In Connecticut, third- and fourth-graders study the history of their state. In many schools, students choose to research one person or event from an approved list. The people on that list have been mostly men, and all white.
But because of an unusual collaboration, it now includes Native American, Latino and African-American men and women.
Wendy Martin, a teacher at West Hartford’s Whiting Lane Elementary School, gave instructions one morning in May to students working on their Connecticut history projects.
Student Kyle Ribando chose to research someone recently added to a list of approved people. That list used to consist mostly of Connecticut's usual cast of historical characters: Ethan Allen, Benedict Arnold, Nathan Hale and Mark Twain.
“I'm doing my Connecticut report on Joseph Cinqué,” Kyle said. “He was the man who won the Amistad revolt, and he and his friends won the right to go back to Africa in Supreme Court."
Kyle had never heard of Cinqué before Martin showed the class a PowerPoint with all of the people and places kids could choose to investigate. Kyle is happy with his pick.
“Cinque’s a symbol of anti-slavery, and that's what this country stands for,” Kyle said.
“I thought that was really cool, 'cause I like dancing, so I researched her,” Angelina said.
Other additions to the Connecticut history list include Gladys Tantaquidgeon, a Mohegan medicine woman; painter Juan Fuentes-Vizcarrondo, and Walter "Doc" Hurley, a four-sport athlete and educator who created a scholarship program.
About a third of Martin's class chose to research someone new to the list. But she said she wasn't pushing her students to do so.
"I'm really not focused on, 'Oh! this person is a person of color. This person is not,' " she said. "I really try to keep it open, so that they have the access and the options, but that they are able to connect on a personal level."
Still, Martin is quite sure students are picking up on the fact that more than white people have contributed to Connecticut's history.
“In my opinion, if you are not showing a diverse list, it's sending an unstated message. And this is showing a much more powerful message without saying it,” Martin said.
The diversifying of the Connecticut history list came about in part because of Kari Nicewander, senior minister of Immanuel Church in Hartford and a Whiting Lane parent. Three years ago, she and her husband had come to the school to see their son and his fellow fourth-graders present their research projects.
All of the historical figures portrayed were white.
“My husband and I were talking about it, and were really disturbed, because teaching children that the only people who matter in the history of Connecticut are white is teaching white supremacy,” Nicewander said.
So she decided to raise her concerns to their son’s teacher.
"We knew the teacher. We loved the teacher," Nicewander said. "She's a great person, who is certainly not intentionally teaching white supremacy."
The teacher immediately agreed with Nicewander. But she wasn't in a position to change the curriculum.
In order for a name to make it onto the approved list, there had to be research done, and support materials written at a fourth-grade level.
Nicewander offered to fix that problem -- she'd find new names, research the people, and write them up. Meetings followed, with curriculum specialists and the Whiting Lane principal, Karen Kukish.
At first, Kukish did not believe there weren't already people of color to choose from.
“I said, 'Well, of course there is.' Because I'm thinking we would never have it any other way," Kukish said. "And she said to me, ‘Name one.’ And I couldn't name one. I couldn't name one. And so I'm sitting there extremely embarrassed, I think, because this is something I had seen year after year, and it never dawned on me.”
Nicewander enlisted not only other parents, but also educators and writers from her congregation to create a dozen short new biographies.
Their efforts were welcomed by a group of curriculum specialists already at work on a new resource for students across the state called Where I Live CT. The bios Nicewander and her crew developed are in the process of being added to that website. Many are already up.
And Kukish agreed to have Nicewander spearhead a series of racism training sessions -- some for teachers, some for parents and kids.
Nicewander hopes the developments at the school help people feel more energized to take steps to unmask institutional racism.
“This was just a story of a bunch of people saying, 'Oh I can do this, and I can do this and we can do this,' and then doing something,” Nicewander said.
Nicewander regards racism as a problem too huge to fix in our lifetimes, but she hopes that by working together we can begin to dismantle it.