In Stockton, California, the grandchildren of farmworkers who fed the nation are discovering their history.
January 30, 2018
It’s likely that almost half the American-grown fruits and vegetables you ate last week—the grapes you snacked on, the walnuts in your salad—came from one place: California’s Central Valley, 20,000 square miles that stretch from north of Sacramento, down through the area around Fresno, all the way south to Bakersfield.
About 80 miles east of San Francisco, the inland port city of Stockton, with 300,000 residents, sits surrounded by arguably the richest soil in the U.S. Yet it’s a place of extreme need. Some 85 percent of students in Stockton’s school district fall into categories of high risk related to income, language needs, or unstable homes. Only a quarter leave high school with sufficient credits to be admitted to a four-year California public university.
“This valley has grown up serving everybody else, feeding the rest of California and the country,” says Nik Howard (Greater Philadelphia ’03), the executive director of Teach For America’s California Capital Valley region. “But the people who produced those resources have been neglected.” Howard adds, “What’s happening in the Valley right now is that people are done with that.”
This applies in particular to the “boomerangs.” That’s what locals call a group of highly educated, history-minded millennials who defied a lifetime of warnings from their parents and everyone else, and who returned after college to Stockton to make their stand in the place that raised them.
Members of this group have gained a foothold on the school board and captured the city’s highest office: 27-year-old former Stockton teacher Michael Tubbs is the youngest mayor of any sizable city in the U.S. They’ve embraced a culture of experimentation that springs from impatience with hand-me-down policies and innovations first tested in places like Los Angeles and the Bay Area, and also from having nowhere to go but up. As an example, Tubbs has committed to making Stockton the proving ground for the first public-private initiative to provide poor families with a universal basic income (the term used by the initiative’s Silicon Valley backers to describe a guaranteed monthly payment).
One of the boomerangs, chemistry teacher Brandon Piasecki (Mississippi ’11), even helped open Stockton’s first craft brew pub on a corner in a downtown that used to die at 5:00 p.m. “I want my students to come back to Stockton from college and have someplace fun to go,” says Piasecki, who teaches at Stockton Collegiate International School.
Over the past five years, the boomerangs have launched all sorts of initiatives to stop the brain drain out of the Valley. Those include forming a coalition to teach a class they call not U.S. history but “us History” to the students who fill Stockton high schools, many the grandchildren of migrants and immigrants who worked the Valley’s farms and canneries.
The principal of Edison High School, a large comprehensive school in the city’s most impoverished section, South Stockton, agreed to host this after-school class that any Stockton student is invited to attend. “It’s important for our students to see their heritage and culture in the curriculum,” Principal Brian Biedermann says, “because that’s what hooks them in.”
Leading the effort to create an ethnic studies course that reveals how students’ forebears built the Valley into an agricultural powerhouse—only to live under restrictive laws and covenants that largely prevented them from benefiting—is Lange Luntao (California Capital Valley ’14). He is an alum who fits perfectly with the personality type that Malcolm Gladwell, in his book The Tipping Point, termed a Connector: someone with an extraordinary knack for making friends and flipping acquaintances into fellow change-makers.
History Lost and Found
Luntao, who is 27, grew up in Stockton, the son of a teacher born in the Philippines (his father) and another teacher born in Nebraska (his mother). Wiry as a wand, cheery and intense, he was juggling what I counted as seven paid and unpaid jobs during the two days I watched him dash around town like a man at war with time.
I met him first at a meeting of the curriculum committee (which he chairs) of the Stockton Unified School District Board of Trustees. He’d invited some high school students to come testify on the topic of what makes their classes engaging (or not). When Domino’s failed to deliver the students their pizza, he raced off in his car and returned with the pizza himself, grabbing one slice for dinner before rushing to a night yoga class.
His seven jobs? Luntao is raising money for, and serves on the board of, Little Manila Rising, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping the Valley’s Filipino-American history alive and working with other local communities to teach what the organization’s founder calls “history on the margins”. (Another project is raising money to curate and preserve 20 decades-old trunks filled with the possessions of migrant workers who lived and died here with no family to claim them.)
