Home Education Policy How one student got her middle school to change its name

How one student got her middle school to change its name

When Anaya Zenad researched her school’s namesake, she uncovered a history that upset her. The school was named after Juan Crespi, a Spanish missionary who helped pave the way for the brutally oppressive California mission system in the 1700s, where Native American children were forced to work. Anaya and her peers decided they wanted their school to recognize someone who stood up for civil rights, rather than someone who played a part in taking rights away. So they renamed it after Betty Reid Soskin, a local civil rights icon and the oldest National Park ranger. This week we explore the story of how Anaya and other students made this change happen.

Transcript:

Anne Vasquez:

Welcome to Education Beat. I’m Anne Vasquez, executive director at EdSource. Naming public schools after historical figures is a long held practice in California and around the nation. It’s also fraught with problems, particularly during the country’s racial reckoning over the last year. For a long time, their troubled pasts were left the pages of history books. But when students at one bay area middle school recently embarked on a research project into their own school’s namesake, what they learned concerned them. Juan Crespi Middle School was named after the missionary who played a key role in the brutally oppressive expeditions of the 1700s. Native Americans were forced in Christianity. Children were forced to work. It’s those crusades that formed the California mission system.

Anaya Zenad:

I’m a person of color and it made me feel really upset. Why are we in school if our school name is about somebody that didn’t even care for us?

Anne Vasquez:

The student led effort to rename the school was a civics lesson in real time. One that joined students and faculty to engage the community in a series of discussions. What impact can a school name change have? Here is this week’s Education Beat with host Zaidee Stavely.

Zaidee Stavely:

When Betty Reid Soskin, the nation’s oldest national park ranger, turned 100, a California school district renamed a school after her. Betty Reid Soskin Middle School in West Contra Costa Unified is not too far from where Soskin works as a park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond. It’s a big deal to name a school after her, in part because she’s a black woman. Most schools are named after white men. It’s also important because of how the name change came about. Betty Reid Soskin once said, “what gets remembered is a function of who’s in the room doing the remembering.” The school used to be named Juan Crespi Middle School after a Spanish Franciscan missionary. But students decided they wanted to remember and recognize someone who stood up for civil rights rather than someone who played a part in taking rights away.

Zaidee Stavely:

This is Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools. I am Zaidee Stavely. This week, how one student took the initiative to change her school’s name.

Zaidee Stavely:

My colleague Ali Tadayon has been covering this particular school name change for several months from the time it was just a proposal. Hi, Ali.

Ali Tadayon:

Hi Zaidee.

Zaidee Stavely:

So tell me how you first found out about the possibility that this middle school in west Contra Costa Unified might have its name changed.

Ali Tadayon:

Well I first heard about it at a school board meeting. Anaya Zenad made a pretty compelling presentation at the school board meeting as to why this school should change their name. And this is before they had settled on a name change.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Ali, who is Anaya Zenad?

Ali Tadayon:

Anaya Zenad is a ninth grader who was attending Betty Reid Soskin Middle School last year and the year before. And she did a presentation on Juan Crespi, the namesake of their school and made a pretty big impact.

Zaidee Stavely:

So how did students like Anaya first get interested in looking at the name change?

Ali Tadayon:

Well, it started with a assignment. Every student at the school, both in seventh and eighth grade, were assigned to do a report on Juan Crespi, who the school was named after.

Anaya Zenad:

So everybody had to do a video, a slideshow or a letter about Juan Crespi to see if you wanted to keep the name Juan Crespi, or if you don’t and why. I chose a video.

Ali Tadayon:

So what did you learn about Juan Crespi?

Anaya Zenad:

Well, I learned that he was part, he was associated with the mission system. The mission system was horrible for a lot of people, especially people of color. There was a lot of abuse and he really didn’t care about the kids unless he got what he wanted, which was Christianity. Therefore he was selfish if you want everybody to learn Christianity which meant denying other culture practices.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Ali, tell us a little bit more about Juan Crespi who was this guy?

Ali Tadayon:

Well, Juan Crespi was a key figure in Spanish colonization in that he was one of the main chroniclers of the establishment of the mission system. He accompanied Junipero Serra and Gaspar De Portola on their expeditions and documented the voyages for the Spanish. And many believe that his telling of that time in history glossed over some of the brutality that we now understand was widespread across the mission system.

Zaidee Stavely:

Some of us learned about the missions in school, and we may not have heard about any kind of brutality. You know, what do we know about what happened in the missions?

Ali Tadayon:

Well, from some firsthand accounts that have come out, you know, over years and historians over the past, I’d say, maybe 20 or 30 years have really been trying to look more into this. We’ve learned that indigenous people were forced to give up their own cultural practices and learn Christianity. Indigenous children were subject to labor as young as 10. And there was also physical and mental abuse that they were forced into as well.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Ali, after Anaya researched about Crespi, she decided she didn’t want her school to be named after him anymore. Right?

