Advocating for Arabic
An interview with Lara Kiswani
In San Francisco, there are a variety of different ways that non-English languages are taught, including dual-immersion programs, bilingual programs, and pull-out programs. Taken together, these are called language pathways. A few years ago, the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), Vietnamese Youth Development Center, and Arabic and Vietnamese-speaking parents in San Francisco successfully organized a campaign to advocate for the addition of Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways. Despite unanimous school board approval of the resolution, implementation has met obstacle after obstacle.
Lara Kiswani, executive director of AROC, talked with Rethinking Schools editor Jody Sokolower about the successful organizing effort and the ways that the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), racism, and xenophobia have so far kept the Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways from being rolled out.
JODY SOKOLOWER: What is your own history with Arabic?
LARA KISWANI: Arabic is written in my history, identity, and culture. I was the first of my siblings to be born in the United States, and I was raised speaking both Arabic and English. I went to English-only schools, and I was put in English language learner classes because I spoke Arabic at home.
I learned a lot about my family history and our Palestinian culture in Arabic from my grandma, who lived with us as I was growing up. On Friday evenings I attended a community-run Arabic school, and on Sunday mornings I attended a community-led Islamic school to learn to read and recite the Quran. Since then, I have continued learning on my own. I can speak, read, and write Arabic, although not as well as I would like to.
JS: Did you learn enough academic Arabic to study at a university in an Arab country?
LK: No. Although I did learn classical Arabic, most of my Arabic is conversational. I can read classical Arabic, I can understand some, and speak and write even less. I don’t have a formalized knowledge of the language.
JS: Is that fairly typical of second-generation Arabic speakers in the United States?
LK: Most Arab American youth understand conversational Arabic, but can’t communicate in Arabic. Some can speak Arabic, but can’t write or read it. Others can read and write, but only conversational Arabic. They aren’t able to understand classical Arabic, so watching the news or reading a novel is really difficult.
Why Learn Arabic?
JS: Why is learning Arabic important, not just for kids from Arabic-speaking families?
LK: It’s obvious that the Arab region is of great interest to the world for political and economic reasons. This perpetuates a contradiction: the hyper visibility and invisibility that Arabs face in the United States. What is known about Arab people, history, and culture is often based on stereotypes and racist understandings of Arab people as the “other.” Otherwise, we as a people with a history and a living culture are not seen at all. What is seen is the devastation of our region, often at the hands of the United States and Israel, and the relationship of Western military, politicians, and aid workers to our region. There is little accurate understanding of the sociopolitical landscape of the Arab region. Learning Arabic is one window into that landscape. And it is a window into the Arab world from the viewpoint of those who live and breathe it.
And, of course, we know it’s good for children to learn more than one language. That’s not specific to Arabic. There’s lots of evidence that knowing more than one language supports cognitive and academic development. Although Arabic is often viewed as a difficult language to learn, it has a long history that is visible in current subjects taught in U.S. classrooms such as math and science. It’s also unbelievably beautiful and rich. There are multiple words in Arabic to describe one word in English. There are ways to describe feelings that you don’t have in English or other languages. When you read, write, or hear Arabic, you are learning and engaging with a deep history. You see a lot of Arabic in Spanish, French, and other languages.
JS: What do Arab American students and their parents say about the lack of Arabic language in San Francisco schools?
LK: The way that Arab American students and parents relate to the lack of Arabic language is part of a broader issue, one that goes beyond not being offered Arabic language instruction. It’s about feeling isolated, marginalized, and invisible. It’s about living in a city where racist anti-Arab and Islamophobic ads drape the buses you and your children ride each day, where your people and family are vilified on a daily basis in mainstream media. And it’s about the deep desire to maintain your culture and live a dignified life despite that.
It can be very difficult for Arab-speaking family members to communicate with the school district or with their children’s teachers. There have been some efforts at Arabic interpretation, but they are totally inadequate in reaching the growing Arabic-speaking population in San Francisco. Like other immigrant parents, Arab parents are particularly concerned because, in an environment that denigrates their home language, there’s a breakdown in communication between them and their children as their children rely increasingly on English and don’t keep up their Arabic.
