Advocating for Arabic: An interview with Lara Kiswani
By Jody Sokolower
An earlier version of this article appeared in Rethinking Schools magazine, spring 2017.
A few years ago, the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC), the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, and Arabic- and Vietnamese-speaking families in San Francisco organized a successful campaign to add Arabic and Vietnamese to the many languages taught in the city’s public schools. Despite unanimous school board approval of the resolution, for three years implementation met obstacle after obstacle
In fall 2018 Lara Kiswani, executive director of AROC, talked with Jody Sokolower about the successful organizing effort and the ways that racism and xenophobia kept the Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways from being rolled out.
Arabic is unbelievably beautiful and rich. When you read, write, or hear Arabic, you are learning and engaging with a deep history.
Jody Sokolower: What is your own history with Arabic?
Lara Kiswani: Arabic is written in my history, identity, and culture. I was the first of my siblings to be born in the United States, and I was raised speaking both Arabic and English. I went to English-Only schools and was put in English language learner classes because of my knowledge of Arabic and because I spoke Arabic at home.
I learned a lot about my family history and our Palestinian culture in Arabic from my grandma, who lived with us as I was growing up, Also, on Friday evenings I attended a community-run Arabic school, and on Sunday mornings I attended a community-led Islamic school to learn to read and recite the Quran. That knowledge is something I have maintained over my lifetime. I have continued learning on my own, not through any institutionalized structure. I can speak, read, and write Arabic, although not as well as I would like to.
JS: Did you learn enough academic Arabic to study at a university in an Arab country?
LK: No. Although I did learn classical Arabic, most of my Arabic is conversational Arabic. I can read classical Arabic, I can understand some, and speak and write even less. I wouldn’t be able to go into a university program or anything that required a formalized knowledge of the language.
JS: Is that fairly typical of second-generation Arabic speakers in the United States?
Most Arab American youth understand conversational Arabic, but can’t communicate in Arabic. Then you’ll meet those who can communicatein Arabic, but can’t write or read Arabic. Others can read and write, but only conversationalArabic. They aren’t able to understand classical Arabic, so even watching the news or reading a novel would be really difficult, because it’s a very different kind of Arabic.
JS: Why is learning Arabic important, not just for kids from Arabic-speaking families?
LK: It’s obvious that the Arab region is of great interest to the world for political and economic reasons. This perpetuates the hyper visibility and invisibility that Arabs face in the US. What is known about Arabs, about Arab history, culture, and people is often based on stereotypes and racist understandings of us as the “other.” Otherwise, we as a people with a history and a living culture are not seen at all. What is seen is the devastation of our region, often at the hands of the United States and Israel, or the relationship of Westerners—the military, politicians, or service workers—to our region. The impact of US warmongering has meant that there is a growing population of international organizations dealing with the devastation on the ground in many Arabic-speaking areas of the world. All this amounts to little understanding of the sociopolitical landscape of the Arab region. Understanding Arabic is one window into that landscape. And it is a window into the Arab world from our viewpoint as those who live and breathe it.
And, of course, we know it’s goodfor children to learn more than one language. That’s not specific to Arabic. There’s lots of evidence that knowing more than one language supports academic development. Although Arabic is a difficult language to learn, it has a long history that is visible in current subjects taught in US classrooms such as math and science. It’s also unbelievably beautiful and rich. There are multiple words in Arabic to describe one word in English. There are ways to describe feelings that you don’t have in English or other languages. When you read, write, or hear Arabic, there’s a deep history you’re learning and engaging with. You see a lot of Arabic in Spanish, French, and other languages. It makes it that much easier for someone who knows one of those languages to learn Arabic, and vice versa.
JS: What do Arab American students and their parents say about the lack of Arabic language in San Francisco schools?
LK: The way that Arab American students and parents relate to the lack of Arabic language in SF schools is a broader issue, one that goes beyond not being offered Arabic language instruction. It’s about feeling isolated, marginalized, and invisible. It’s about living in a city where racist anti-Arab and Islamophobic bus ads drape the buses you and your children ride each day, where your people and family are vilified on a daily basis in mainstream media. And it’s about the deep desire to maintain your culture and live a dignified life despite that.
If parents want their children to progress beyond conversational levels in their home language, there’s no way to do that. And it’s almost impossible for Arab-speaking family members to communicate with the school district or with their children’s teachers. There have been some efforts at Arabic interpretation, but they are totally inadequate in reaching the growing Arabic-speaking population in San Francisco. Like other immigrant parents, Arab parents are particularly concerned because, in an environment that denigrates their home language, there’s a breakdown in communication between them and their children as their children rely increasingly on English and don’t keep up their Arabic. This breakdown in communication often leads to the further criminalization of Arab youth.
