Whitening Arizona

Teacher education in a time of war against our students

By Anita Fernández

Illustrator: Anita Fernández

Photo: Anita Fernández
Miller Valley Elementary School mural (detail)

Arizona is under attack. That may sound extreme or exaggerated, but for those of us in Arizona who believe in equity and justice for all Arizonans, there is no doubt we are under siege. In opposition to these assaults, tens of thousands of documented and undocumented folks alike have protested, boycotted, petitioned, marched, and walked out around the state and the nation.

Children of color and communities of color are the targets of the assaults. A recent incident in my own community, Prescott, Ariz., provides a glimpse into the current climate in our state. The controversy began when the most racially and ethnically diverse school in our district was awarded a grant for the completion of a mural depicting children bicycling to school and enjoying the outdoors. Through a schoolwide voting process, the student body elected a group of students to be painted on the mural and the students themselves helped with the design and completion of the art piece. Miguel, one of the students elected to be on the mural, became the most prominent figure.

As the artists were completing the mural, they were shocked by a barrage of motorists yelling racial epithets out their windows about the students on the mural. The controversy exploded when local city council member Steve Blair used his radio show to espouse his disapproval of having a non-white child as the central figure of the mural because he felt a black child (in fact, Miguel is Latino) does not represent the Prescott he grew up in. “Diversity is a word I can’t stand,” he announced. “The focus doesn’t have to be on the minority all the time.” After his radio show, a series of articles appeared in the local newspaper reporting on the mural and Blair’s statements. Online responses to the articles included a slew of offensive rants, including references to the mural as “ghetto” and “something you would see in LA.”

In the midst of this war of words, the unthinkable happened: The school’s principal directed the mural artists to “lighten” the faces of the children of color depicted on the mural. Supporters of the mural were outraged. They organized a recall effort to unseat Blair and demanded an apology from the school district.

Over the next few weeks, our town became divided and the unspoken topic of race was thrust out of the closet and into the mainstream dialogue. A protest rally at the site of the mural was organized. As a result, the school district apologized, rescinding the order to lighten the faces on the mural, and Blair was fired from his radio show.

The Prescott mural incident was an opportunity for educators to stand up for their students, to organize and resist the racist ideology that drove the controversy in the first place. It was thrilling to watch educators and community members organize, in a matter of hours, a protest at the site of the mural, and as a result to have the superintendent of the school district announce at the protest that he and the principal had made a mistake. He spoke of modeling for children how to say you are wrong and to apologize.

It was a beautiful moment, and I felt a deep sense of pride. Yet something was missing. As I looked around the crowd of 500 folks holding signs and linking arms, I noticed that the families of color whose children were represented in the mural were nowhere to be seen. There were very few families of color in general and our Latino/a community was absent. I watched as a white superintendent, a white principal, and a white artist each told the crowd that this would help Prescott in the end and that we would overcome all of this adversity. But who were they talking to and who benefited from this feel-good narrative? What did the kids have to say? What about their parents? How did this incident affect the fear Latino/a families were already feeling?

These questions are not meant to detract from the clear victory we had in overturning the mural “whitening,” but to help us analyze why political protests are often missing the voices of those most affected by the injustice. To this day, no one from the Latino/a community has been willing to publicly comment on the mural incident for fear of retaliation, highlighting the fear that is still prevalent in our town. This invisibility and continual silencing of folks of color has become an epidemic in Arizona, as has the permissibility of hate speech, especially directed at Latinos/as.