There’s also a fear of losing the heritage, the culture, and the history that are transferred through language. Often after kids come home from school, their parents make them study Arabic or read the Quran. Or they are sent to volunteer-run weekend schools, as I was, at a mosque, where there is some Arabic instruction. But these programs are informal and not as effective as they could be.
The Journey Begins
When Arab parents realized that San Francisco has a commitment to world language pathways and that 10 languages are offered, they were excited. They were happy to have their children learn Spanish or French, but they wanted them to advance in their native language as well.
When the idea emerged that there was a way to implement an Arabic language pathway, these parents felt empowered. They said they felt that they had a place in San Francisco—they were being seen and heard. Their experiences were being validated, and it brought them closer to a point that they could trust their kids to the school district. It created a sense of belonging for Arab parents in terms of decision-making in the district and the city more broadly.
Once they realized they could fight for an Arabic language pathway and win, it became something they were very committed to.
JS: How did the campaign begin?
LK: One of AROC’s ongoing programs is working with Arab youth. Back in 2009, the youth decided to do a research project on what it was like to be Arab American in the San Francisco schools. They interviewed hundreds of teachers and students, and surveyed them on the representation of Arabs in high school curricula. They came out with a report and one of the recommendations was to have interpretation available for Arabic-speaking families. As an extension, a group of mother leaders decided to advocate for interpreters in the district because they were having a difficult time communicating with teachers and administrators. And rather than trying to bridge the gap, teachers and administrators were labeling these families as hard to work with or inaccessible. We fought for interpreters and eventually two part-time Arabic-speaking interpreters were hired. That’s been tremendously helpful. It hasn’t resolved the tensions or lack of accessibility to resources and information, but it has helped.
Then, about two years ago, one of the teachers from San Francisco Teachers 4 Social Justice, Jeremiah Jeffries, was thinking about the large Arab population at his elementary school in the Tenderloin neighborhood of the city. He wondered: Given all the language pathways the district is implementing, why isn’t Arabic being taught? Jeremiah approached AROC to see if it was something we’d work on, and we said, “Absolutely yes!”
In the same area in the Tenderloin, we noticed there was also a need for Vietnamese. It’s a growing population—larger than the Arab population in San Francisco—and there was no Vietnamese being offered. So we began collaborating with the Vietnamese Youth Development Center.
Together we advocated for Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways in San Francisco. A couple of members of the board of education co-authored the proposal and worked with us. Some members of the board of supervisors were also advocates.
The resolution passed unanimously. It was obvious, with the several dozen community members who mobilized to the board of education meetings, that our families were visibly in support, and there seemed to be no reason to say no to something that would benefit Arabic-speaking and Vietnamese-speaking families, as well as other families in San Francisco who might be interested in learning one of these languages.
JS: You looked at different models for language pathways, right? What did you decide to recommend and why?
LK: Since the resolution passed, we have been working with the district to develop models to roll out. We had to weigh a number of factors: how to best support the development of Arabic fluency and literacy, what is realistic politically, and what is realistic in the face of a shortage of credentialed Arabic-speaking teachers. We decided to suggest a model similar to the way Japanese is taught here. An important strength of the Japanese model is that, although the principal teachers are credentialed, there are opportunities for Japanese-speaking members of the community to participate and help teach the students. There is also an emphasis on Japanese culture as well as language acquisition. Because this is a grassroots effort, we want to involve the community in helping teach Arabic and cultural aspects of the Arab world as much as possible.
This will start as a small program. So children enrolled in the Arabic language pathway would be with other classmates most of the day; about an hour a day they would go to Arabic class. And anyone who wants to enroll will be welcome, of course, so it won’t only be Arab American children. In middle school, one subject would always be taught in Arabic; in high school, it would be offered as a foreign language. That’s the model we think will work best for the number of Arab students we have and the current resources in terms of Arabic-speaking teachers.
