LOS ANGELES, CA – In a historic decision at a time of rising anti-immigrant hate and a record number of detentions, an American public school is being named after an undocumented immigrant. The Mountain View Whisman School District voted Thursday night to name a new elementary school after Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder and chief executive officer of Define American.
Born in the Philippines, Vargas emigrated to Mountain View, Calif., at age 12 and attended Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High School. He has gone on to become an award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker, and renowned human rights advocate.
Vargas added: “As a proud product of the Bay Area’s public school system, I am overwhelmed by this totally unexpected and deeply meaningful honor. Thank you to Superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and the members of the school board,” Vargas said.
“Education is the most sacred gift we give to our country’s future. I am who I am because of teachers and school administrators who nurtured and encouraged me. Their care went beyond papers and beyond grades. This school will be a living testament to the powerful influence that an educator can have in a child’s life. It is my hope this school will be a welcoming institution of learning for all students and their families.”
After building a successful career in journalism, Vargas publicly declared his undocumented status in June 2011 and, with a small group of friends, created Define American. Education has been a core part of the non-profit organization’s DNA since, from educating the news media and Hollywood culture-makers about immigration to leading education initiatives that broaden and deepen people’s understanding of our country’s 43 million immigrants.
Define American has 56 chapters in 26 states and D.C.; and is currently the largest network of student organizations explicitly focused on immigrants, identity, and citizenship.
In 2014, after the release of “Documented,” Vargas’ autobiographical documentary that aired on CNN, Define American released a curriculum, covered by Education Week, which provided guidance for teachers on how to discuss the complicated issues around immigration that emerged from the film.
The curriculum was designed to align with the common core standards for 11th and 12th grade language arts and social studies classrooms, and was also designed according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Framework. The curriculum was launched publicly at the 2014 National Council for the Social Studies convention in Boston, Massachusetts, to over 2,000 teachers from all over the country.
Later, in July 2015, MTV aired an hour-long documentary called “White People” directed and hosted by Vargas, in which he travels around the country engaging young people around the topics of race, privilege and identity. With the film’s premiere, Define American worked closely with MTV to release a similarly-inspired discussion guide discussing issues in the documentary, and was referred to as one of the more timely and “accessible resources” for teaching students about race and injustice by the Los Angeles Times.
Additionally, Define American’s campaigns (#WordsMatter, #FactsMatter), original video content, and Vargas’s writings have been used as resources by educators in countless classrooms across the country from 5th grade to higher education.
“What’s in a name? For the generations to follow: extraordinary possibilities,” said Patricia Hyland, who chairs Define American’s board of trustees. Hyland, an educator for 36 years, is the director of equity and employee relations at Foothill De Anza Community College District, and was Vargas’s former principal at Mountain View High School. “We are living through an ugly and hateful time in our country when immigrant families are under constant attack, even at schools. The district’s decision is an affirmation of American values and our belief in opening our doors of opportunities to all kinds of dreamers.”
In addition to Hyland, the a current members of Define American’s board of trustees, Elise Haas and Maria Gabriela Pacheco, are as passionate about the role of education in the lives of immigrants and all Americans. Haas helped establish the Undocumented Student Program at University of California-Berkeley, one of the first of its kind in the country. Pacheco is the program director at TheDream.us, the largest scholarship fund for undocumented students.
“As families pull up to the Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School every morning, they will do so in the knowledge that they are part of a community that models respect, inclusivity and love of learning. I hope it inspires them to be curious about other people and cultures, to see themselves in one another. At a time when kids are being unjustly separated from their parents and sent to detention camps, I’m proud of the Mountain View Whisman School District for being a welcoming light of hope.” Haas said.
Pacheco said: “All children, no matter where they are born, deserve to feel loved, and that they can be who they aspire to be no matter the obstacles or barriers put in front of them. Going to a school named after Jose Antonio Vargas will be a daily reminder to them and all children of the world that their lives matter more than a piece of paper. The naming of this school comes at a time when American values are being put to the test––who do we want to be, what kind of country do we want our children to grow up in, and how do we define American?”
About Define American
Define American is the nation’s leading non-profit media organization that fights injustice and anti-immigrant hate through the power of storytelling. Through event curation, media consulting and creation, and grassroots organizing, Define American jumpstarts widespread & culture change around citizenship, race and identity in a changing America. It was founded in 2011 by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas. Vargas’s first book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, will be published by HarperCollins on September 18, 2018.
For more information, visit defineamerican.com.