Lifting the Voices of Hidden Figures:
The Amistad Stakeholder Group
On August 27, 2002, the Governor of New Jersey signed into law the “Amistad Bill” (A1301), sponsored by Assemblymen William D. Payne and Craig A. Stanley. The bill calls on New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into their social studies curriculum. When the Amistad legislation was introduced and passed, most presumed that the goal would be to ensure a more equitable integration of African-American history into the K-12 curriculum and to develop public programs on African-American history for children, families, and communities. Other states and cities had proposed similar legislation before 2002, including Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kansas, the state of Washington, and Georgia. New Jersey’s legislation, however, also created the Amistad Commission, a 23-member body named in honor of the enslaved Africans who gained their freedom after overthrowing the crew of the slave ship Amistad in 1839. The Commission’s mandate was to promote a wider implementation of educational awareness programs regarding the African slave trade, slavery in America, and the many contributions Africans have made to American society and to ensure that the Department of Education and public schools of New Jersey implement materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African-Americans and the descendants of the African Diaspora. Furthermore, the Commission committed to ensuring a broader integration of an intentional, authentic, and inclusive landscape of study of United States and world history that places Africans and African Americans at the center of the narrative as agents of change, rather than as bystanders or victims who live on the margins of society.
To this end, the Amistad Commission surveys and inventories educational programs, materials and curricula being used to teach American history in New Jersey schools. It guides and acts as a liaison with textbook publishers, schools, resource organizations and federal and state legislators to ensure that American history curricula are consistent with the Commission’s goals, and works to build a directory of volunteer and professional consultants who can share their knowledge of African-American’s roles in American history. The Amistad Commission has also developed high-level teacher resources, including an interactive curriculum of thirteen social studies units infused with literature and informational text, and broken down by grade span. This comprehensive resource includes lessons taught in almost 100 languages with tech-embedded features, such as a text enlarger, text to speech, and vocabulary definitions. Additionally, teachers can use the lesson plan template to infuse African and African-American history and culture within their lessons, where appropriate.
Despite the law, many schools have not fully implemented a robust curriculum or programming that is aligned with the intent of the legislation and the work of the Amistad Commission, so the NJEA, in partnership with the Department of Education, created a task force in 2018 to address the lack of implementation and to also look at model schools, such as the Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville, New Jersey who have been doing exemplary work in infusing the curriculum. The task force, now known as the Amistad Stakeholder Group, is comprised of a representative body of stakeholders in the field of education, including teachers, administrators, educational thought leaders, PTO presidents, advocacy groups, and others who have joined together to support public school districts in the shifting pedagogy of African American history in which people of color are seen as “survivors,” rather than “victims.” Additionally, the Amistad Stakeholder Group will provide support in analyzing the ways in which these shifts must begin at the foundational grades where conceptual understandings of equality, diversity, tolerance, and inclusion are taught in order to support students later in understanding the larger principles of slavery and marginalization.
In its first year of work, the Amistad Stakeholder Group has developed preliminary recommendations to the Amistad Commission to ensure more productive and sustainable implementation of curriculum inclusive of the Amistad principles within New Jersey classrooms. These recommendations include the following:
- Partner with colleges/universities educator preparation programs
- Connect with education groups that have conferences, i.e. NJEA, NJSBA, PTA, NAACP, NJBIC, etc.
- Develop workshops through NJEA Professional Development and Instruction and other organizations
- Partner with the NJDOE concerning development of an Amistad Recognition Award
- Meet with pre-service members to assist in determining best practices
- Utilize educator professional publications (i.e. NJEA Review) to advertise ASG’s work and recommendations
- Explore existing college-based educator programs for successful and less successful ventures
- Explore development of high school pilot programs
- Review and make recommendations for revisions and updates to Amistad Commission interactive curriculum
New Jersey Commissioner of Education Lamont Repollet further expanded district accountability by mandating requirements for integration of Amistad principles across other curricular content areas as part of the oversight monitoring of New Jersey Quality Single Accountability Continuum (NJQSAC).
NJEA members attending the 2019 Convention were witness to a joint announcement by Governor Murphy, NJEA, and the New Jersey Department of Education to continue partnering together to better implement the Amistad curriculum across the state, including the introduction of the new Amistad Journey, a program designed to allow educators to travel to some of the historic sites of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Modeled on a similar program run by the New Jersey Holocaust Commission that helps educators visit historic Holocaust sites, the Amistad Journey will include opportunities for educators to visit sites in Africa. According to Ed Richardson, NJEA’s former executive director, “Since the history of slavery in America did not begin and end in Africa, the Amistad Journey will also include experiences for educators in the United States.”
The future looks encouraging for those involved in the work of the Amistad Commission and the Amistad Stakeholder Group. During the 2019 NJEA Convention, the keynote speech by Harvard philosophy professor and author Cornel West prompted a call to action for the future of education and social justice. West advised educators not to live in an echo chamber or look down upon people whom they disagree with or “who are not as woke as you would like them to be.” Commissioner Repollet reminds us that West’s call to “lift every voice” was in line with the message of the Amistad Curriculum because African American history is American history, raising awareness and recognition of the substantial and immeasurable contributions of what pop culture has referred to as our “hidden figures.”
Editor's Note: Please email Dr. Lisa J. Gleason for additional information.