JS: Are there Arabic language pathways in other parts of the country?
LK: Not similar to this. Arabic is taught in some charter and private schools, and some schools in Michigan teach it as a foreign language. There have been attempts to open schools focused on Arabic, including the Khalil Gibran School in New York, which was based on a dual-language grades 6Ð12 model, but Khalil Gibran School was systematically destroyed by the mayor and New York Department of Education in the face of racist and Islamophobic attacks. So there are resources for curriculum and approaches, but no similar public K-12 programs.
JS: Why do you think some languages are privileged over others in schools?
LK: In general, education in this country doesn’t reflect the needs of families, communities, and neighborhoods; it’s more about what’s politically expedient and what fills business needs and projections.
The situation with Arabic is complicated because there are a lot of expensive private institutions that teach Arabic to adults for military and political reasons.
Many non-Arabs are learning Arabic because it’s useful for U.S. foreign policy. But no one is making Arabic language and culture part of K-12 education. That would mean reaching out to a population that is being labeled as other, validating our place in society, and relating to us as part of the fabric of life in the United States.
The Attacks Begin
JS: What has happened since the Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways were approved by the board?
LK: It’s been stalled time and time again. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), a wealthy private institution that’s pro-Israel, has led an effort to kill the plan, specifically because AROC is listed as a partner and has been one of the main champions of the effort.
JS: Why is the JCRC opposed to AROC being connected with the pathway?
LK: This is a period when Zionist organizations are escalating their efforts to isolate pro-Palestinian organizations anywhere. In the Bay Area, JCRC tries to ensure that any criticism of Israel is attacked and marginalized. They want to make it impossible to be critical of Israel and still be a community organizer. They have threatened the funding of nonprofits that held workshops or took positions in solidarity with Palestinian human rights. They succeeded in getting the Museum of Children’s Arts in Oakland to cancel an exhibit of artwork by children in Gaza. They destroyed the economic base of a community newspaper that printed articles questioning Israeli policies. There’s a long list going back many years.
AROC is a community-based organization. We provide legal help to Arab immigrants, we work with youth, we advocate for Arabic interpretation in education and healthcare, we work in coalitions against police violence. But we are unapologetically anti-racist and anti-Zionist, and our work reflects those values. The JCRC saw how much the language pathways mobilized our community. They also have seen the impact of our work over the years, and the strength of cross-movement building in raising awareness about the struggles of Arabs, the role of Israel in our region, and the ongoing systematic racism we face here. As an institution committed to maintaining Israeli apartheid, supporting the occupation, and dehumanizing Arabs and Palestinians, they saw our work as a threat—they don’t want the Arab voice to be heard and definitely don’t want it to have an impact.
They used our criticism of Israel as a basis for us not to be allowed to work in the schools or to be a partner in the languages pathways. They tried to get the board of education to take a new vote on the resolution, removing the community partners from the proposal. That has never happened before for any of the other language pathways. But we got a lot of support from the community and from allied social justice organizations, and ultimately the board decided not to revote but to move forward.
But since then, the process has been stalled. This never happened before—not for Spanish, Latin, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, or any of the many languages taught in San Francisco. Once a pathway’s resolution gets passed, there’s an internal process working with community partners to decide on an approach and assess which schools to place the languages at. Those recommendations come back to the board and, within a year or so, there’s staffing, the program is implemented, and it’s rolled out.
But that hasn’t happened with Arabic and Vietnamese. Now we have teachers sending petitions to the district saying they don’t want this language at their school. They say they don’t want to change the demographic of their school by attracting more Arab or Vietnamese families.
This has put the district in a difficult position. They are committed to the language pathways. On the other hand, there is this campaign by powerful forces. And we don’t have as much political power as other communities. The district still says it’s committed to seeing the language pathways implemented in schools by 2017. And we are committed to working with them to see this program through.
Families and Supporters Mobilize
JS: How has the Arab American community responded to the lack of motion on the pathway?
