Senate clauses promote ethnic inclusion

News Uncategorized
by Sarah Wei, News Editor
graphic by Emily Cheng

To promote cultural inclusion and representation for ethnic minority groups, South Senate introduced two clauses in 2021— the Praying Space Bill and the Holiday Recognition Bill.

Currently, only five religious holidays are recognized with a recess from school; as a part of the Holiday Recognition Bill, which has already been passed, the Senate is proposing that holidays of Diwali, Lunar New Year and Eid al-Fitr also be observed by the district. 

The bill came after a student survey indicated strong support for observing a more diverse range of holidays,  junior senator Wasan Rafat, the Senate committee leader for both bills, said. She said that time off would not only benefit those celebrating, but also emphasize the district’s commitment towards cultural diversity. 

“If students who celebrate these holidays are not required to do homework, they will be able to spend their holidays celebrating [and] spending time with loved ones,” she said. “More importantly, [these bills] will hopefully indicate to students that their culture is valued.”

The Senate’s recent efforts have been supported by campaigns from student organizations such as the Asian Student Organization (ASO), which is leading the movement for the observation of Lunar New Year.

ASO Senior Officer Evan Zhu said that the holiday is important to many Asian students, who, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website, make up 20% of the student body in the Newton Public Schools — the second-largest ethnic group in the district.

Junior Lyanna Tran, Co-President of the Amnesty International Club, led a petition in 2021 calling for the observation of Lunar New Year. Tran said that attending school during the holiday has left many struggling to balance celebrations with their academic obligations.

This pressure to keep up with school leads to a disconnect for Asian students from their cultural identity, K-Pop Dance Club Co-President Amy Cheu said. 

“Lunar New Year holds deep cultural and historical value and meaning. … For countless generations, [it has allowed] us to be free from school or work obligations, spend time with family and friends, reconnect with our roots and take pride in them. Not only is this day important to [our history], but we feel like a part of our cultural identity is incomplete without it,” she said. 

“[Asian students] miss out on the most important day out of the entire year to celebrate their identity, making them feel more and more distant from who they are as Asians as they continue to live in the United States.”

Similarly, attending school interferes with the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan fasting for Muslims. Sophomore Danny Aldehneh said that the Senate bill would help balance his religious commitments with his academics. 

“It’s a holy time that we have to spend with family, and school can get in the way of that because we have to often choose to go to school and miss hanging out with family, or hang out with family and miss multiple assignments for school,” he said.

The implementation of these holidays, however, faces logistical obstacles. School Committee Vice-Chair Kathleen Shields said that observing more holidays is difficult due to the length of the school calendar and the population of minorities. 

“It’s going to be a big hurdle to add any more days out of school,” she said. “The issue is how many people are affected by the holiday. What’s the impact from a percentage of enrollment perspective, and how do you balance that against the need to meet our time and learning requirements?”

Along with the observation of ethnic holidays, students are advocating for the inclusion of in-building prayer spaces.. The Senate’s proposed Praying Space Bill would set aside designated areas in the building for students to pray during the school day. 

Rafat said that the room’s addition would be a step in the right direction towards ensuring religious equality for Muslim students.

“The ability to safely practice your religion is a human right. Providing access to a praying space is crucial to ensure that student needs are met,” she said.

Campaigns for holidays and prayer spaces are elements in the movement for diverse cultural representation at South. Cheu said that for Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) students, the fight to observe Lunar New Year is greater than just the holiday.

“This is not an individual action or a sudden burst of spontaneity,” she said. “This is more of a chain reaction among AAPI students and faculty [about how] our culture and traditions should be valued just as much as the next one.”