There’s also a fear of losing the heritage, the culture, and the history that’s transferred through language. Often after kids come home from school, their parents make them study Arabic or read the Quran. Or they are sent to volunteer-run weekend schools, as I was, at a mosque, perhaps, where there is some Arabic instruction. But these programs are informal and not as effective as they could be.
So when Arab parents realized that the city of San Francisco has a commitment to world language pathways and that 10 languages are offered, these families were excited. They are happy to have their children learn Spanish or French, but they would much rather them have them advance in their native language as well. When the idea emerged that there was a way to implement an Arabic language pathway, similar to all the other language pathways in San Francisco, parents felt a sense of relief. They also felt empowered. They said they felt that they had a place in San Francisco—they were being seen and heard. Their experiences were being validated, and it brought them closer to a point that they could trust their kids to the school district. It created a sense of belonging for these parents in terms of decision-making in the district and the city more broadly.
Once they realized they could fight for it and win, it became something they were very committed to.
Ultimately what’s coming to the surface is that there continues to be racism in the school district and xenophobia in San Francisco.
JS: How did the campaign for teaching Arabic in the San Francisco schools begin?
LK: One of AROC’s ongoing programs is working with Arab youth. Back in 2009, the youth decided to do a research project on what it was like to be Arab American in the San Francisco schools. They interviewed hundreds of teachers and students, and surveyed them on the representationof Arabs in high school curricula. They came out with a report and one of the recommendations was to have interpretation available for Arabic-speaking families. As an extension, a group of mother leaders decided to advocate for interpreters in the district because they were having a difficult time communicating with teachers and administrators. And rather than trying to bridge the gap, teachers and administrators were labeling these families as hard to work with or inaccessible. We fought for interpretersand eventually two part-time Arabic-speaking interpreters were hired. That’s been tremendously helpful. It hasn‘t resolved the tensions or lack of accessibility to resources and information, but it has helped.
Then, about two years ago, one of the teachers from San Francisco Teachers 4 Social Justice, Jeremiah Jeffries, was thinking about the large Arab population at his elementary school in the Tenderloin neighborhood of the city. He wondered: Given all the language pathways the district is implementing, why isn’t Arabic being taught? [In San Francisco, there are a variety of different ways that non-English languages are taught, including dual immersion programs, bilingual programs, and pull-out programs. Taken together, these are called language pathways.] So Jeremiah approached AROC to see if it was something we’d work on, and we said absolutely yes, it’s in line with our strategy and definitely in line with the concerns of our community.
In the same area in the Tenderloin, we noticed there was also a need for Vietnamese. It’s a growing population, actually larger than the Arab population in San Francisco, and there was no Vietnamese being offered. So we began collaborating with the Vietnamese Youth Development Center, since we have a commitment to working closely with other community-based organizations.
Together we advocated for Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways in San Francisco. A couple of members of the board of education co-authored the proposal and worked with us. Some members of the board of supervisors were also advocates.
The resolution passed unanimously. It was obvious, with the several dozen community members who mobilized to the Board of Education meetings, that our families were visibly in support, and there seemed to be no reason to say no to something that would benefit Arabic-speaking, Vietnamese-speaking, and other families in San Francisco who might be interested in learning one of these languages.
JS: You looked at different models for language pathways, right? What did you decide to recommend and why?
LK: Since the resolution passed we have been working with the district to develop models to roll out in SF. We had to weigh a number of factors: how to best support the development of Arabic fluency and literacy, what is realistic politically, and what is realistic in the face of a shortage of credentialed Arabic-speaking teachers. We decided to suggest a model similar to the way Japanese is taught here. An important strength of the Japanese model is that, although the principal teachers are credentialed, there are opportunities for Japanese-speaking members of the community to participate and help teach the students. There is also an emphasis on Japanese culture as well as language acquisition. Because this is a grassroots effort, we want to involve the community in helping teach Arabic and cultural aspects of the Arab world as much as possible. So this seemed like a good place to start.
This will start as a small program, and we don’t want kids to be separated out from the rest of the children in the school. So children enrolled in the Arabic language pathway would be with other classmates most of the day; about an hour a day they would go to Arabic class. And anyone who wants to enroll will be welcome, of course, so it won’t only be Arab American children. In middle school, one subject would always be taught in Arabic so the children develop more academic language. In high school, it would be offered as a foreign language. That’s the model we think will work best for the number of Arab students we have and the current resources in terms of Arabic-speaking teachers.
Jody: Are there Arabic language pathways in other parts of the country?