Arizona Climate

The mural incident is one of many unjust occurrences that have transpired in Arizona on the heels of a series of anti-immigrant laws and policies. SB 1070, the most extreme immigration bill yet, empowers police officers to question community members if the police have “reasonable suspicion,” which can be based solely on physical appearance, that the individuals might be undocumented. This law, which the federal government is now challenging in court, has caused deep fears in the Latino/a community. Many families have left Arizona, fleeing the impending radical expansion of racial profiling that legal experts, community organizations, and even law enforcement officials predict will occur under 1070 if it goes into effect.SB 1070 is only one of a spate of anti-immigrant laws in Arizona. To name a few examples:

  • Bilingual education was outlawed in 2000, leaving stranded a third of all Arizona English language learners, who were then enrolled in bilingual programs. 
  • Students brought to Arizona at a young age who do not have documentation have had their chances to attend college drastically reduced by Proposition 300, which makes undocumented students ineligible for in-state tuition at public colleges or universities. 
  • On the other end of the academic timeline, Head Start students are required to provide proof of citizenship to enroll in the early childhood education program that puts children at an advantage when they begin kindergarten. 
  • Last year’s HB 2281 bans ethnic studies in K-12 schools across the state. Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, wrote the bill to target Tucson’s Mexican American Studies Department’s ethnic studies classes, which have raised test scores and graduation rates for students who participate in them. (See “‘Greco-Roman Knowledge Only’ in Arizona Schools,” Rethinking Schools, Summer 2010.) 
  • Also last year, the Arizona Department of Education ordered the removal of teachers who speak with an accent from English classes. 
  • Now state Sen. Russell Pearce is pushing legislation that denies birth certificates to the children of undocumented immigrants.

All these moves stem from the same reactionary fears. The changing demographic of Arizona—and the country—has led those individuals who have always been in power to use every means possible to fight the prospect of a diverse United States. In Arizona, the fears are very specific about rising numbers of Latinos. This cleansing of all things non-white has led to the current situation in Arizona. Our children are suffering the consequences.

Painting a New Paradigm in Teacher Education

How does this climate affect education? How can we prepare future teachers for the reality of this environment? The preparation of Arizona teachers, which is my own field of work, leaves incredible room for growth. Currently in Arizona, there is no requirement for any kind of multicultural education course for future teachers. There is no teacher preparation standard that explicitly calls for the type of analysis of power and privilege that would enable future teachers to comprehend the politics that have become so prevalent in Arizona. This lack of commitment to preparing critical, multicultural educators is symptomatic of the denial that Arizona’s student demographic is shifting and becoming more and more culturally, linguistically, and socioeconomically diverse.

At the July 2010 Institute for Transformative Education, scholar and education activist Pedro Noguera stated that we must combine education and resistance in order to allow students to express their full humanity. Noguera’s words ring so true for Arizona’s students as their humanity, along with their dignity, is under attack. We need a new paradigm for teachers to address what is happening on the ground in Arizona. Teachers have a responsibility to not only have a deep and informed understanding of active pedagogy, best practices, educational psychology, and curriculum design, but also must be steeped in resistance, politics, and organizing.

Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant describe an approach to education that “prepares future citizens to reconstruct society so that it better serves the interests of all groups of people, especially those who are of color, poor, female, gay, lesbian, transsexual, disabled, or any combination of these.” I would add that we need a new approach that equips teachers with the knowledge and skills to be warriors—to understand and protect their students’ dignity and humanity in these tumultuous times.

Teachers need the skills and knowledge to recognize who benefits from racist ideologies, to resist those ideologies, and, if necessary, to act in opposition to them as well as face the risks that come with that opposition. Over the last nine years in teacher education, I have known in my heart that this is the work that needs to be done and have slowly infused my own practice with a more activist-minded approach to working with future educators. This realization took place when I allowed myself to move out of the boundaries of “academic,” which I had been trained to stay within, to a place of being fully human with my students. This includes naming my own privilege, investigating the multiple layers of my identity, and modeling what a teacher/scholar/activist looks and acts like.

Recently, this activist stance has meant situating multicultural education within the context of politics in Arizona. My students, who generally, but not always, fit the national demographic of incoming teachers—white, middle class, and monolingual—delve deeply into readings and discussions, but struggle with their lack of hope in changing what has become decades of anti-immigrant and generally anti-children politics in our state. I ask them: “How can you make a change?” “What can you do that will have a direct impact on your community?” I encourage my students to feel a responsibility as future educators to be activists in their communities, to listen closely to what is most needed, and to offer their labor, skills, and resources to further that cause.