He’s a leader of the Stockton Schools Initiative, a parent-focused education advocacy organization that grew out of another cross-sector nonprofit (called the Reinvent South Stockton Coalition) that he helped launch while doing his teacher training at summer institute in Los Angeles in 2014. He teaches a college-level class in economics and does college counseling at his placement school, Aspire Langston Hughes Academy (that’s five jobs, for those counting). And in January, he became the founding director of Stockton Scholars, a college scholarship and support initiative modeled on Promise initiatives in Oakland and other cities, backed by a $20 million gift.
But of all his projects, it could be job seven that has the longest tail: working to immerse Stockton students in American “history 2.0,” as some of his us History colleagues call this ethnic studies class, to prevent another generation from experiencing what he calls “historical amnesia.”
“We’re still a community with a lot of challenges, but we’re also a community where different people have a heritage as deep as our community is wide, and knowing that gives people agency.”
Recovering from Historical Amnesia
Lange Luntao knew while growing up that his father moved here to get a college education while supporting himself by picking crops. But as a student in local schools, Luntao learned virtually nothing about his city’s history or his own. He didn’t know, for example, that Stockton for decades had the largest community of Filipinos living outside the Philippines, mostly single men who came in the 1920s and ’30s to plant and harvest asparagus and other crops—separated from their families and banned from owning property.
Nor did he know that, to build a freeway planned in 1964, Stockton plowed under the thriving Little Manila neighborhood that these immigrants had built, along with parts of Stockton’s Chinatown (once the third-largest on the West Coast) and its Japantown (once part of the fourth-largest Japanese community in the U.S.), along with Mexican immigrant neighborhoods like El Barrio del Chivo (Goat Valley).
Not only did he not know the forces that shaped his hometown; Luntao couldn’t place himself in American history until he got to Harvard University on scholarship and took his first course in ethnic studies. That’s where he was, in his senior year in 2012, when Stockton was hit with an infamous double whammy.
First, for the second time in three years, Forbes declared Stockton number one on its list of America’s Most Miserable Cities. The magazine cited runaway unemployment, rampant violent crime, and a plague of home foreclosures. Then, following years of financial mismanagement and cratering tax revenues, the city of Stockton declared bankruptcy, becoming the largest American city ever to do so (until Detroit came later). Bankruptcy devastated public services and budgets, and it still affects Stockton’s school system. Luntao says, “We’ve had to educate 40,000 students with resources for 10,000.”
At the same time that all this was happening, Luntao was assigned in an urban studies class to research his hometown. He says, “I learned a little about our history of urban sprawl, and how we had been one of the big, bustling metropolises of California during the gold rush, a place where people came from all over the world to set down roots."
He discovered that activists in 2000 had organized to try to save what remained of Little Manila, as the city bulldozed the neighborhood’s last remnants to build a downtown “gateway” development consisting of a Spanish mission-style McDonald’s and a gas station. While doing his research, he also got his first inkling that people like Dillon Delvo (a founder and the leader of Little Manila Rising) were still at it, organizing after-school programs to empower students by teaching them more than Filipino-American history, but also that the Valley’s “greatest asset” is its diversity. “It was the first time I knew there was anything to be proud of in Stockton,” Luntao says.
While digesting that revelation, he happened to see a Facebook post from an old high school acquaintance, Michael Tubbs, who was graduating from Stanford University with plans to run for City Council. With six months to kill between graduation and heading to Malaysia on a Fulbright fellowship, Luntao came home from Harvard to help Tubbs campaign. And when his fellowship in Malaysia was over, Luntao returned to Stockton as one of the first dozen Teach For America corps members to be placed here.
That summer of 2014, before the school year began, he rounded up fellow corps members and students he had met while substitute teaching. They fanned out across South Stockton to knock on doors and canvas residents to learn about their priorities. Topping the list were safer neighborhoods, more jobs, and better schools. That survey helped set the agenda for Stockton’s young boomerang activists.
Two years later, on the same night that Donald Trump was elected president, Tubbs became mayor and Luntao was elected the youngest member of Stockton’s school board—the first out gay man to win office in the San Joaquin Valley.
Soon after, many of the students Luntao had come to know converged on a meeting of the district’s board of trustees as they were considering whether to teach, in Stockton’s high schools, courses in ethnic studies: a cross-curricular discipline that focuses on the knowledge and experiences of people of color, and the interplay of race, gender, ethnicity, culture, and power.