LK: Not similar to this. We looked at what is being done nationally because we wanted to learn from what has worked elsewhere. Arabic is taught in some charter and private schools, and some schools in Michigan teach it as a foreignlanguage. There have been attempts to open schools focused on Arabic, including the Khalil Gibran School in New York, which was based on a dual language grades 6-12 model, but it was systematically destroyed by the mayor and New York Department of Education in the face of racist and Islamophobic attacks. So there are resources around curriculumand approaches, but not public K-12 programs in the same way.
JS: Why do you think some languages are privileged over others in the schools?
LK: In general, education in this country doesn’t reflect the needs of families, communities, and neighborhoods; it’s more about what’s politically expedient and what fills business needs and projections.
The situation with Arabic is complicated because there are a lot of programs that teach Arabic to adults for military and political reasons. These are expensive private institutions. So many non-Arabs are learning Arabic because it’s useful for US foreign policy. But no one is making Arabic language and culture part of K-12 education. That would mean reaching out to a population that is being labeled as other, validating our place in society, and relating to us as part of the fabric of life in the United States.
JS: What has happened since the Arabic and Vietnamese language pathways were approved by the board?
LK: It’s was stalled time and time again, for three years to be exact, but we have managed to move it forward. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) along with Anti-Defamation League (ADL)—wealthy private institutions that are pro-Israel—led an effort to kill the plan, specifically because AROC as a community organization is listed as a partner and has been one of the main champions of the effort.
JS: Why is the JCRC opposed to AROC being connected with the pathway?
LK: This is a period when zionist organizations are escalating their efforts to isolate pro-Palestinian organizations anywhere. In the Bay Area, JCRC tries to ensure that any criticism of Israel is attacked and marginalized. They want to make it impossible to be critical of Israel and still be a community organizer. They have threatened the funding of nonprofits that held workshops or took positions in solidarity with Palestinian human rights, they succeeded in getting the Oakland Museum of Children’s Arts to cancel an exhibit of artwork by children in Gaza, they destroyed the economic base of a community newspaper that printed articles questioning Israeli policies. There’s a long list going back many years.
AROC is a community-based organization. We provide legal help to Arab immigrants, we work with youth, we advocate for Arabic interpretation in education and healthcare, we work in coalitions around police violence. But we are unapologetically anti-racist and anti-zionist, and our work reflects those values. The JCRC saw how much the language pathways mobilized our community and the force that it showed. They also have seen the impact of our work over the years and the strength of cross-movement building in raising awareness about the struggles of Arabs, the role of Israel in our region, and challenging the ongoing systematic racism we face here. As an institution committed to maintaining Israeli apartheid and supporting the occupation, and dehumanization of Arabs and Palestinians, they saw that as a threat—they don’t want the Arab voice to be heard and definitely don’t want it to be impactful.
They used our criticismof Israel as a basis for us not to be allowed to work in the schools or to be a partner in the languages pathways. They tried to get the board of education to take a new vote on the resolution, removing the community partners from the proposal. That has never happened before for any of the other language pathways. But we got a lot of support from the community and from allied social justice organizations, and after months of our organizing to challenge JCRC’s attack on AROC, the board decided not to revote but to move forward.
But since then, the process was stalled for three years. This never happened before—not for Spanish, Latin, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, or any of the many languages taught in San Francisco. Once the pathways resolution gets passed, there’s an internal process working with community partners to decide on an approach and assess which schools to place the languages at. Those recommendations come back to the board and, within a year or so, there’s staffing, the program is implemented, and it’s rolled out.
But that didn’t happen with Arabic and Vietnamese. We had teachers send petitions to the district saying they don’t want this language at their school, that it will bring more immigrant families, who are harder to work with and already behind in their learning, thus making the teachers’ jobs more difficult. They said they didn’t want to change the demographic of their school by attracting more Arab or Vietnamese families.
That put the district in a difficult position. They were committed to the language pathways. On the other hand, there was this campaign by powerful forces. And we don’t have as much political power as other communities. The district consistently stated its commitment to seeing the language pathways implemented in schools. And we stayed committed to working with them to see this program through. It took three years, and finally Arabic is being taught in an elementary and high school in San Francisco!
JS: How did the Arab American community respond to the lack of motion on the pathway?
LK: It had a huge impact on our community. Hundreds of parents were so excited. Families mobilized to come to the board of education meetings, to speak up and let the district know we want this. When we won, it was extremely empowering and inspiring. People felt motivated to fight for what they believe in ways they hadn’t before.
This is an immigrant community escaping from war-torn home countries, coming to the United States and feeling marginalized, feeling they don’t know how to communicate to people in power. Then to see they can exert themselves, be heard, and win something for their children. Especially working alongside the families from the Vietnamese Youth Development Centers, it was a great experience.
