UCSC professor building collaborations to shape future minds through ethnic studies

 Rekia Jibrin, assistant professor in critical studies of education
Rekia Jibrin, assistant professor in critical studies of education.

Many believe we are at a pivotal moment in this country regarding anti-racist reforms, police abolition, and restorative justice. And according to Rekia Jibrin, an assistant professor in critical studies of education within UC Santa Cruz’s Education Department, engaging local communities is vital to bringing about transformative change.  

“I value and enjoy community-based research that responds to the historical moment, to the pulse of the people through scholarship,” she said. “Working together enables us all to do better in society.”

Jibrin’s research focuses on how schools shape the racial order in the United States and globally. She’s also affiliated faculty in critical race and ethnic studies, and examines how anti-racist school policies and practices challenge or reproduce anti-Blackness and class oppression. Jibrin’s particularly interested in the ways people in schools negotiate and contest such circumstances while centering racial and economic justice and broader transformative change. 

Jibrin grew up in Jos, Nigeria, under military rule. Her grandfather’s work as a gardener during British colonial rule and her father’s experience of the Biafra War largely influenced anticolonial visions of freedom that animate her scholarship. Her mother’s work as a public school teacher, teaching in Nigerian public schools with earthen floors without desks or school supplies, fed Jibrin’s questioning of what struggling for justice would take. 

Jibrin feels that her lived experience in Nigeria and later in the United States shaped her interest in education and critical race and ethnic studies. 

“In a highly unequal world, where resources, medications, access to water and basic electricity, climate injustice, and access to quality education fall along geopolitical lines of wealth and power, I quickly learned as a child where we were positioned in the world,” Jibrin said. “But how do children make sense of that temporary moment in time, and how can that sense-making fuel their drive to do just work? That’s what I am thinking about as we consider the value of teaching ethnic studies in schools. How can we facilitate the ways young people make sense of the contradictions that shape their lives and their roles in freedom struggles.” 

Amidst the reactionary racial politics of our time, Jibrin feels this sense of responsibility even more acutely as a parent now herself. 

“Ethnic studies and discerning justice will provide (my daughter) with a sense of understanding of how power and struggle in the world works, with an orientation and commitment to the world that she can use to build relationships based on love,” she said.  

One of the ways Jibrin is doing this is by working on an interdisciplinary research collaboration related to a new law. In October 2021, California became the first state in the country to require ethnic studies as a graduation requirement with the passage of Assembly Bill 101. Each school district is responsible for implementing ethnic studies coursework. 

In Santa Cruz County, this means supporting school teachers to source the right content for ethnic studies curriculum, preparing in-service and pre-credential ethnic studies teachers, supporting policy needs that are data-driven and centered on local knowledge, and supporting teachers in a contentious racial climate.

“Ethnic studies will give kids in schools more historical understanding and depth to make sense of their life experiences to critically examine and reflect on what may seem natural in their world and doesn’t feel right,” Jibrin said. “This is about not teaching with a multicultural approach, but centering histories and radical interventions of peoples and communities that enabled us to all be more free. It’s about action and getting more activated to make just demands.”

Jibrin and her collaborators recently received a Sprout Grant from the Institute for Social Transformation and a Seed Funding For Early Stage Initiatives Grant from the Office of Research. Her collaborators include Christine Hong, associate professor of critical race and ethnic studies; Amanda Lashaw, lecturer faculty in education; Cynthia Lewis, professor of education; Daisy Martin, director of History and Civics Project; Jenny Kelly, associate professor in feminist studies and critical ethnic studies; Soleste Hilberg assistant teaching professor and director of teacher education; and Josephine H. Pham, assistant professor of critical studies of education. 

The funding Jibrin received supports a research partnership between UCSC, Santa Cruz County’s Office of Education, and Santa Cruz County school teachers, focusing on teacher needs around ethnic studies work and identifying local knowledge that can inform ethnic studies curriculum in county school districts. The hope is that research findings will lead to insights not only locally but in the field of education and critical ethnic studies. 

“There is a deep desire to develop these partnerships within the county, with community and families, and importantly with school staff to understand how best to do this work,” Jibrin said. “We look forward to supporting the incredible work of teachers and school districts in the ways they are conceptualizing the labor of the work locally.”