Emotional testimony from State Rep. Frank Hornstein on Thursday marked the third hearing in three weeks — and likely the last one — for a bill that would mandate Holocaust and genocide education in state schools.
In the hearing, which took place in front of the House Education Finance Committee, Hornstein read from an oral history he compiled while a student at Macalester College.
“It was very, very important to not only honor the memory of my parents and the grandparents that I never met through this legislation, but also including all other genocides,” he said. “I think, particularly here in Minnesota, the genocide of indigenous peoples must be taught in the schools.”
No vote was taken, but the bill, HF 2685, has been “laid over for possible inclusion in the education finance bill,” said Rep. Cheryl Youakim, the committee chair. Last week it was heard in the House Education Policy Committee, and the week prior the senate version, SF 2442, was heard in the Senate Education Policy Committee.
Prof. Gabriela Spears-Rico – an expert in Native American Studies and Critical Indigenous Studies, and a board member of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Minnesota – testified about the importance of students seeing themselves reflected in history.
“As the mother of a child who is both a Dakota descendant and an Ojibwe tribal member, it is exciting to see that this mandate includes language on indigenous genocide,” she said. “Parenting a child going through St. Paul Public Schools, I have noticed how indigenous people from this continent are left out of the history curriculum in our public schools. The genocide that occurred to our people is hardly or only referentially mentioned. It is important for our indigenous children to see themselves in the curriculum, and for all children to learn about how colonialism impacted the indigenous people of the Americas.”
Laura Zelle, the director of Holocaust education at the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said that these are not easy topics to teach.
“Centering the complexity of this history is essential as it creates opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills, accurately interpret history, and develop a greater sense of civic social responsibility,” she said. “These are not easy topics to understand, and they often bring up more questions than answers.”
If the bill passes, it would establish a task force, led by two co-chairs and all over overseen by the commissioner of education. Zelle said that teachers from the middle school and high school levels would be on this committee with a background in English Language Arts, Social Studies and student representation as well as members from other committees with genocide history.
“The group’s two main tasks would be to build the repository of resources and identify professional development opportunities for teachers to self-select the opportunities and then be supported with funds,” she said. “Gathering the most current updated curated resources and securing funding for the teacher training is incredibly necessary to empower teachers to teach this in an incredibly powerful way so that it benefits all of our students.”
The bill specifically lists, among others: Armenian, Cambodian, Rwandan, and Yugoslav, among others, that live in Minnesota with descendants as survivors. Mariam Mikayelyan, a sophomore at St. Olaf, is Armenian and talked about the importance of other genocides being covered in the bill.
“[The Armenian genocide] is considered one of the biggest genocides of the 20th century. And unfortunately, it was not the last one,” she said. “As an advocate for education and a future educator, I believe that schools are the place where intellectual discourse is born, where critical conversations and debates just like the ones about genocide are fostered.”
The bill does not explicitly reference Somali genocide, but Ethan Roberts, the director of governmental affairs and deputy executive director of the JCRC, said there is a path for that to be included.
“The bill does have a definition for mass violence,” he said during the hearing, and pointed to a line in the requirements section of the bill that referenced “cases of genocide and mass violence, especially those experienced by communities expelled from resettling, migrated to or living in Minnesota.”
“I am not an expert on genocide,” Roberts said, “But for me, that would definitely sound like the Somali community has been, if not genocide, and at least victims of mass violence, and they’ve certainly are a huge part of the fabric of our state and have resettled here.”
State Rep. Heather Edelson encouraged Hornstein and the other authors to include Somalis in the bill.
“I think the Somali community is such a rich, important part of our population here in Minnesota, Rep. Heather Edelson said. “And I think there’s a disconnect on why we have so many refugees that initially have come here.”
Roberts said the feedback from Edelson is what the committee process is for.
“Every time the bill gets heard, it’s an opportunity for members to think about ways to make the bill better,” he said. “Chair Youakim helped us make it better after the [education] policy committee, and Rep. Edelson helped us do that today.”
Roberts said that the bill is up for inclusion in the omnibus education bill, and there’s a chance that the bills that have been selected for inclusion will be known as early as next week.
The Minnesota Constitution deadline to wrap up the legislative session is by the first Monday after the third Saturday in May – this year that’s May 22.
“It seems like a ways to go,” Roberts said. “But in reality, we’re very much in the home stretch.”