Ali Tadayon:

Yeah. Once she realized who Juan Crespi was, and the system that he was a part of, she really didn’t feel welcome as as person of color going to a school that bore his name.

Anaya Zenad:

That didn’t make me feel too good. Because I’m a person of color. And it made me feel really upset that our school was named after a man that didn’t really support the children. Juan Crespi is not a leader. So if we’re looking up to Juan Crespi, that means we won’t be leaders. He was not caring or he was not welcoming. Towards the children and we’re going to school to learn and we’re going to school because we feel welcomed and we feel that we want to be the best that we can be. And having our name about somebody that doesn’t care for us, that doesn’t welcome us. It goes through our mind that why are we in school? If our school name is about somebody that didn’t even care for us, that don’t want us to be leaders.

Ali Tadayon:

Her presentation struck such a chord with so many people that the school administrators asked her to come back and facilitate a renaming committee meeting.

Anaya Zenad:

And I was like, yes, I would love to. I was doing a college class, a college course at that time, math 118. And I was skipping one of the classes to go to it. So my dad was a bit mad, but I enjoyed it a lot. Cause I was one of the hosts and I was like hosting the whole thing.

Zaidee Stavely:

And eventually Anaya went to a school board meeting where she presented to the board. And that’s where you first met her. Right?

Ali Tadayon:

Right. I was personally definitely struck by her presentation. She had a lot of confidence and spoke with passion and honesty. And I think that also resonated with all the school board members as well. They expressed just how good her presentation was.

Zaidee Stavely:

Here’s a clip from her presentation.

Speaker 5:

The process of learning about the man named Juan Crespi was not what I expected. I thought our school was named after somebody hardworking, kind, and caring. But then I realized our school name isn’t named after somebody that’s hardworking, kind, and caring. It makes me angry that we didn’t even know what our school name meant. And we use it every day. This means that we’re not putting time and effort into looking at the little things. We may be in eighth grade, but some of us actually do care. Others may not care for our school name because it’s just a name. But I do. And others do too because he treated natives and people of color horribly. This also relates to me directly because I believe that somebody has to step up and do something. Do what’s right. If that person has to be me then so be it I’ll be the one.

Zaidee Stavely:

What was the reaction overall? Were there any negative comments.

Ali Tadayon:

To my knowledge, no, there were no negative comments at the school board meeting. Anaya mentioned that, you know, she had maybe seen some negative comments online, but at no point up until then the principal said he had not received any pushback against the effort rename the school.

Zaidee Stavely:

So the school board approved the renaming process and the school began a voting process to pick a new name. Right? Students, teachers, and neighbors, people who lived around the school got to vote. Ali, tell me more about that.

Ali Tadayon:

Yeah. After some community meetings, they discussed potential names and the clear favorite was Betty Reid Soskin.

Anaya Zenad:

I’ve always thinked Betty Reid Soskin. I’ve always picked it.

Ali Tadayon:

Why is that?

Anaya Zenad:

Because she’s a leader. I thought she was leader. I was just like, okay. And she was an activist and she was working until 98. I don’t think nobody could work that long. And she wanted to work. She cared for people, which was really sweet to me. She cared for others and Juan Crespi did not. So there’s like a huge difference between Juan Crespi and Betty Reid Soskin.

Zaidee Stavely:

Teachers, students, and school officials were looking for someone who had a local connection. They also had to be inspiring to students and stand for social justice. Betty Reid Soskin fit all three criteria. She’s an east bay icon. She’s the nation’s oldest national park ranger. During world war II she was a file clerk in a segregated black unit of the boiler makers union, which had been historically all white and had resisted granting full membership to black workers. After the war ended, Betty and her husband built a home in an all white suburb of California’s Diablo Valley. They received death threats for it. She was an activist and songwriter during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Here’s a clip of her singing “Your Hand in Mine,” her song about the civil rights activist, Fannie Lou Hamer. She’s accompanied by the Oakland Symphony.

[Betty Reid Soskin sings “Your Hand in Mine”]

Zaidee Stavely:

Soskin also played a major role in establishing the national park where she works. As the only person of color on the planning committee she made sure that African-American workers, men and women, would be remembered at the site. On her tours she addresses the racism faced by many workers who were brought from the south to build ships in Richmond. And also how workers came together across racial lines.

Betty Reid Soskin:

98,000 black and white southerners, who won’t be sharing drinking fountains for another 20 years back in their places of origin. That won’t happen until 1960. And we’re talking 1942. And no time for focus groups or diversity training. They have to negotiate every single hour of every day in order to get through it, without killing each other. And nonetheless, they do that. And that acceleration actually propelled the social change from the Bay Area out into the rest of the country where it still radiates out to this day.

