The Island interviews Lesson 9 litigant Aiesha Balde
Aiesha 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.
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