To celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Oregon's statehood, the Oregon Department of Education wanted educators to share their knowledge of the state's varied history.
With the help of the Oregon Virtual School District, a website was set up to compile lesson plans from around the state.
According to Susanne Smith, a communications officer with the ODE, the website serves as a grassroots effort to get teachers to share effective lesson plans with other teachers. There are a wide variety of lesson plans on the site, from the geography of Oregon to the predictable tales of Lewis and Clark.
What local history activists Will Bennett and Derry Jackson didn't find several weeks ago, was much information on the African American community in Oregon. Bennett has been organizing support for the preservation of the Golden West Hotel for the last several years and has made it his personal mission to advance the knowledge of African American history to everyday people (read The Skanner's bio of Bennett at http://www.theskanner.com/index.php?action=artd&artid=8595).
"I'm thrilled by the response," he said. "When I first sent out an email (about the lack of African American history lesson plans), I was fishing."
Jackson, a longtime educator and member of the Oregon Association for Black Affairs, says there are two reasons for the lack of African American history on the site.
"One, they weren't aware," he says. "And two, they didn't have the materials or lesson plans available to be uploaded."
Felicia Williams, a graduate student and teacher of a Capstone course at Portland State University, decided to submit several lesson plans to the OR150 project. The lesson plans cover the 1969 race riots and the way various media outlets handled the coverage; Portland's restrictive housing covenants; and thinking critically about race in Oregon.
"They don't really have anything to address racism in Oregon history," she said.
But most of the onus for the website falls on the backs of the educators themselves.
"We had no funding for this," says Smith. "We really wanted it to be by the people, for the people."
Here's how the site works: any educator in the state is welcome to submit a lesson plan; Smith ensures the plan fits the technical format for the site and the plan is uploaded to http://or150.orvsd.org. Smith says she's posted every submission she's received.
Once the lesson plans are posted, they're available to any teacher who wishes to use them as part of their classroom curriculum.
Smith says Williams was one of the only educators outside the K through 12 system to submit a plan. Smith says she's tried hard to get the word out to teachers that this site is available.
"This is a drop in the bucket," she said. "This just isn't a high priority for teachers. There are a lot of things our teachers are grappling with and it isn't necessarily representational of what's actually being taught."
Williams' interest in local Black history stemmed from a meeting with The Skanner publisher Bernie Foster, who told her the story of the renaming of Union Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
She developed an interest in conducting oral history interviews. Many projects have community members, amateur historians and high school students conducting oral interviews. Williams said more trained historians need to enter higher education so they know the detailed history of the time and know the right questions to ask.
Jackson says there need to be a greater understanding of local Black history.
"We have one of the foremost experts on the topic right here in Portland," said Derry, referring to Dr. Darrel Milner, the director of the Black Studies Department at PSU. "A lot of local talents are dismissed or overlooked."
As for the grassroots nature of the project, Jackson said the best subjects for history are walking among us.
"The best experts are people who lived the Black experience in Oregon," he said. "A lot are legitimate experts. It depends on how you frame the subject."
Jackson expects the OR150 project to receive a lot more attention from Black educators and others interested in furthering the knowledge base of Black Oregon history. Once that is finished, the pressure will be on the teachers to use these sometimes-controversial materials in their classes.
"We mature and grow enough (as a society) to deal with the ugly things in our past," he said. "We have to get comfortable with it, and the leadership needs to get comfortable with it."