A group of former Lowell High School students has developed a program to teach other students across the country about identity and diversity in America.
The “We Are America” project began as a senior seminar about the history of diversity through the lens of court cases, legal developments and social movements. Jessica Lander, the seminar’s teacher, then had her students begin writing about their own identities.
“We often study big history, which is incredibly important, but history is also personal,” said Lander. “I wanted to make sure my students understood their stories, their histories, are important for us to study.”
The students took that original class and turned it into two published books of essays, a website and a national curriculum being taught to more than 1300 students in roughly two dozen states.
“I had no idea it would become a national project,” she said. “But I think there’s a powerful place for this project in building empathy across difference. We have so much beautiful diversity in the country, so many different backgrounds, and we hope that when people listen to these stories ... there’s something in that personal history that they’re hearing that they connect with.”
“I feel that if we can understand each other’s story, we’re [going to] live better in this world,” said Safia Alsamarrai, one of Lander’s students. Alsamarrai, now a freshman at Middlesex Community College, came to the United States after leaving Iraq when she was 11 . “I’m not the only one who struggled with English, or I’m not the only one who struggled leaving their country - there’s a lot of people who feel the same way I feel and that really helps. You understand you’re not alone in this world."
Philly Marte, now a freshman at Western New England University, said taking the class and learning about his own identity in the context of history helped solidify his decision to one day run for office.
“The American identity is what you believe. It’s all personal,” he said. “I can believe this is the American identity. Someone else can believe that is the American identity and that’s the true American identity - you’re able to think for yourself ... and no one can take that away from you.”
Marte and Alsamarrai are two of 14 “founders” of the national “We Are America” program. In that role, they serve as mentors for the teachers who applied and were accepted to use the curriculum in their classrooms. The students in those classrooms will eventually publish books of their own stories. Audio recordings will also be added to the “We Are America” website.
Lander believes it's important that each of those students realize they have a story to share - even if they think they don’t.
“One of the powerful things about ... American history is we’ve constantly redefined and expanded what it means to be American,” she said. “And those definitions are contentious. Who is counted, who’s seen, who’s valued, who’s respected ... it’s the responsibility and the role of each generation to grapple with that identity, that definition of that identity.
“And who better to do it now than the young people who are the country’s future?”
This segment aired on January 19, 2020.