Precious Knowledge

Precious Knowledge

Written by Marie Shier

On October 13th, Galeria de la Raza hosted an event of a film screening, “Precious Knowledge” that convened in a community forum discussion. I was completely unaware of the subject of this film going into the event. I was surprised by the amount of people attending, with the room quickly filling past 10, 20, 30, 40 people. We started promptly at 6:45 with a woman named Carla Wo introducing the film.

Precious Knowledge proved to be a deep, intense documentary about the political ordeal in Arizona. It follows several students and teachers central to the issue, through their struggle to keep the Mexican American Studies program at Tucson High School running. Prior to this film, I had heard about the program being canceled, but had no details about the actual struggle with which the students and faculty were faced. After seeing this film, my initial reaction was anger at the ridiculous assumptions and propaganda given by Tom Horne, the state superintendant and Janice Brewer, the governor, and at some of the blatant lies stated by these authorities.

The most shocking moment I can remember from the film first depicts Tom Horne visiting the classroom of the MAS program, at an invitation from the classroom to show they were not being taught of the “oppression of white people” and “promoting the overthrow of the American government” (Jo Pitzl, 2010). Tom Horne is welcomed and the class and he basically have a discussion about the program. In one instance, he points to a picture of Che Guevara on the wall and says he would prefer to see a portrait of Ben Franklin. Later, in a press conference and later in the film, he reports that at his visit to the classroom, the students said Ben Franklin “was a racist,” which did not happen (Precious Knowledge, 2011).

By and far, the issue in Arizona is technically ‘old news’ in our fast paced, media crazy United States. As HB 2281 was passed in 2011, the fight for the return of the program has been strong, but so far unsuccessful. On October 13th, there was a nationwide movement to show “Precious Knowledge” across the country. Galeria de la Raza in the Mission district of San Francisco was one of the 60 plus venues across the United States that showed the film on that night.I had to opportunity to conduct a phone interview with Eren McGinnis, the producer of the film. Please note it is paraphrased, as I conducted it over the phone.

MS: What was your role as producer of the film?

EM: As producer I did a little bit of everything. One of my big roles was writing grant proposals to receive funding for the project. Out of the 30 we (her team) applied to, we only got funding from two of them. It was very challenging to raise money. My other big role was that I recorded all the audio for the film. A producer really does a little bit of everything. We had a very small crew; there were only four of us.

MS: What inspired you to be involved?

EM: I live in Tucson and had the pleasure to meet the director of the now former MAS (Mexican American Studies) program, Sean Arce, who sparked my interest in the matter. He told me of the district sentiment towards the MAS program and the desire to ban all ethnic studies programs.

Also, my son attended Tucson High School and was one of the last in the classes before they were closed.

MS: I saw your film as part of a national event that included over 60 screenings across the country. Do you think the film has received more attention now or when it was first released?

EM: I think that is challenging for me to answer. I know the students in Arizona organized over 100 screenings last year in Arizona alone.

MS: How has the situation changed in Arizona from since the film was released?

EM: The biggest news is that the classes have been shut down. As far as the legal status, things aren’t looking that great. If the court case succeeds (or fails), I imagine that more interest will be created; enthusiasm ebs and flows. The reality is the classes have been shut down and that is a very sad thing.

MS: How are you still involved?

EM: Mainly I have been working to organize screenings and facilitating for students and others to organize screenings. We want to get more material online; there has been a huge demand for more footage of the classrooms and we can provide all that.

Carla Wo was responsible for the showing I had the privilege to see; she was at the showing and stayed for a community forum type discussion afterwards to get reactions and concerns from the film. I had the chance to catch up with her and ask a few questions about the showing and the next steps for the film and the Arizona.

Interview with Carla Wo:

MS: When did you first see the film?

CW: I first saw the film in February of 2012 at a screening and discussion at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

MS: When was the film first released?

CW: The film was initially released in 2010

MS: What inspired you to have your own screening?

CW: The film inspired me to go to Tucson for the month of July, 2012 to be part of national solidarity work to supportthe Mexican American Studies program. I believe holding screenings is a productive way to educate about what is going on in Arizona, to talk to each other about how this relates to our situations locally, and to work toward building solidarity network and continue to plant the seeds of wisdom and engagement that Ethnic Studies can offer.

MS: How have you personally been involved with the ordeal in Arizona?