LK: This is having a huge impact on our community. Hundreds of parents were so excited. Families mobilized to come to the board of education meetings, to speak up and let the district know we want this. When we won, it was extremely empowering and inspiring. People felt motivated to fight for what they believe in ways they hadn’t before.
This is an immigrant community escaping from war-torn home countries, coming to the United States and feeling marginalized, feeling they don’t know how to communicate with people in power. Then to see they can exert themselves, be heard, challenge power, and win something for their children—especially working alongside the families from the Vietnamese Youth Development Center—it was a transformative experience.
For that to be followed by attacks smearing the community-based organization they’re a part of, attacks by teachers questioning the need for and legitimacy of having Arabic taught in San Francisco at all, to find themselves pitted against teachers who don’t want them, their families, their children, and their language in the school—that experience has been extremely demoralizing. Particularly in this political moment.
JS: Is the Vietnamese pathway facing similar obstacles?
LK: At this point, yes. We don’t know if it would have been similarly stalled had they done it on their own. But we do know that the same case is being made against Vietnamese. Our suggested schools for the two languages are different, and at the schools we’re looking at for Vietnamese pathways, the teachers are similarly saying we don’t want to change the demographics at our schools, we don’t need to have youth who are having difficulty learning pulled out of the classroom for an hour a day to learn Vietnamese.
What’s coming to the surface is that there continues to be racism in the school district and xenophobia in San Francisco—a reflection of society at large and also our history as a city, even though we don’t always want to remember that. And in times like these, it is easier for people to express it.
JS: How has the teacher union responded?
LK: The union hasn’t taken a position. I will say that many teachers and union leaders have spoken up and been advocates for the language pathways. Teachers, administrators, community members, faith leaders, unions, youth, parents, and Jewish allies—all have written endless letters and testimonies to the board about the need for this, and the impact of the attack on the pathways.
JS: How do you see this in the overall context of the anti-Arab, Islamophobic atmosphere in the United States?
LK: Suddenly—and this was even before the election—something like language pathways is controversial.
AROC has a long history of working with the city of San Francisco, providing services for immigrants and organizing our community against war and racism. We have been in the schools since 2009. The district has acknowledged that they need us; they need every community to have a way to address racism in the schools. AROC plays that role for the Arab community. We create a place for Arab youth to talk about issues that matter to them, to unpack things they’re experiencing, and to come up with ways to address them. That’s an important aspect of the social and political development of youth, and it’s also part of helping them feel connected and committed to their schools and their education.
So our work is necessary and critical. But the political climate has made it OK to question our legitimacy. A white-led, wealthy, political organization like JCRC—who are they to say that an Arab organization can’t work with Arab youth? It’s unfortunate we’re up against these huge forces, but at the same time it’s been inspiring to see the ways we’re able to develop our own force and power and resistance through community—through solidarity and a commitment to social justice. We’ve been meeting with families over the past months to find out how they would like to move forward. And they want to fight for this, to do whatever they can. But the antagonism that’s been created as a result of the tension and opposition has changed things. Families no longer feel that the city and the school district are partnering with them to make this wonderful thing happen. Now, it’s the Arab community fighting to make our case. There’s no longer a clear partnership, and that’s exactly what the opposition wanted.
But they haven’t succeeded in crushing the commitment of the Vietnamese and Arab families and communities. It’s so deep and so grounded in our lived experiences, rooted in our values. That’s not going away, it won’t dissipate.
And despite all the delays and problems, the school district still has a commitment to diversity, and to the values of language and world language pathways. They haven’t been able to navigate the racism that still exists—or its impact. I think they’re struggling to figure that out.
I believe these different aspects will ultimately lead to a positive outcome. It’s just unfortunate that the process has been so difficult for people who are already facing mounting challenges because of who they are. Yet it is inspiring to see the outpouring of support that AROC, the Arab community, and the struggle to fight for the dignity of Arab families in San Francisco has received from people all across the country. This has become a fight against anti-Arab racism, Zionism, and Islamophobia. And it has brought together movements and people from all walks of life, who, as people struggling against all forms of oppression, understand this fight as their own.