Tell Our Stories: The Unwavering Student Voice

Interviewing Kaviya Chidambaram From Diversify Our Narrative

Kaviya Chidambaram (all pronouns) is the Region 3 Co-Director of Communications and Co-Director of International Communications for the Diversify Our Narrative National Team. They are also a Co-District Lead for their own DON chapter at the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado. As a South Indian daughter of immigrants, Kaviya is a firm advocate for educational equity.

In this piece, Kaviya joins PIA Editor Cassie Guinto to discuss three important facets of Diversify Our Narrative: student advocacy, inclusive teaching, and community power.


Cassie Guinto:

Can you give a run-down of what Diversify Our Narrative is, and its overall mission?

Kaviya Chidambaram:

Diversify Our Narrative is a student-led organization that works towards racial equity, mainly through education – specifically in representation in high school curriculums, and community power. For me, those are the main things: student-led, community power, and really working on inclusivity through the resources used in the schools, and ensuring that teachers have the right training to teach with those resources. General community power means bringing BIPOC students to the forefront of the mission and working with teachers, community leaders, parents, and alumni. All of these members of the community come together and make sure that education is equitable: that all people see themselves represented in their education.

Guinto:

Many times with young, budding activists it’s like, what can you do? Us versus a whole system? Then you look at organizations like DON who have all these resources and opportunities that people can take on, and most of us are under 20! They say that the youth is the future, and with DON, with you, I really see it.

Chidambaram:

I think that part is so cool, that it’s not students taking instructions from random adults. It’s students making changes in their own communities and working directly with people in power. They’re actively on the forefront of change.

Guinto:

A huge thing that discourages students from becoming community leaders, especially in their schools, is faculty and administration not taking the student voice seriously. In their eyes, students don’t have their level of professional knowledge on things like curriculum planning, budgets, etc. Given that you and many others are students with such profound visions for their schools, what are your thoughts on that rift between students and faculty?

Chidambaram:

That’s definitely something that our chapter struggled with. We met with a lot of Board members, but it was hard to get our voices heard at the same caliber. Something that I think is really powerful is that teachers really care about student voices. When we were having some trouble with the direction of our chapter, we spoke with teachers and interviewed them. We found that they value student voices because students are who they are trying to impact.

I also think that teenagers can get away with a little more than adults, especially being annoying! If you need to send email floods, schedule meeting after meeting, to be blunt or bend the rules a little bit, I think that students have that ability. They can see things from a different perspective. Your voice is important, and it deserves to be heard. Sometimes it’s hard to get that to happen, but you need to keep pushing. Just keep going back, don’t take no for an answer, start a petition when you need to, show up meeting after meeting giving the same spiel… Just don’t let them silence you.

Guinto:

There are also those administrators who will just offer you lip service, like “Oh, this is such a good mission, but we don’t have the time… we don’t have the budget…”

Chidambaram:

Yep, I definitely got a lot of that: “We love student leaders,” then they don’t listen to us. It’s very frustrating, but I think students are more resilient. In student activists, I’ve seen so much passion. They haven’t gotten the idealism beaten out of them! There’s so much drive to make the change happen now instead of, say, the next five years. When five years is a huge chunk of your life, that’s just not acceptable.

Guinto:

Especially as Asian Americans and children of immigrants, we’re taught that education is the foundation for success. We’re presented with this really linear structure of life: get good grades, get into a good college, get a good job, and live a good life. Though there’s outrage towards this system, part of it is rooted in a deep love for knowledge. How do you find that middle ground between loving education, while also being critical of the system’s shortcomings and corruption?

Chidambaram:

For me, I think education has always been central to equality. Learning how education transforms people, countries, and communities… It can level that playing field and make so many opportunities more available to people. I feel like education has always been a huge part of my life growing up in an Asian household. It is the main thing that you focus on until you get a job. So, I’ve always had a love for education and learning – I just want to share that experience with others.

Those scarce moments where you do feel represented in your own education… it’s a completely different feeling than if I were to be white or part of any other group that is more commonly represented. When you see these pockets of representation and you can say, “Oh, that’s me! I am part of the story,” knowing how good it feels, I just want to make sure all students have the opportunity to feel that way as well. They are a very important part of our global community and should be equally represented in our stories.

Guinto:

Part of what I’m hearing is that in a world where knowledge is passed on from generation to generation, that’s also a way to effect incremental change. Students coming in and out of school become doctors, lawyers, etc. When you properly educate them on the world’s injustices, it plays a part in teaching them not to repeat them.