Zaidee Stavely:

So once the school decided on the new name they made the change. And just a few weeks ago, they had a big ceremony for the name change, which was also on Betty Reid Soskin’s birthday, right?

Ali Tadayon:

It was on her birthday and she was in attendance.

Zaidee Stavely:

So tell me a little bit about that ceremony.

Ali Tadayon:

Well, the ceremony was very moving. School board members and State SuperintendentTony Thurmond, and others from the community spoke about Betty Reid Soskin and the importance of changing the name to somebody who has had such an impact on the East Bay, such a positive impact. Superintendent Thurmond was actually brought to tears as he spoke.

Speaker 8:

One of the things I have been privileged to learn about Mrs. Betty Reid Soskin is she is a humble leader, a modest leader, whose actions speak louder than anyone’s words. I’m a parent of a student who graduated from this school, the school formerly named Crespi Middle School. And I’m proud to be a parent of an alum of Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. Our children should not have to live with representations that bring hate and harm to them. Students deserve to see someone who looks like them. And for far too long, our students of color have been forced to deal with, I would say, miseducation. And the reality is that we have people in our community who represent the best of what our African-American, our Latino students, our native American, and Asian-American Pacific Islander students should know about their ancestors and their contributions. But it’s a benefit for all students. And so it’s special to me

Ali Tadayon:

Anaya who also spoke at the ceremony was able to meet Betty Reid Soskin in person for the first time.

Anaya Zenad:

At first I was amazed cause she’s like really small. I thought she wasn’t going to be that small. And I realized, you know, she’s a hundred. And second I was like amazed that I could actually see her face to face. She said, thank you. She was really sweet about it. She was like your daughter… she told my dad that your daughter is amazing. She’s going to do wonderful things in life.

Ali Tadayon:

Anaya was also very excited to change the mascot.

Anaya Zenad:

It was the stars to the bears and that’s pretty cool. Like Betty bears. I like that. It’s kind of catchy.

Zaidee Stavely:

So Ali West Contra Costa Unified is not the only school district looking at changing names in California. I know San Francisco Unified was looking at changing a whole lot of their school names in their district. What other school districts are looking at this?

Ali Tadayon:

Woodrow Wilson elementary in Richmond changed its name to Michelle Obama Elementary School. And then elsewhere in the states in San Diego, Junipero Serra High School has changed its name to Canyon Hills High School following a student petition. And the Tamalpais Union High School District school board voted to change the name of Sir Francis Drake High School, named after the English Explorer and slave trader, to Archie Williams High School, after a former math teacher at the school who had been a World War II flight instructor and an Olympic gold medalist.

Zaidee Stavely:

There has been quite a bit of pushback against school name changes in some communities. One former student at Anaya’s school commented on one of Ali’s articles that he disagreed with the decision to change the name, saying it was destroying a part of California’s history. But school names don’t really tell us history. They’re more about honoring people. Giving a school a certain name shows we value that person and what they stood for. It’s not about erasing history, but about who we want to honor.

Zaidee Stavely:

So after watching this whole process at Betty Reid Soskin Middle School, what’s your takeaway. Is changing a school name important? Does it have a real impact?

Ali Tadayon:

Well, names are always important. And I think if you ask Anaya or the principal of that school, or many other people who work there and attend there, they would definitely say that changing the name has had an impact. But I think the greatest impact that this story has is on the power of students. Anaya felt very empowered after she led this campaign and did this on her own. And I think that’s going to stick with her the rest of her life and inspire the other students of that school to make change in their community, as well. After this experience, I asked Anaya what message she has for other students.

Anaya Zenad:

Stand up and do what’s right. Don’t be afraid to share your voice because most everybody’s voice is amazing. And you could do anything by just standing up and sharing your voice with the world.

Zaidee Stavely:

Ali, where is Anaya now? I think she has graduated Betty Reid Soskin Middle School, right?

Ali Tadayon:

Yeah. After graduating Anaya has gone to Middle College High School, which is a high school housed on the Contra Costa College campus in San Pablo.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you so much for being with me Ali for telling us the story.

Ali Tadayon:

Thank you, Zaidee.

Zaidee Stavely:

Thank you for listening to this week’s episode of Education Beat, getting to the heart of California schools, a production of EdSource. Our producer is Coby McDonald. Special thanks this week to Anaya Zenad, Ali Tadayon, and our director Anne Vasquez. And of course, to the amazing Betty Reid Soskin. Our theme music is from Blue Dot Sessions. This episode was brought to you by the Chamberlin Education Foundation. I’m Zaidee Stavely. Join me next week and don’t forget to subscribe.

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