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Teach People’s History

Teaching truth in history

For decades the standard history curriculums taught to students, to all of us, have failed to teach truth—a fuller narrative that tells the perspective of not just the oppressor and the victors, but one that includes the traditionally disenfranchised, the poor, BIPOC communities, women, and workers. We believe that, by focusing on a more honest look at the past, we'll better understand the present and be equipped with ways to build a better future.

A people’s history is told from and about those left out of the mainstream narrative with the objective of presenting a more complete picture of history and people’s participation in it. While those overlooked by traditional history books have been telling their stories for centuries, their experience is ‘untold’ to the majority of students, denying them the learnings which inspire critical thinking and provide the analytical tools necessary to navigate today’s society. Teaching people’s history intentionally disrupts traditional lessons by centering a whole analysis of where we have been and by empowering students to critique and chart where we are going.

Here are six examples that frame how history is full of untold stories:

  • Rosa Parks committed her life to fighting for racial equality, not just one day on a bus in Montgomery, AL.
  • The internment of people with Japanese ancestry during WWII was racist and anti-democratic and took governments decades to admit.
  • Targeting Muslims after 9/11 vilified millions of people for their beliefs, history, culture, and identity and did not make us safer.
  • The removal of Indigenous children from their family, community, and culture was to gain control of Indigenous land and resources.
  • Voter suppression isn’t a thing of the past. Every election, millions of eligible voters still can't cast their ballots.
  • Homophobia and racism caused governments to fail to act during the AIDS epidemic.

Everyone should have the right to vote. Yet, every year, there are still far too many who can’t.

A black and white photo show voters standing in line to cast their ballots in front of a table with signs printed with the word vote.

By examining these six so-called historical moments in their true richness we can, in the words of the Zinn Education Project, “... begin to see society more fully, more accurately.”

Throughout history, there have been truth tellers who have documented and shared people's history, however, they have not always been officially certified as historians. For example, when higher education was denied to people of color and women, they would often share history through journalism, novels, and theater.

Here are just a few examples of countless people's historians: Carter G. Woodson co-founded the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 to "promote, research, preserve, interpret, and disseminate information about Black life, history and culture to the global community." Ida B. Wells documented the history of lynching through her journalism. Ronald Takaki wrote A Different Mirror to introduce the history of the United States through a focus on Native Americans, African Americans, Jews, Irish Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and others. Howard Zinn wrote A People's History of the United States when he could not find a similar text for his college courses. Kidada E. Williams is bringing the people's history of Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era to the public through a podcast with dramatic readings called Seizing Freedom.

In addition, many contemporary educators are teaching people’s history and fighting for the right to teach truth in history.

In the United States, legislation has been introduced in more than 35 states that would ban or restrict what educators can and cannot teach in classrooms, specifically targeting the teaching of racism in U.S. history. The proposed or passed laws claim that lessons on the racial history can be "divisive" or “controversial”. Educators teaching people’s history argue that a fuller history empowers students to learn about rich, diverse, and perseverant movements to end racism, such as the Civil Rights movement.

Canada’s approach to teaching and learning history has long been scrutinized, including most recently after the discovery of 215 children’s remains at the Kamloops, B.C. Indian Residential School in May 2021. This, along with the subsequent tragic discoveries on the grounds of former Residential Schools across the country, also challenge the education system to deeply commit to reconciliation—a process aimed at confronting racism and learning from those impacted by colonization and Residential Schools.

Confronting truth is history is empowering to students and to us all. It’s time we listen to the untold stories. It’s time to teach truth.

Click the link to download a guide on selecting books to end bias and to be connected with organizations committed to teaching truth.