasions with Dean of Students Ali Goljahmofrad.

Goljahmofrad praised the initiative and said that its basic tenets fall in line with the school’s commitment to adaptation, service, social justice, and peace.

He also said that he believes “starting slow, creating spaces for students to use their voice, and adjusting” is essential, as a top down mandate of any kind wouldn’t be as effective as a student-led, grassroots process.

In Goljahmofrad’s estimation, adults can sometimes “get in the way of progress because we feel we know the way forward since we have more experience.” That’s why he feels “those in charge of the future should be in charge of shaping the future they want to see.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.