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Meet the Teens Working to Reform the Education System in San Diego County

How GENup San Diego is working to address racial inequities in San Diego Public Schools

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Teenage storyteller working to shed light on overlooked voices and perspectives by championing positive representation for all in the media. Loves pen-palling, biking baking and Frank Ocean.

San Diego, California: An area known for its surfers, skaters, sunshine and now, perhaps, student advocacy.

At least, that’s the reputation being conveyed by GENup San Diego, a chapter of the student-led advocacy organization GENup that prioritizes student voices in education. Amid the challenging pandemic, election, racial inequities and more issues gripping the United States, GENup San Diego President Ethan Collier-Moreno and Vice President Emily Hauw are advocating for their education. With their county-wide chapter, 17-year-old Hilltop High School senior Collier-Moreno and 16-year-old Westview High School junior Hauw help work to improve the San Diego education system.

One of the largest campaigns led by the student advocates at GENup San Diego was a push to establish Ethnic Studies within different school districts in San Diego County. While adapting to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group organized a Zoom webinar to educate community members on the importance of Ethnic Studies within the education system, drawing over 86 attendees.

“We’ve had a lot of students give us feedback on our events and our webinars and they say, ‘I feel so empowered that you did this, thank you so much for exposing me to this and exposing the issues and being truthful about it,’” Collier-Moreno said.

By pushing for Ethnic Studies, GENup San Diego hopes to advocate for racial equity in the San Diego County community. This issue is especially important in Hauw’s Poway Unified School District, where decades of racism were recently exposed by the Instagram account @blackinpusd.

“We have always had an issue with racial discrimination,” Hauw said. “Whenever that happens and we bring it up to our principals, our administration, it’s always ignored, it’s always we’re going to fix it but I never see much change. It’s just this horrible cycle that we really need to fix and I hope that if that doesn’t happen before I graduate that that happens really soon.”

In the future, the student leaders at GENup San Diego hope to see a school system within San Diego County where everyone receives equal treatment. At their ideal school, teachers would be trained in anti-bias practices, there would be an inclusive curriculum that involved LGBTQ+ and BIPOC students and anti-discrimination and sexual harassment policies would actually be adhered to.

“I say this with my whole heart saying I don’t want to see discrimination on a school campus anymore,” Collier-Moreno said. “Homophobia, transphobia and racial injustice have no business on a school campus.”

To continue advocating for students in the age of COVID-19, GENup San Diego is also working to close the digital divide and address the disparities in technology resources for students learning remotely. The group is currently in the data collection phase and receiving survey responses from students within San Diego County to determine where the disparities are greatest.

“We are collecting data from all over the county to see where it’s most disparate, and where the disparities are,” Collier-Moreno said. “Our future plans are to report it directly to the county Office of Ed and try and work with them to see how we can close that digital divide across the county.”

At the chapter level, the students at GENup San Diego have also been working to inform their local community about the State Seal of Civic Engagement (SSCE) in California through video and social media outreach. The seal encourages high school students to participate in civic engagement and fulfill set requirements in order to receive a seal on their diploma.

“We were primarily working to inform others about the state seal, what the state seal is and why civic engagement is such an important aspect to a high schooler within California, not only to them outside of school but how it can be applied within the classroom,” Collier-Moreno said.

While the GENup San Diego leaders have noticed that many students in San Diego County feel fearful of engaging in community advocacy, they hope that their chapter can empower students to gain exposure to different issues and fight inequities on campus.

“I’ve been able through GENup to hear a lot of different perspectives and different opinions that I haven’t been able to be exposed to before,” Hauw said. “At my school, there aren’t as many kids who are as vocal or are maybe too scared to be talking about those types of things because they’re afraid of what other people will think. Hearing from people who want to be student advocates and want to use their voice in our community to fight for education equity in our community is definitely a breath of fresh air for me.”

Collier-Moreno shared that many students are scared of not being taken seriously by their adult counterparts and that fear and stigma exist among students who believe their voices might be dismissed. However, GENup’s empowerment hopes to counter this notion.

“We have a voice. Adults may not take it seriously, but there are still adults that do, and there are still people that will take us seriously because we know what’s going on firsthand,” Collier-Moreno said. “We’re in the classroom; we see… what needs to be changed. If the adults that are supporting us aren’t helping us make the change, then it’s up to us to try and empower them to make the change.”