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The Island interviews Lesson 9 litigant Aiesha Balde

Submitted by on 1, September 18, 2009 – 6:00 am6 Comments

020509_18291Aiesha Balde has long served as an advocate for Muslims and immigrants, as both an immigration consultant and as the co-founder and school director of the Islamic Center of Alameda. And that is what led Balde to attend a meeting the school district held last year to talk about its plans for an anti-gay bullying curriculum at the district’s elementary schools.

The vast majority of the families Balde works with send their kids to public schools, she said. And she has worked tirelessly for them, asking school principals for sensitivity during the fasting month of Ramadan, encouraging the parents to go to their kids’ classrooms to talk to students and stepping in when individual students were bullied or teased for being Muslim.

But Balde, who is also a mother of five and non-profit director who says education is her work, thinks the district’s lessons to promote understanding and acceptance of gays and their families went a step too far. So she and nine other parents are suing Alameda Unified in an effort to require the school district to allow them to opt out of the lessons.

“What’s the matter with saying, ‘No bullying?’ Why be specific? Why?” she said.

Balde, who recently sat for an interview with The Island, did not want to discuss the lawsuit. The suit claims the lessons’ discussions about families constitute health education, and as such, state law requires school districts to provide parents an opt-out.

But she said her opposition to the lessons is not about hating gays and that she is not a bigot.

“The issue becomes, who teaches what my child learns about that issue. I believe in what the (Qu’ran) says, that it’s my job. This is taking away my power as a parent,” Balde said.

Balde said that she went to the meeting because she thought the district wanted parents’ input on the lessons. But she said that when she heard the presentation, it came across as a done deal.

“I think a lot of people felt it was sprung on them. That’s how this all got started,” Balde said.

She said she didn’t want to get involved, but that she felt a moral obligation to speak out.

“I just want a little sensitivity here. We all do,” she said.

Balde said the lessons don’t comport with her understanding of the Qu’ran, and specifically, the story of Lut (Lot in the Bible), which she said teaches that homosexuality is wrong.

And she said the lessons will be troublesome for the families she works with, particularly immigrant families headed by parents who are already confounded by the much of the American culture their kids absorb.

When asked if specific lessons were a problem, she brought up the curriculum’s first grade lesson, which teaches that different families – including those headed by gay and lesbian couples – are acceptable family types.

“It puts my parents in a situation where they’re trying to explain what that means in terms of faith,” Balde said, adding that cultural differences also play a huge role. “(And) if a child says that’s wrong (in class), it puts them in a place of confrontation, you’re not (politically correct), kids don’t like you.”

School district leaders and their supporters have said the lessons were requested by teachers who wanted more tools to deal with anti-gay taunts and bullying that they said begins as early as kindergarten. They said the lessons are about teaching tolerance and respect for others, and that they offer positive positive images of gays to help counter the negative stereotypes and connotations about gays that persist.

To support their efforts, some have spoken out passionately about the pain they themselves have suffered because they are gay, about the taunting and isolation they have faced and the lack of positive role models they had. And supporters have laid out sobering statistics detailing what they say are the impacts of doing nothing, which include increased suicide rates and drug use.

Balde said she understands what the district is trying to do, and that she thinks school leaders are doing their best for its students. She said she bears no animosity toward district leaders and that she’s been involved in supporting the schools herself, serving on school site council, helping select a new principal for her child’s school and working with school board Trustee Niel Tam in his successful effort to win a grant for disaster preparedness on the West End.

But she thinks that if tolerance for gays is being taught at school, that other groups should be included as well.

Still, when asked if she would be comfortable with gay parents going into the classroom to talk about themselves, as she has encouraged parents she works with to do, she says she would not.

“That’s a good question. I didn’t think of it that way,” she said when asked. “Probably not.”

So what is Balde teaching her kids about gays and their families? “That we don’t agree. We’re all different people with certain practices and lifestyles. We say, this is not what we do,” she said.

Still, she said she has taught her children to be respectful of all regardless of their differences. And she said that if she witnessed children being bullied with anti-gay slurs on the school yard, she would step in to stop it.

Balde said she will sit on the committee the school district is putting together to revamp the district’s broader anti-violence curriculum, which includes the lesson. And she sounded positive about a resolution being reached.

“Every situation, even this one, is workable. Everyone is trying to be heard, to be recognized for their rights,” she said.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In an effort to ensure a civil discussion on what we know is a pretty hot topic, The Island reminds readers that we do not publish personal attacks. And as an added measure, we request that you sign your full name to any comment that you post. Thank you.

6 Comments »

  • Mark Irons says:

    Michele,

    Thanks for this. This interview is very instructive and Ms. Balde is probably one of the best examples of a conscientious and involved parent who is stating clearly what is for them a conflict in a way that even LGBT supporters can find sympathetic. At least I did.