Jaelyn Sanidad, a senior at Edison High School, was one of the students who testified in favor of the ethnic studies initiative, which trustees voted unanimously to adopt.
“We have such a deep and rich history, and there’s something wrong here in the history books when you’ve never been taught any of it. We are the ones who have to make the change,” Sanidad says. In us History, she says, “I’ve really learned a lot, like about how racial discrimination contributed to the lack of education in certain areas of Stockton, but I also know I still have a lot more to learn.” Her goal next year is to follow in the footsteps of some of her teachers and “study ethnic history at San Francisco State U., which is where it really began” to take shape as a discipline.
American History 2.0?
The Stockton vote followed a bigger milestone in California. In 2016, after three earlier legislative attempts had failed, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill to create a program of ethnic studies for all California high schools by 2019 (significant, given California educates an eighth of all students in America). This came after scholars at Stanford University School of Education published research showing that students who attended ethnic studies classes in San Francisco high schools improved their overall grades and attendance and earned more course credits than students who did not.
But even before the state legislature and the Stockton school board had voted to formally adopt ethnic studies, many of the young activists in Stockton who knew each other from other organizing efforts had come together to launch the after-school course that became us History. With Luntao as their organizer and 44-year-old Dillon Delvo as their wise elder activist and mentor, the group included teachers, graduate students, college professors, and community leaders.
“At the time we didn’t know how to do it, we didn’t know how to get approval from anyone, so we just built it,” Luntao says. “That’s emblematic of how we do things here.” But they also felt some urgency to work through how to prepare teachers to teach ethnic studies when few have even taken a course in college and no textbook exists that examines local history from multiple inclusive perspectives. “Ethnic studies is about humanizing oneself and each other and everybody around you,” says Aldrich Sabac, one of us History’s founding teachers. “There are a lot of nuances that can get misunderstood and misinterpreted, and as ethnic studies becomes more mainstream, teaching quality is a concern.”
By building out this after-school course, the organizers hoped to create a scope and sequence that other teachers could adapt in their schools. They also gave a thought to creating a model for how other districts could draw on the wisdom of their communities.
Now in its second year, us History meets each week in the classrooms of two teachers at Edison High School, Aldrich Sabac and Brian Batugo. Both are Edison graduates who came home to Stockton, Sabac after he was mentored in ethnic studies by his San Francisco State University professor Jeff Duncan Andrade (Bay Area ’93).
Luntao recruited several others to join the teaching team, among them Nancy Huante, a scholar of Chicano studies who has led lessons on the history of Chicano student organizers in the Central Valley. Luntao’s friend Anna Nti Asare Tubbs (who is getting her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Cambridge, and who recently married Mayor Tubbs) has taught students about black feminist theory. The 70-year-old grandmothers who remembered El Barrio del Chivo described to students the Goat Valley neighborhood that was erased by a freeway. “They may not have teaching credentials,” Luntao says, “but they sure know how to tell a story.”
I visited us History on a day when Phillip Merlo, a historian and teacher at Franklin High School, took students through an hour-long lecture and slideshow on the glory that was once Stockton. He began by noting that indigenous people lived more densely in the Central Valley than anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere, most likely because of its abundant food. He flashed pictures of the post-gold rush boom years when Stockton was a hub of inventors and entertainers. He showed how, as Stockton grew in the early 20th century, city leaders drew lines around Main Street and barred people of color from buying property to the north.
I saw the students watch in stunned silence as Merlo showed photographs of the grand buildings that once housed more than 40 hotels, theaters, and a high school that won an award for the finest educational building constructed in America that year. These students have never seen any of those structures, or the streetcar system that was America’s second largest. Some 90 percent of the buildings in downtown Stockton were leveled in the past 50 years, as developers cleared away ethnic communities classified as “blighted.”
It was interesting to watch Merlo try to accomplish two competing goals: to teach students about their own communities’ oppression while at the same time giving them reasons to feel pride. That second part of the equation is one that Luntao and his fellow teachers consider essential not only for slowing the brain drain but also for preparing students to lead inclusively and with conviction amid the changes that are advancing on the Valley.
Automation is disrupting agriculture as much as any other field. The farm jobs that many students’ parents still work are going away. The cost of living and working in the Bay Area is pushing people and business development east into the Valley. Tesla, Amazon, and FedEx have all built facilities here. Change is coming. But who will benefit?