Aweku Michal Avera Samuel is an Ethiopian Israeli educator who has spent much of her career researching and integrating racial justice into Jewish early childhood curricula. She now works as a researcher and research coordinator for the Shalom Curriculum Project (SCP), which was formed to address a dearth in early childhood education materials that reflect the ethnic diversity and richness of the Jewish community. In collaboration with the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the SCP conducts research and creates engaging materials–such as books, dolls, and music– that can be incorporated into early childhood curricula.
“The Jewish community is a very diverse society with many traditions, cultures, languages, and heritages. Yet, this generally isn’t reflected in the material that is taught in schools at all. So, at Shalom Curriculum Project, we try to create material that reflects racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community to highlight that beauty and richness.” Samuel and many of her colleagues at SCP believe that starting with early childhood education is essential to ultimately achieving the goal of reducing prejudice in the Jewish community.
In many ways, SCP represents a continuation of Samuel’s lifelong activism and work in the field of education. Born in Ethiopia, Samuel’s family came to Israel when she was nine years old, where she went through the Israeli education system. Afterward, she worked to create education policies in Israel to introduce curricular material about the Ethiopian Israeli community into early childhood education. “I thought [Shalom Curriculum] was a wonderful opportunity for me as an Ethiopian Israeli, as an activist, and as a Black person, to come here and educate the diaspora Jewish community about the diversity that exists in Israel, and in the Jewish world.”
The Shalom Curriculum Project is housed in the Education Department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and is advised by a number of university faculty. The collaborative nature of the research conducted there allows for faculty and advisers to bring their own personal experiences as well as research interests to the table, creating an environment where people’s intersectional Jewish identities are celebrated and uplifted.
One example of SCP’s collaborative model is the invaluable contributions of Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, a fellow educator and lifelong activist for a racially diverse Jewish community. In her role as Co-Principal of the Shalom Curriculum Project, she utilizes personal experiences and her background as both an educator and an activist for racial justice to create long-term educational models for early childhood education. “It is so beautiful to have different faculty members in the advisory group that come from different fields and Jewish backgrounds. Everyone can bring their own experience, their own education, and their own family lives to enrich and guide the research we are conducting.”
The current research at SCP supported by the JoCI focuses on prototyping materials for early childhood classrooms that reflect and celebrate Jews of Color. In addition to developing materials, the team sends surveys and interviews to educators and families, and holds discussions with focus groups. Based on the results of the research, materials are created for both educators and young children. “The biggest benefit of this project is to gain insight into the experiences and needs of so many people who are part of early childhood education in one way or another, and to gain a bigger picture of the type of impact our materials have on people,” said Samuel. “It has been wonderful to have so many families engage with our study.” Samuel believes community members are eager to participate because they hold a personal connection to the work. “If we could eventually create something that can help people teach their own kids, to help adults themselves understand the diversity in our community, it would make a huge impact on their lives,” said Samuel. “Our work goes beyond making nice with people, or doing a presentation on different Jewish cultures. It’s beyond teaching materials. It’s about creating a long-term impact that will make the beauty and significance of Jewish diversity part of people’s understanding of being Jewish.”
The Jews of Color Initiative is proud to support this work, and excited to learn from the research findings and resulting materials that Samuel and the rest of the SCP team create. “It was very empowering to receive a grant from JoCI, and to know that they believe in the project and the initiative enough to invest in it,” Samuel said. “We are so pleased to be part of the JoCI family.”
Currently, the Shalom Curriculum Project is expanding from the Midwest to work with families and educators all over the country. Learn more about the project and how you can get involved here.