CW: In Tucson I canvased, attended public education events, met teachers, students, activists, artists, community members, and people from across the country, and ended up organizing an art event to raise awareness and support the Raza Defense Fund. Since then I helped to organize a Bay Area people's movement assembly on Ethnic Studies and we are building momentum towards a national assembly at the Free Minds Free People Conference next year in Chicago.

MS: What was your most inspiring moment through this ordeal?

CW: The people I have met and the precious and beautiful knowledge I have gained.

MS: What are the next steps to help?

CW: Look up the Raza Defense Fund online to get updates and make donations. You can learn about the student movement in Tucson by looking up UNIDOS (United Nondiscriminatory Students Demanding Our Studies). If you would like to be a part of Ethnic Studies coalition network in the Bay area you can contact me at carlita.wo@gmail.com.

I also had the opportunity to ask Maurisa Thompson about the more legal aspect and problems facing the students and teachers in Arizona. Maurisa Thompson is a poet and educator from the San Francisco Bay Area. She holds an MA in Education from UC Berkeley, currently works as a literacy specialist in an after school program, and was an organizer of the September 21st Librotraficante 50 For Freedom of Speech in San Francisco. She was at the screening and helped organize with Wo.

Interview with Maurisa:

MS: When did you first see the film?

MT:I first saw the film online on PBS's website in late May 2012, shortly after it was broadcast. I told all my co-workers about it in the after-school program where I work and immediately bought a copy for myself.

MS: How have you personally been involved with the ordeal in Arizona?

I became aware of the ban in January 2012, as word got out that books being used in the MAS program were literally seized from children's hands while they were in the classroom. I was furious, both as a teacher and as an aspiring writer. I know how hard teachers work to inspire a love of literature, of reading in general, in their students, and I know how much writers who spoke to me as a young person of color inspired me to love and understand myself. So the idea that books that were compelling to young people were deliberately being kept from them--by people in the education field — was worse than nonsensical. What was further outrageous, as I learned more, was how little the legislators knew about the classes or books being taught — they seemed to be motivated more politically than educationally, because how could you otherwise oppose a program that had proven its success?

By good fortune shortly thereafter, I met Naomi Quinonez, a professor at SFSU, through a local poetry reading, and she connected with me and other poets there about conducting a public reading of the banned books. We held that reading in July 2012 at the San Francisco Public Library, and then held a second reading, fundraiser and screening of Precious Knowledge on September 21 at the Mission Cultural Center, in solidarity with the national Librotraficante movement.

MS: What was your most inspiring moment through this ordeal?

MT: While I haven't had the chance to go to Arizona myself, I was so glad to meet Sean Arce and Curtis Acosta at the Teachers for Social Justice Conference here in San Francisco. Their energy and dedication is truly inspiring, and particularly having Curtis facilitate our work group meeting following the Teachers for Social Justice was a window into how he inspires his students, how critical pedagogy is a way of life, a way of speaking and thinking, a way of "reading the world."

MS: From a legal status, how does HB 2281 stand?

MT: Right now HB 2281 is being challenged directly in the United States District Court under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. More information, and the actual court briefings, can be found at the save ethnic studies link at the bottom of the page. Additionally, MAS and other Ethnic Studies programs were established under a 1974 Lawsuit, Fisher/Mendoza vs. Tucson Unified School District, as a remedy for discrimination taking place against Latino and Black students in the school district. Because the school district is still under court supervision of that settlement, the district and the plaintiffs of Fisher/Mendoza are still in negotiations as to how ethnic studies should play a role in continuing to remedy discrimination. So there is more than one way that the premise of HB 2281 could be invalidated.

MS: What are the next (legal) steps for those who want to help?

MT: Supporters of Ethnic Studies can donate to the defense fund (link included at bottom). They can also support La Raza Legal Defense Fund, which is helping to defend Sean Arce and Jose Gonzalez, two founders of the program, against a personal civil suit being brought against them by one of the supporters of HB2281.

I encourage everyone to see this film. It is immediately inspiring to act; the injustice is palpable. In this article, there are so many resources and opportunities to donate, to host a screening, to spread awareness and to make a change for the better. If nothing else, I plead for you all to see the film; it will change your perspective, and hopefully if enough people see it, change will be a real possibility for the students to reinstate their beloved program.