Chidambaram:

The generational thing is huge. A lot of people talk about generational wealth and the incredible advantages that are gained. But further than wealth, generational education, and the people who have access to it, people who can say “Oh, here’s a good school, here’s how to read, how to write… I can help you find a good college…” People overlook that a lot. Access to education and generational connections to education is so huge in a community’s ability to succeed. If your family can put you in a good school or give you the opportunity to learn to read and write, that opens your life up to so many more opportunities than someone who is not able to have the same experience. Education really just opens so many doors. I think that’s one of the things where, because I love it so much, I want it to be better. I know it can be better.

Guinto:

Specifically with your work in DON, what have you found to be the most helpful ways to get around obstacles like external pushback and self-conflict?

Chidambaram:

I think for me, it’s really just the community and knowing that it’s not a fight that I’m fighting alone. There are thousands of other students in DON who are working towards this goal. There’s an incredible group of students in my own district that I can work with… just knowing that it’s important to so many people. It’s really valuable to me whenever I feel stuck, or like the change isn’t being made fast enough. Knowing that there are so many people who are so passionate about this and that we’re gonna get there eventually.

Even if you feel like you aren’t doing enough one day, you always have your other chapter members, the National Team, the Communications Council, the district… If I was trying to do this work alone, challenge systemic inequalities alone, I think that would be brutal. Always having that community to fall back on is really the most valuable piece for me.

Guinto:

That’s completely true. Many of us were taught that if we’re capable of doing something alone, that means we can do anything. Our parents migrated alone, so their independent resilience was like a badge of honor. But with us, being able to fall back on others is the badge of honor.

Chidambaram:

I personally have always been very individualistic in saying that “I can do it alone, I don’t need help.” I think that a lot of Asian American kids, especially immigrants, feel like they have to prove themselves… Growing up, my dad used to be like “You have to be the best of the best of the best of the best.” Everything you do, starting in kindergarten: you’ve got to be the best kindergartener! I think that’s a very common mindset in immigrant households. It’s this constant fight, feeling like you need to be better than others. It’s such a damaging mentality because, in education, it’s about needing to be valedictorian, getting straight A’s, being president of all your clubs… but if you take a step back, you can do so much more as a team and a community. The work is so much more valuable: there’s a lot more passion, drive, and ability if you work together.

Guinto:

It all goes back to education. When you look back at Asian American history, you find that a lot it circles back to community power. But right now, “representation” in many schools comes in the form of teaching non-white history as separate electives from one another. In actuality, all our histories are intertwined. Imagine teaching Yuri Kochiyama without ever really addressing how influential the Black Power Movement was in her work. What is your perspective on that?

Chidambaram:

It’s very weird – almost harder to teach history that way. The history of all people is so interconnected because every action in history was a reaction to something that happened elsewhere. I think with education, you find that almost everything ties back to community power. You’re not just fighting for the representation of your own identity, you’re fighting for the representation of your community’s identity. You can’t do that alone, it has to be with the community that you’re fighting for.

So, it’s impossible to teach history without mentioning BIPOC and BIPOC stories. I think it’s more about being mindful of how you’re teaching it, and also teaching it in a way that’s not just showing the crumbling of BIPOC communities at the hands of white supremacy and colonialism. These are communities that have also withstood, created, and are all just incredible groups of people beyond the scope of their impact, beyond how they’ve been impacted by colonialism. Indigenous history doesn’t start with the arrival of colonizers, there are eons of history before that!

In teaching history, we need to make sure that we include positive stories. I think it is often overlooked because it’s like, “We talked about lynching and genocide… the Trail of Tears…” But if all that you’re taught about your community is their suffering, then how can you see yourself positively in your education?

Guinto:

I fully agree with you on that. Not just our histories, but our culture, our art, our music in all their glory. Would you say that multicultural education goes far beyond history classes alone?

Chidambaram:

It definitely has to span multiple subjects. It’s not just telling the history of all people, but also having your language be shown, your music heard, your art praised, and just seeing that the culture is alive. Even when people are colonized, their culture lives on. Valuing that culture and not just saying “They were colonized and now we’re here…” These communities still exist. Even fallen empires had cultures, you know. They had monumental architecture that was not built by ALIENS!

[laughter]

Guinto:

Literally. When people of color do amazing things, it’s like, ALIENS?! Just imagine the infinite number of amazing art techniques, music genres, and beyond that, we have yet to unpack because they aren’t represented in our schools. Our people were great. Our people are great!

As we reach our endpoint, do you want to make any closing remarks?

Chidambaram:

Students – fight for things that you’re passionate about and don’t stop fighting. Our histories continue and they deserve to be told.


Interested in keeping up with Diversify Our Narrative, or even starting your own chapter? Check out their Instagram and explore the resources on their website!

Register for DON CON, a free two-day youth empowerment conference consisting of panels and workshops surrounding feminism, intersectionality, global awareness, and more! It will take place on August 7th and 8th from 9 AM – 3 PM PDT (12 PM – 6 PM EST).


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