Influencers Opinion

Ethnic studies remains controversial. But keeping the conflict positive can produce results

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I have made no secret that the surest path to achieving equity in our public education system is paved with friction, the kind that is laid by people fearlessly committed to doing what is right. While a revised ethnic studies curriculum in California’s K-12 system remains awhirl in controversy over proper vernacular and ways to educate, the broader discussion can serve to make our students, communities and state stronger together to create, as Gov. Gavin Newsom puts it, a “California for All.”

Take for instance what that conflict represents across the entire education spectrum. It is a recognition of who we as a people of California actually are: an ethnically, economically, religiously and socially diverse population who must find common ground about how to talk about it and embrace it for all the good it will yield.

With this in mind, access, equity and success are our guiding principles at California’s 115 community colleges, captured in our “Vision for Success” and adopted by the California Community Colleges (CCC) Board of Governors several years ago. We have only just begun to redesign our system so that it is constructed with students firmly at the center, something that requires a lot of persistence if we are to break through traditional barriers in higher education and celebrate our diversity, not simply deal with it as a curricular issue.


Already, this vision is enabling meaningful progress in many areas. Notably, this year we are seeing the positive impacts of the elimination of remedial classes that do not count toward certificates and degrees. The move will facilitate a more direct path to the educational finish line and will support student success by improving access to economic and social mobility.

As a result of Assembly Bill 705, we fully expect this success to continue and to see equity advance as access improves. Colleges are reporting that doors are opening more widely to help students of all backgrounds get on a streamlined path to completion and then transfer to a four-year university or enter the workforce with a credential.

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In higher education leadership, we can do more to improve diversity as well, which in itself will improve understanding and appreciation of our ethnic and cultural makeups. An important step is to show young people of color they belong and enable them to see people of color leading their systems. Our students aren’t going to appreciate strides being made to build a diverse workforce unless we make efforts to diversify our administrative and teaching ranks as well.

I came from a local community college and can say firsthand that nothing is more important than supporting leaders who are trying to do the right thing. When they do, there is tension. We collectively cannot complete this work, improve equity and take on social injustices without friction.

The question to all who care is, are we going to lean in together and get behind doing what is right and use productive conflict for positive results for the bigger picture? Equity matters, and going forward boldly as one, beautifully different collection of people who recognize our differences can foster unity and success for all.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of California Community Colleges. He is also an Education Influencer for McClatchy’s California Influencers series.
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