Malachi Suarez, a fourth-grader at Polk Elementary, is demanding that his school be renamed. Starting as an assignment from his GATE teacher, Malachi researched who his elementary school was named after and was angered to find that the person Polk Elementary was honoring was not someone he wanted to look up to. Suarez has created a petition to appeal to the Central Unified School Board, complete with a statement explaining why this is a necessary change.
Former President James K. Polk was the 11th president of the United States, serving a single term starting in 1845. Polk was also a slave owner who was against abolition, the movement to end slavery. In his petition, Malachi states, “Polk embraced the term Manifest Destiny,” which was the idea that American colonists deserved to expand their land, coast to coast. This idea disregarded Native Americans and their territorial rights and led to the slaughter of many tribes. Actions that led Suarez to the belief that James Polk does not deserve to have his name honored.
Upon deciding this petition was going to be his way of completing his assignment for class, Suarez said that he felt “silenced” by his teacher who “tried to make [him] be quiet during an open discussion when [he] was trying to share the link to [his] petition.” Suarez was frustrated by this, especially after his teacher told the principal to call his mother, Crystal Cabrera.
But this is an important issue for Suarez, as a student and as a member of our community. He has not stopped trying to get more people to sign his petition, and in just over a week, the petition has garnered nearly 500 signatures.
“The majority of Central Unified students are children of color. It is important that schools be named after people of color who made significant contributions to this community so that we can see ourselves in a positive light,” Suarez said in a statement explaining his petition.
He continued that the students deserve to attend a school named after someone who promotes inclusivity and diversity, rather than someone like James Polk. He offered a few suggestions of people the school should be named after, like Harriet Tubman or Ida B. Wells; both impactful women of color that the students of Polk Elementary would be proud to honor with their name.
Suarez believes that changes like these affect our students and our community in positive ways. “We can achieve great things when we believe they are possible,” he said, and he wants his school to be next in a line of positive changes that benefit our community.
For more information, you can read and sign his petition here.
Other similar changes in Fresno have been happening recently, like the push to change the mascot of Fresno High. The decision has recently been made final; the school will be changing its caricature depiction of a Native American while keeping its “Warriors” name.
Valley Natives for Change, a Native-led group out of Central California (Yokuts land), had been pushing for this change for months before it was finally decided. Jamie Nelson, who leads Valley Natives for Change said in an interview with the Fresno Bee that “it’s the Fresno High School, the oldest school in town. That matters. It’s going to ripple.”
Fresno Unified has also promised to look into ways to better support Native students, but there are some questions as to whether or not the district can and will do better at adequately serving Native students. Native students have endured “decades of embarrassment, mockery, and racist comments,” says Valley Natives for Change in a video on their Facebook page. “This is not a Fresno Unified School District issue, this is a national issue.”
The change of Fresno High’s mascot has created “ripples” like Nelson said, and hopefully more changes, like the renaming of Polk Elementary, will come soon.