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This Virginia high schooler is pushing to see more women of color in their curriculum


Prasidha Padmanabhan is a high school junior in Fairfax County, Va., who spent most of the pandemic fighting to see herself and other women of color reflected in her school's history curriculum. In 2020, she founded Women for Education, Advocacy and Rights, otherwise known as WEAR. Her organization is now around 150 members strong with hopes of spreading beyond Fairfax County to the rest of Virginia and the entire country. We read about her in The Washington Post last week and wanted to talk with her about her mission. Prasidha Padmanabhan, welcome to the program.

PRASIDHA PADMANABHAN: Thank you so much for having me.

MCCAMMON: Prasidha, when did you first realize that your school's history lessons were excluding many of the lives and accomplishments of women and especially women of color?

PADMANABHAN: Honestly, I think it was a very ongoing experience, especially from when I started learning and when I started my history education in elementary and middle school, like me noticing that there was nobody who looked like me in the curriculum or had, like, a similar background. And so it was more exacerbated when I was in my sophomore year, and I saw the tweets and social media trends around repealing the 19th Amendment. And the concept that such an important part of our history and such an important, like, basic human right for an entire gender was up for debate and being trivialized was really bothersome to me. And that's when I really started reflecting on my own history education and just what I had learned - or rather not learned.

MCCAMMON: You mentioned Twitter and social media. And we all know - anyone who's spent, you know, more than five minutes on social media knows that it can be pretty ugly sometimes. And it's, you know, people just sort of putting their unvarnished, worst ideas out there. But are there things in your day-to-day life or in your classroom that makes you think, you know, in the real world, this is something that we really need to address?

PADMANABHAN: I mean, like, when I go to school and I see women being spoken over and young girls being dissuaded from certain topics and subjects just because they're women or they feel like they'll be unheard or that they don't have a voice or that they're not strong enough compared to their male counterparts. I mean, all of it goes back to the fact that women have been taught for so long that they just didn't matter, that their voice didn't matter. And a lot of that comes from the fact that we never learned that it mattered throughout history.

MCCAMMON: You recently helped put together a new Civil War lesson plan for your school district. Who are some of the women that students will be learning about now that they wouldn't have before?

PADMANABHAN: Kids will get to learn about a lot of African American women in the Civil War, especially, like, Susie King Taylor, who was known for being the first Black nurse in the American Civil War. She was born into slavery, but she eventually fought out of it. And after living on a plantation for a long time in her life, she actually got an education and became a nurse in the American Civil War, which is really cool. And kids get to learn about that incredibly inspiring story.

Who else? In terms of - they'll actually get to learn about some Asian and Indigenous women. There was a lot of Indigenous tribes that were impacted by the Civil War. They'll learn about the various dynamics with the Iroquois tribe women and how they were impacted by the Civil War and certain Hispanic women that were actually aligned with the Confederacy and how they dressed as men and were soldiers.

MCCAMMON: Is there a historical figure - a woman - that you especially just loved learning about?

PADMANABHAN: One of my favorite people to talk about is Sybil Ludington just because she was our age. She was 16, I believe, when she rode all night horseback from New York to Connecticut and back to deliver the information that the British had arrived. I think that when people ask me, oh, like, why does women's history matter? Well, we learned about Paul Revere and his one lamp, two lamp, but we never learned about Sybil Ludington. And I think her story - even though it's simple in comparison to a lot of our other historical figures, her story is just so important. And similarly, also for the Indigenous women that we're writing about, like, I never got to learn about Zitkala-Sa. And she traveled across the U.S. advocating for Indigenous peoples' rights and women's rights. And so I think, you know, growing up, I really hope to be just as much of an advocator as all of these wonderful women.

MCCAMMON: What are your next steps, Prasidha? What do you want to see your organization do next?

PADMANABHAN: Oh, there's so much I want to see, but I think in specific, I really want to expand across Virginia, especially to all the school districts. And eventually, I really want this to be an initiative that's across the entire country because I want it to be a part of American history and a part of global history. And I want it to be standards that are across the entire country so that every student in every classroom gets to learn about women equally.

MCCAMMON: That's Prasidha Padmanabhan, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Va., and the founder of Women for Education, Advocacy, and Rights. Prasidha, thanks so much for talking with us.

PADMANABHAN: Thank you so much for having me. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.