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Student-led project leads California middle school to find new name

Posted at 3:55 PM, Jul 06, 2021

EL SOBRANTE, Calif. — The name of the building you work in, the bridge you cross, or the school you attend may not matter to some, but it’s important to Anaya Zenad.

“Usually the name of a school is supposed to be something nice, and it’s supposed to be something we can look up to. But we found out it's not something we can look up to,” said Zenad.

Last school year, as an eighth-grade student at Juan Crespi Middle School in northern California, Zenad led a school-wide research project on the Franciscan missionary. Every student participated.

“Juan Crespi, he’s associated with the mission system and he really didn’t care about kids because he didn’t care what the people were doing in the mission system, unless he got what we wanted, which was Christianity,” said Zenad.

Juan Crespi was a Franciscan missionary who was charged with recording the history of one of the exploration journeys north from San Diego to San Francisco in late 1769.

Those explorations also helped establish the California mission system, a series of fort-like churches up the coast of California. Many of the missions were named for Christian Saints, like San Diego, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco which would later become the names of those cities.

“Most California schools touch on the mission system in fourth grade, and the most frequent thing, if you talk to anyone who went to school in this area, they probably took a shoebox and made a replica of a California mission. And that was they learned about the missions, right? But what that does is that sanitizes that history right? Awful things happened there and that’s just truth,” said Guthrie Fleischman, the principal at the middle school Zenad attended.

In his opinion, the current curriculum washes over some of the atrocities now associated with the missions.

Research from Umass Boston shows the population of indigenous people in California around 1769 was estimated to be as high as 700,000. That number declined to about 100,000 by the 1849 California Gold Rush.

Jack D. Forbes, a Native American scholar and activist, described the missions like this: “The purposes of the missions were several, but "Indian control" can be identified as the most important initial purpose. Subsequent purposes included the assimilation of the natives into Hispanic society."

“I found out that in the mission system that you had to deny your cultural practices, you had to learn Christianity, and people got their hair cut off, they got physically and mentally abused,” said Zenad.

Zenad and her classmates learned Crespi was essential in the establishment of the California missions. The school decided it wanted to move on from the name.

“I’m a person of color and he didn’t care for people of color, so I’m going to school where maybe the teachers don’t really care for us because the school is named after somebody that doesn’t really care for us,” she said.

“We wanted there to be a local connection to the name. We wanted it to be a name for social justice. We wanted it to be a name that stood for equity and inclusion and a name that honored diverse perspectives,” said principal Fleischman.

More than 45 new names were suggested by the community, but one rose to the top of the list.

“She’s just really an amazing person and her life’s story, her commitment to equity and justice and for human rights has really been profound,” said principal Fleischman.

The school board voted to rename the school Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. She is the oldest National Park Service ranger and a long-time Bay Area resident.

“I like coming down, taking the place of someone who considers themselves revolutionary, who wasn’t,” said Soskin.

Soskin is still recovering from a stroke, but still has virtual visits at the Rosie the Riverter Memorial in Richmond, California.

Soskin has a long history of activism during the civil rights movement and beyond.

“I think that I have always been on the lookout, without realizing it, for where help was needed,” said Soskin.

Zenad has had the chance to speak with Soskin and thinks she will represent the school's community and values better than the Spanish explorer.

“Oh she’s wonderful. I love her," she said.