    Your question at the end about comparing gay parents speaking to kids at school to Muslim parents coming to speak to children is a good one. Many people want to put this issue in a frame of LGBT advocates trying to pedal a life style. If they are opposed to the curriculum I would expect they might violently object to a gay parent speaking directly to kids in the classroom about themselves.

    But many religions are expressed in strong terms where by proponents view all other religions as seriously wrong headed, and many religious parents go well beyond teaching “this is not what we do” to a full on rejection of other faiths as condemning a person to hell. Yet if we are to teach plurality and diversity in the public schools, how could one argue that it is harmful or wrong to have the facts of these differing religious views explained in an education setting?

    I view homosexuality as a personal manifestation which may have environmental factors, but which is also undoubtedly something many if not most LGBT people simply come to regard as how they are born, and thus is “natural”. Religion on the other hand is something I can relate to as a natural manifestation of human beings longing for a sense of spiritual purpose, but to this agnostic all religion is entirely a fabricated structure of myths created in our minds and therefore is not “natural”. I do not feel my children would be at risk of becoming Catholic by having the religion explained to them in school because Catholic kids were being bullied.

  • Karry Kelley says:

    I agree with Ms Balde that it will be good to expand the curriculum to specifically address other groups even though most discussion of most protected classes is already woven through most of the districts curriculum. Is Ms Balde now willing to withdraw her lawsuit against the district for not allowing her children to opt out of Lesson 9 curriculum? If she and the other plaintiffs are successful in their suit, will I be allowed to opt my children out of lessons taught about Muslim, African American or Asian cultures? Or are they just looking for special rights to discriminate against one group? I sincerely hope that she and the other members of the new committee stay focused on adding to the curriculum and not taking away.

  • Jon Spangler says:

    I am very glad that Aiesha Balde will be joining the newly-constituted AUSD committee to improve the safer schools curriculum, which was always intended to be fully inclusive of all protected classes and every student in our public schools.

    I would hope that she would eventually come to honor having “different” people, including gays and lesbians, visiting her children’s classrooms. It is equally important that other parents honor her presentations of her own faith and culture in the classroom for the same purpose–to educate Alameda’s children about the amazing and rich diversity of our various heritages and experiences.

    Will she still pursue the lawsuit now that the new district effort is underway?

  • John Burke says:

    Michele,

    Thank you for this interview and insight into where Ms. Balde is coming from. Your question about treating gay parents with the same respect that she advocates for Muslim parents showed that she is not committed to equality. Giving Muslim parents rights that you are unwilling to extend to gay parents is bigotry, plain and simple.

    Unlike others who have responded, I think it is very unwise for the AUSD to have Ms. Balde participate on any curriculum committee while suing the district. She isn’t participating as an equal member on such a committee, because she has the power to withdraw from her lawsuit, if she gets what she wants. This puts all other non-litigant members of the committee at a severe disadvantage.

    I thought this new committee was designed to incorporate other protected groups into the curriculum, not to “revamp” Lesson 9. I sincerely hope that this isn’t some back door way of allowing people like Ms. Balde to “revamp” Lesson 9 out of existence.

  • Michael Williams says:

    I find it hopeful that Aiesha Balde had not yet thought of it “that way” when asked if she would be willing for gay and lesbian families to enjoy the same visibility she’s fought for Muslim families to have. I hope she thinks about it some more—seriously reflects in light of the compassion taught by Islam—and sees the inconsistency in denying others the rights she takes to be fundamental.

    Having been raised in a conservative religious tradition, I can understand Ms. Balde’s discomfort. Seeing sexual orientation as one part of our community’s diversity was a process for me. But if we are to promote mutual tolerance, it’s important to realize that it is precisely the people we’re uncomfortable with who need our tolerance.

    And if we are seeking to protect children of all targeted groups, we need to acknowledge that children who don’t fit gender stereotypes are as vulnerable as Muslim children. If Ms. Balde were to turn around the terms of the lawsuit she’s been pulled in on, she might think about whether or not teaching about Muslim families is also “health education.” How would she, and the families she serves, feel if families choose to “opt out” of lessons on her culture?

    Finally, I hope Ms. Balde will take a deeper look at her lawsuit’s sponsors, the Pacific Justice Institute, especially their web site, where they boast about opposing Muslim-tolerance curricula in Southern California.

    I hope the curriculum advisory experience will be a positive one for Ms. Balde, and participants with similar discomforts, and that they will drop their adversarial attacks in favor of the hopefulness of working together for positive solutions.

  • Allan Mann says:

    Since she is part of the Pacific Justice Institue’s lawsuit, Ms. Balde should look at this article on its website: http://www.pacificjustice.org/content/islam-takes-over-middle-school-curriculum. I think it may give her second thoughts, since it describes the group’s challenge of a middle school curriculum that tried to do for Muslims what AUSD is trying to do for children from LGBT families. Once she sees the article, she might have a change of heart. Perhaps she never thought of it “that way” either.

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