See more of the story

Class was in session at Johnson Senior High in St. Paul, and as a guest speaker waited to be introduced, there were debts to be acknowledged.

The East Side school stands on the ancestral land of Native people, teacher Cassandra Sheppard told students. And the Americas, she reminded them, were built on slave labor.

"To both the Indigenous and African forebearers, we commit to the continued struggle for liberation and reparation, for it is through this and through freedom and justice that we truly give honor," Sheppard said.

With that, the day's lesson in critical ethnic studies was under way — an opportunity for students of all races and cultures to better understand themselves and their place in the world. And if they come away empowered, advocates say, all the better.

Critical ethnic studies is now a graduation requirement for the class of 2025 in St. Paul Public Schools. At Johnson High, Principal Jamil Payton sees it as another way to give voice to students at a school with a leadership program built on the premise that "adults should not do for students what students can do for themselves."

Developed by district teachers and graduates, the course is designed to be student centered and driven, said Mouakong Vue, the district's ethnic studies coordinator. Conversation is key, he said, with students not only exploring their own identities, but confronting any unconscious biases they may have about others.

There was little in the way of student-to-student discourse during a recent morning devoted in large part to a visit by state Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope.

But Frazier quizzed students on topics such as the landmark segregation case Brown v. Board of Education — he was surprised when a student cited the name of a key player not often referenced in such discussions — and he shared with them his plan to reintroduce a bill incorporating ethnic studies in the state's social studies graduation requirements.

"I believe it's going to become law this year," Frazier said.

The legislation he proposed during the last session defined ethnic studies as "the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity with a focus on the experiences and perspectives of people of color within and beyond the United States."

Districts and charter schools would determine local priorities for course selection and implementation under the proposal.

Correspondence to House Education Finance Committee members revealed support from several teachers and from St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard, plus groups like Unidos MN and Education Evolving — the latter of which cited research showing that students who take ethnic studies have greater academic engagement and graduation rates.

The bill was opposed by the Minnesota Family Council.

Rebecca Delahunt, the council's assistant director of public policy, wrote to House members in March that although the history of ethnic minorities, including their experiences with racism and discrimination, should be taught, the lessons should not classify "students as either oppressor or oppressed, depending upon skin color."

That criticism often is advanced about the similarly titled critical race theory — an academic concept that conservative critics say divides white students and students of color.

Kasia Yang, a Hmong student at Johnson High, said in an interview following Frazier's appearance that she grew up learning a lot about white history and was surprised to learn in the ethnic studies course how people in power oppressed people of color.

A lot of minority students, Yang said, have experienced at least one instance of racism — in her case bullying on social media: "That's why I encourage my siblings to stand up for themselves," she said.

Josiah Lealem, who is Ethiopian, said that he and other children of immigrants share the same struggles and that the course has helped him identify the causes and in turn work with others for the community's betterment.

"I can talk about similar experiences with them that I won't be able to talk about with people who are not of color," he said. "I'm not saying they're bad. It's just that with people of color you can build connections, you know?"

Frazier's visit coincided with Sheppard's lessons and discussions around resistance and liberation, groups that felt ignored and wanted their voices heard. He addressed slavery and the Civil War, and the subsequent fight by Black people for the right to vote.

There was his personal story, too, of growing up as one of seven children on the South Side of Chicago, and driving through rain and fog with his father to the University of Minnesota, Morris. It was the first time he had been on campus and his first extended stay away from home.

"My dad dropped me off and he said, 'Hey son, good luck. Call me if you need me,'" he said.

He went on to study urban planning and local government management, and became a lawyer inspired by Thurgood Marshall's arguments in opposition to segregation.

Frazier told the students: "It's more important than ever that you are all engaged and you get the resources you need to be educated on issues, and you be given the platform and the space to have your voices heard because you are our next leaders."

As he was wrapping up, a student raised his hand.

"I voted for the first time in November," he said.

"Hey, all right," Frazier replied. "How did it feel for you to have that opportunity to vote?"

"It was actually pretty fun," the student said.