Q&A: Rep. Sencer-Mura on Ethnic Studies

Rep. Sencer Mura Ethan Vang
Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura talks to ThreeSixty reporter Ethan Vang about how the ethnic studies requirement is important for Minnesota students.

The Minnesota Legislature passed the ethnic studies bill in 2023 requiring all schools to have ethnic studies. This is a way for students and teachers to learn about other cultures and for students of color to feel more included in history and school. Supporters of the bill hope students learn the ability to see and understand another person’s perspective, culture, heritage and history.

This bill was supported by Rep. Samantha Sencer-Mura (DFL, Minneapolis) who is Japanese American, because she felt like her culture wasn’t talked about a lot in high-school. She said, “I want to make sure that history is also being taught so I can see myself.” During WWII her parents were interned, and their experience was different from what was taught in school about the Japanese.

All schools in Minnesota are required to have some type of ethnic studies by 2026. In some schools, students are required to take ethnic studies in others it’s an elective class. Sencer-Mura will continue pushing this bill and wants to make ethnic studies a required class for all Minnesota high-schoolers.

ThreeSixty also interviewed Youth 4 Ethnic Studies leaders.

Why 2023? Why not earlier?

I supported this bill and really tried to champion it because I thought it wasn’t the experience that I had as a student right and how much I would have benefited and how much classmates would have benefited from having ethnic studies programs.

I can’t totally speak to what happened before I got involved, but I will say this, this bill did not have bipartisan support, meaning Republicans did not support this bill, and I know, there was earlier versions of the bill I don’t believe that Republicans supported, so it was just really not possible to pass this bill until Democrats had control of the trifecta, like we did starting last January.

What would be the outcome of ethnic studies?

This bill was actually really students outside of the metro who were asking: We want that same education, and our school district is not going to just independently do it. We need some push from the state.

For me, a history that is important is I’m Japanese American, and my grandparents were interned during World War II. When my family talks about what World War II means to them, it is kind of different outside of maybe what the mainstream narrative about we were fighting Japanese during World War II when we won the war, and it was like this really positive thing, right?

And yet, for my family, it meant something different. Then for two to three years, my family was interned. If I’m sitting in a classroom, and we’re talking about World War II, I want to make sure that history is also being taught so I can feel like I can see myself – the windows piece of it is the ability to see other cultures. I think that that is a critical piece. When I think about what are some of the skills that I see sometimes adults missing, it’s that ability to see and understand another person’s perspective, history, heritage, to be able to put the way they feel in context for why it might be different than the way I feel.

Do you think ethnic studies being required would improve graduation rates, attendance rates?

California is the first place to have actually made ethnic studies a graduation requirement, and they have done research on some of the schools that have had ethnic studies courses for a while that show students’ engagement increases, students’ academic achievement is increased. There’s a small body of research that tells us that, and I definitely think that that is a goal – the hope to see positive correlation between offering these classes and students doing better in school.

Ethan worked with Star Tribune reporter Eder Campuzano and Sahan Journal Managing Editor Chao Xiong to finish his story. This story was completed at ThreeSixty’s Winter News Team: Capitol Edition in February 2024, where high school journalists covered important legislative issues, impacting Minnesota youth. Read more stories here.