Burbank Teachers Push for Diversity, Inclusivity Through New Group

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The Burbank Unified School District is dedicated to its diversity, equity and inclusion initiative, and it is not alone in its crusade.
It has earned support from the community, most notably a small group of teachers who call themselves the Justice and Equity Team, and they’re ready to assist their fellow colleagues in providing a more diverse, inclusive environment for all students.
“We thought of several names but decided on JET,” said Victoria Cuseo, a Spanish teacher at John Muir Middle School. “It was snappy, and we really liked it.”
Cuseo spearheads the group along with Mojgahn Emamjomeh of Burbank High School and Ericca Dent, a 2nd-grade teacher who was one of 10 educators named 2020-21 Teacher of the Year by Los Angeles County in October.
After attending several California Teachers Association racial and equity committee meetings last summer, Cuseo said she felt it was time to form a similar group in her community and was later given the go-ahead by Burbank Teachers Association President Diana Abasta.
“During this pandemic, we’ve seen gaps in equity and struggles with teachers and students,” she said. “I was feeling like we really needed it, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement. It really highlighted all the ways that we can be doing better, to be more equitable and more focused on social justice in schools.”
Dent and Emamjomeh didn’t hesitate to join Cuseo to help lead the effort, and the trio held its first meeting virtually in September with nearly 20 teachers in attendance.
“One of the things we wanted them to know is that we don’t know everything, so let’s learn together,” Emamjomeh said.
It was important to Dent that the group create a safe space that would encourage teachers to speak freely and “examine within themselves and identify their own biases.”
“That’s really where all of this work starts,” she added. “It’s a lot of self-reflection, and then thinking about the changes we can make in the classroom.”
The three began implementing those changes in their classroom for the year, even if it is done virtually. Emamjomeh, who teaches dance at BHS, added more history to her lessons to give students added context and background regarding music and culture.
“I grew up in Southeast Asia,” said Emamjomeh, who is of Iranian and Mexican descent. “I think I was lucky to experience different cultures. Being bicultural and living in a different country, I think I was lucky to experience different cultures. In the United States, so many students grow up and don’t travel. They’re not exposed to other cultures.
“That is my inspiration. There is a big world, and you don’t know a lot of it.”
After a summer during which many Americans flocked to the streets in protest of police brutality and systemic racism, Dent pondered her approach in addressing social issues with her young learners.
“These are big questions,” said Dent, who is from Virginia. “How can we be better humans? And from there, start looking at smaller questions that can be taught [through subjects] such as government. I showed them how different people celebrate holidays around the world. I also included different read-alouds with different voices; not just different characters, but different authors as well.”
Cuseo took a similar approach and included more Black and indigenous stories in her curriculum in an effort to “decolonize” typical Spanish language lessons.
“Spanish is Eurocentric,” she said. “It’s a language of colonizers. I had to figure out how to decenter and include different stories from different people. I also wanted to make sure they knew the differences of Hispanic and Latinx.
“It’s a slow process because you have to do a lot of research yourself with materials you are not given.”
The same could be said about the DEI efforts of JET and the entire district. The three often remind teachers to be patient and not waver when the conversation gets more difficult. The small steps taken now to achieve the ultimate goal of providing a safer, more diverse and inclusive environment will go a long way.
“This takes time. Change takes time,” Emamjomeh said.
JET believes that the change starts within and expands into the classroom and, ultimately, the district. Superintendent Matt Hill provides updates on the district’s DEI plans during board meetings, and Dent is glad to see that commitment.
“I like the direction, where everything is going and what they’ve been doing,” Dent said. “Over the summer, everybody was all for it, but I remember thinking, ‘How long is this going to last?’ OK, we’re saying it, but where’s the action? Now that I’m seeing things that are happening in the district, I see there’s action behind it. It’s not just a statement that was made.”
One of the biggest stands made by the district was excluding five novels — “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Cay,” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” — from instruction after families filed complaints about the racial components of the books being taught in classrooms.
“I think a lot of thought went into it,” Dent said. “It wasn’t an easy decision [for Hill], but he made it taking into account how students felt about these books.”
Hill is appreciative of the support from JET and has been one of the group’s biggest supporters.
“It’s really inspiring,” he said. “They are doing the hard work of critically looking at their pedagogy and learning and making sure what they do in the classroom is for all students. I’m impressed with the work they’ve been doing, and it can be even more powerful by including more teachers.”
That is one of many goals set by JET. Cuseo said she hoped to have at least one teacher representing each BUSD school to assist the efforts.
“Everyone has a role to play in serving all of our kids,” she said. “That’s our job, and we just want to do it well.”