Marianna Zoellin | Photo by Joseph Bristow
By Ryan Loyola
Sixteen-year-old Marianna Zoellin remembers having only one book written by a person of color assigned during her first 10 years in public education.
That was Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” a novel about the relationships between four Chinese-American mothers and daughters, during sophomore honors English. But as a Brazilian Latina, Zoellin never read about anyone who looked like her. Sure, maybe a short story once in middle school, but never a full novel that captured the Latina experience.
Now a junior at Pacific Grove High School, Zoellin scrolls through TikTok pretty often. Right now, her “For You” page is filled with anime, but her feed also shows an interest in politics.
That’s how she came across a TikTok looking to recruit district leads for Diversify Our Narrative, also known as DON, a program that aims to introduce diverse literature into school curriculum. Intrigued, she filled out the Google Form in their bio. Before long, she became the DON lead for her high school in the predominantly white community of Pacific Grove.
“I was a little bit nervous because I didn’t know entirely what I was getting into, but mostly excited to start an initiative like this at my school,” Zoellin said. “Because of COVID, I couldn’t do a lot of the other activities that I had done, and I was excited to have something meaningful to do and that would actually bring a positive change to my school.”
Founded in June 2020 by two Stanford students amidst a nationwide push for social justice, DON’s mission is to bring institutional change in secondary education through expanding curriculums with diverse and anti-racist texts that educate students about race and racism in the United States. DON currently has more than 800 chapters nationwide and 200 in California.
While it reaffirms the identities of students of color, being exposed to characters and authors of color is good for white students too. “Having diverse literature, students will be able to see that and apply that to themselves,” Zoellin said. “Because you’re taking in that information so you’re not watching all this whitewashed stuff; And it’s supposed to help eliminate racism between peers and amongst students.”
Zoellin holds weekly meetings of the Pacific Grove chapter on Sundays, starting before the school year began in early August. Representatives from the national DON team spent time observing the first two meetings to make sure that things went smoothly, but after that, the training wheels were off. Twelve students have continued to regularly meet to achieve their goals of changing school curriculums to introduce diverse and anti-racist texts.
Some DON chapters, like the one in Albany, California in the Bay Area, have gone the route of lobbying individual schools and school district board members and because of that, DON Albany will have collaboratively raised about $8,000 to buy new materials by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Most chapters focus efforts on encouraging school districts to adopt a resolution requiring the use of diverse texts in curricula.
While the language of the goal is relatively simple, the task of adding new diverse texts is much more nuanced, Zoellin said.
For months, Zoellin had only been able to lobby for DON at her own school and was relatively ineffective in engaging elementary and middle schools in the district. Pacific Grove’s DON chapter was also established after the curriculum for the 2021-22 academic year was finalized. Educators said that DON’s suggestions for books that teachers should adopt tend to be new releases that are more expensive, leading some instructors to balk at having to justify those purchases.
While a formal resolution hasn’t been presented to the school district board, Zoellin’s efforts have garnered support from Pacific Grove High School Principal Lito Garcia and English teachers Nicole Bulich, Jenna Hall, Karinne Gordon and Jessica Grogan.
Although teachers weren’t told to include new books to their curricula for the current academic year, this didn’t stop them from diversifying assigned readings on their own. The efforts of Zoellin and the members of DON Pacific Grove only reinforced their decisions.
“We’ve had that in our teaching practice of trying to use diverse texts in our classrooms. But it was just really wonderful to see our students taking on a leadership role, and recognizing that that was really important to them for their own education,” Gordon said. “I get goosebumps seeing that they are taking on that responsibility and being leaders in bringing forward additional diverse text, and not just in the English department, but across the curriculum.”
Due to the students’ push for diverse texts, assigned readings from PGHS English classes now include “Dear Martin” and “The Hate U Give,” which both look into the African American experience with racially charged police violence, and “There,There,” which details the experiences of Native peoples growing up in urban spaces.
The importance of diversifying readings is also backed up by academic research. A 2015 report from Ralph J. Wilson Jr. School of Education at St. John Fisher College said that “using multicultural literature opens students’ eyes to unique and different cultures that they may not otherwise experience” and that it is “important that students gain insight into other cultures and race to prevent unnecessary prejudices from being formed.”
The city of Pacific Grove is around 86 percent white and is much less diverse than other Monterey County cities like Salinas. But as demographics shift and smaller communities like Pacific Grove analyze themselves after protests from the summer of 2020, teachers and students are beginning to have conversations about how to respond to calls for social justice.
“I grew up in this area, and a lot of our students don’t ever leave the area. And I feel like there’s a real bubble here,” said Bulich. “And I think my goal as an educator is to make sure that students who may not leave the Monterey Peninsula have experiences that widen their perspective and get them outside this bubble. That is a moral obligation for me.”
On March 4, Zoellin and a few members of her team finally had the chance to address the Pacific Grove Unified School District Board on DON’s goals and proposal for the district during the bimonthly board meeting. There, in a first for her, she faced public skepticism towards DON’s proposal.
One parent wasn’t enthusiastic about the group being given the ability to demand changes in curriculum and for schools to provide resources on how to be “actively anti-racist.” He said that the word “anti-racist” is code for critical race theory, an academic movement that holds that racism is systemic in American institutions and examines how everyday society intersects with race through the lens of social justice. Last September, the Trump administration attacked the approach in an executive order banning its use in training plans in federal agencies.
“I was raised to not see people by color … Growing up here in (Pacific Grove), everybody of every color could all be friends and it didn’t matter,” the parent said during public comment. “Now our children are being taught to divide everything by race and victimization and create victim classes condescending to just about every minority group and it’s really sad to see.”
Zoellin later said she was rather shocked by the comment — not because someone disagreed with what DON was doing, but because the parent didn’t believe students should seek curriculum changes and was surprised that someone publicly brushed aside the idea of racism.
“There is racism at our school like that,” she said. “Maybe it didn’t happen when you went to school, but it happens while I’m here. There are kids saying the ‘N’ word constantly and I didn’t get called moustache girl as a child for nothing,” Zoellin told Voices after the board meeting. “It is a little concerning. And there’s just a lot of casual racism that goes on. So I don’t understand how someone could just dismiss the fact that it happens.”
“I think this notion of colorblindness is simply ignorant and outdated. There is systemic oppression. That’s not something anyone made up. It is something that exists, and it is something that needs to be taught because ignoring the issue is not going to fix anything,” she added.
Zoellin did get a better response from voices she considers to be more important, the five board members and others at the meeting. PGUSD Board President John Paff wrote in an email that he was quite impressed with DON’s presentation at the board meeting and that their goals were “both laudable and reasonable.” Zoellin feels confident that a resolution of support will get board approval at a future meeting.
If the resolution does pass, there’s still work that Zoellin wants to get done. Pacific Grove’s DON wanted to do a speaker panel in December but that fell through. However, the chapter is still working on encouraging the discussion. The group also hopes to continue emphasizing the importance of diversification in STEM, and members will continue to gather online with their book club, which highlights authors of color writing about their cultural experiences.
The next book on their reading list …
“The Color Purple.”
Sydney Brown contributed reporting to this story.
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