For that to be followed by attacks smearing the community-based organization they’re a part of, attacks by teachers questioning the need or legitimacy of having Arabic being taught in San Francisco at all, to find themselves pitted against teachers who don’t want them, their families, their children, or their language in the school—that experience was extremely demoralizing.
JS: Did the Vietnamese pathway face similar obstacles?
LK: From our perspective, yes. We don’t know if it would have been similarly stalled had they done it on their own. But we do know that the same case is being made against Vietnamese. Our suggested schools for the two languages are different, and at the schools we’re looking at for Vietnamese pathways, the teachers are similarly saying we don’t want these families at our schools, we don’t want to change the demographic of our school, we don’t need to have youth who are having difficulty learning pulled out of the classroom for an hour a day to learn Vietnamese.
Ultimately what’s coming to the surface is that there continues to be racism in the school district and xenophobia in San Francisco, both as a reflection of society at large and also our history as a city, even though we don’t always want to remember that. And in times like these, it is easier for people to express it.
JS: How did the teacher union respond?
LK: The union didn’t take an official position. I will say that many teachers and union leaders spoke up and were advocates for the language pathways. Teachers, administrators, community members, faith leaders, unions, youth, parents, and Jewish allies—all wrote endless letters and testimonies to the board about the need for this, and the impact of the attack on the pathways. You can’t separate the two now because even fighting for your language has become a political battle in San Francisco.
JS: How do you see this in the overall context of the anti-Arab, Islamophobic atmosphere in the United States?
LK: Although there is an upsurge in resistance to racism and state violence in the United States, we’re also seeing the reaction to that.
LK: Polarization, exactly. Suddenly something like language pathways is controversial, or AROC, which has a long history of working with the city of San Francisco providing services for immigrants and organizing our community against war and racism. Now suddenly it’s a question whether or not we’re a legitimate organization.
We have been in the schools since 2009. The district has acknowledged that they need us to; they need every community to have a way to address racism in the schools. AROC plays that role for the Arab community. We create a safe place for Arab youth to talk about issues that matter to them, to unpack things they’re experiencing, and to come up with ways to address them. That’s an important aspect of their social and political development, and it’s also part of helping them feel connected and committed to their schools and their education.
So our work is necessary and critical. But the political climate has made it okay to question our legitimacy. A white-led, wealthy, political organization like JCRC, who are they to say that an Arab organization can’t work with Arab youth and to stall our youth work for three years?
It’s unfortunate we continue to be up against these huge forces, but at the same time it’s been inspiring to see the ways we’re able to develop our own force and power and resistance through community, through solidarity and a commitment to social justice. Since the campaign started, families have remained committed to seeing it through, fighting back against the attacks, and doing whatever they can to move the program forward. And with that support, we were successful in doing so.
But the antagonism that was created as a result of the tension and opposition has changed things. They now longer feel that the city and the school district are partnering with them to make this wonderful thing happen. Now, it’s the Arab community fighting to make our case. There’s no longer a clear partnership, and that’s exactly what the opposition wanted.
But they haven’t succeeded in crushing the commitment of these families and communities, both Vietnamese and Arab families. It’s so deep and so grounded in their lived experience, rooted in their values. That’s not going away, it won’t dissipate.
And despite all the delays and problems, the school district finally moved forward with the language pathways and with AROC’s youth programming in public schools. They still have a stated commitment to diversity, and to the values of language and world language pathways. They had to face the racist attacks head on and move forward with the program despite them.
I believe the power and strength of communities coming together to fight for Arab families, along with the racist and Islamophobic attacks that attempted to crush their efforts, ultimately led to a positive outcome. It’s unfortunate that the process had to be so difficult and challenging for people who are already facing mounting challenges because of who they are. Yet it has been inspiring to see the outpouring of support that AROC, the Arab community, and the struggle to fight for the dignity of Arab families in SF has received from people all across the country. This became a fight against anti-Arab racism, zionism, and Islamophobia. And at a time of such polarization in the US, it brought together movements and people from all walks of life, who, as people struggling against all forms of oppression, understood this fight as their own. And that is how we were able to win.
Jody Sokolower is a political activist, teacher, writer, and editor. Former managing editor at Rethinking Schools, she is the project coordinator of the Teach Palestine Project at the Middle East Children’s Alliance.
Lara Kiswani is the executive director of the Arab Resource & Organizing Center (AROC) in San Francisco, which organizes Arab and Muslim communities to challenge militarism, racism, and repression. A Palestinian born in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has worked as a youth and adult educator and is a member of Al-Juthoor of the Arab Shatat, a local Palestinian folkloric dance troupe.