My students and I have traveled to protests and marches to counter SB 1070 and HB 2281, and organized ACLU forums in Spanish to ensure that our Latino/a community is informed about current legislation that directly affects them. I have offered my students opportunities to work on campaigns to get out the Latino/a vote. Last spring, students planned, organized, and delivered a conference on youth activism, offering a space for young activists across the Southwest to meet up, share resources, and make connections.

Most recently, my students were an integral part of the success of Save Ethnic Studies Week, a nationally coordinated week of actions to defend ethnic studies and academic freedom. At Prescott College, our events included presentations by state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, University of Arizona Assistant Professor Roberto Rodriguez, and teachers and alumni from the Tucson Unified School District ethnic studies program. My students jumped at the opportunity to support these events and to help raise money for the Save Ethnic Studies Defense Fund (www.saveethnicstudies.org). Students volunteered to house our guests in their own homes, collected donations, and organized much of the media for these eventsOne student designed and silk-screened T-shirts that we sold throughout the week to benefit the defense fund.

Many of these actions may not seem connected to teacher education. But I want my students to understand how to contribute to a cause on the grounds set by the group of folks that the cause directly impacts—as opposed to the grounds that my students might think are “right” for that group.

Am I Asking Too Much?

New teachers are overwhelmed by the daunting expectations put on them by the culture of high-stakes testing, on top of the expectations that they will be counselors, psychologists, and parental figures. To ask teachers to now take on the added roles of informed activists, organizers, and resisters might seem outlandish—but when we are under siege, extreme measures are necessary. I argue that we are in that moment. For teachers to successfully create an environment in their classrooms where students feel heard and loved and empowered, regardless of the political climate, this new paradigm in teacher education is critical. Teacher educators need to infuse their courses with analyses of what is happening in Arizona (or whichever state becomes the next “Arizona”), ideas for how to remain informed on these issues, and approaches to organizing and resisting incidents that dehumanize their students. Teacher preparation across the country needs to include readings by critical educator/activists such as Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade, Shawn Ginwright, bell hooks, Betita Martínez, K. Wayne Yang, and Paulo Freire. Research and service projects that prepare educators for these tumultuous times should also be required. For example, I ask my own students to complete social action projects with local organizations so they are pushed to work with folks different from themselves. Whatever the project, my students are put into circumstances where it is apparent that their ideas, biases, and backgrounds are relevant to their work and to the work they will do as teachers.

We as teacher educators need to respond to the concerns of our preservice teachers (“How do I do all of that and teach too?”) with an insistence that when you work with children, their safety and dignity must always come first. We must intentionally infuse our teacher preparation courses with a call to do what is right for our communities and provide future teachers with the skills they will need in the classroom and out in the world.

Hope in the Harshness of Reality

With all eyes on our state, we in Arizona have a chance to model how to react to racist attacks on our children. Prescott’s mural incident is a microcosm of Arizona’s tumultuous social and political landscape, and out of this struggle we can highlight why we need more ethnic studies, not less, in Arizona. We can use this incident to frame the necessity for everyone’s story to be told in our schools, not erased from our textbooks. And we can use this incident to show teachers how legislation and politics directly affect their own teaching, their students, and their communities. Activist teaching is fed by the hope that when we act on our world in order to change it, our youth will emulate that activism and never lose faith that their actions make a difference in their community and in the world. In Paulo Freire’s words, “It is imperative that we maintain hope even when the harshness of reality may suggest the opposite.”


Freire, Paulo. In hooks, bell. Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Sleeter, Christine E. and Grant, Carl A. Making Choices for Multicultural Education: Five Approaches to Race, Class, and Gender. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.

Anita Fernández (Contact Me) is a professor of education at Prescott College and co-founder of La Tierra Community School.

Student names have been changed.