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Empowering Minds: The Importance of Books for Diversity and Inclusion in Education

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

As a young Muslim Australian student in grade 5 attending a public school in Australia, I vividly recall the moment when the world seemed to change on September 11, 2001. It was a day etched into our collective memories as the events unfolded and the tragic impact of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center became apparent. Seeing those planes fly through two tall towers before being told that it was an act committed by Muslims terrified me, it was as if, at that moment, I somehow foresaw the consequences of such an event. It was a moment that marked the beginning of my own experience with exclusion and marginalisation and the negative effect it had on my sense of identity, belonging, and self-esteem.


I vividly recall the day when my teacher wheeled in a television to our classroom after informing us of a tragic effect that had occurred in the United States of America. As the television trolley rolled in with its wheels squeaking, a solemn silence enveloped the room, etching a haunting memory in my mind. I gazed with terror at the images of destruction and chaos that appeared on the screen. But I don't know what terrified me more, the terror of the terrorist attack, or the terror on my teacher's face. At that moment, I felt as if I had disappeared, made invisible, and forgotten, but with a shining bright spotlight piercing through me simultaneously. Now I know, that that was precisely the feeling of being inferiorised and marginalised in society.



My initial experience with marginalisation and exclusion was triggered by an act of education. My teacher almost forcing me and my classmates to watch those traumatising events, whether we want to believe it or not, was an act or moment of education that took place in an educational institution. I'm a firm believer in the empowering power of education, but let's face it, education is not always politically neutral, and neither are educational institutions. It's up to us as teachers to decide whether we want to use that power we hold to free individuals and marginalised communities or further tighten the shackles on their minds and souls.


As I transitioned from that pivotal experience in grade 5 to my time as a year 7 student in 2003 at a different Australian public school, the profound impact of education on either empowering or further marginalising students became increasingly evident. I can still vividly recall one Thursday morning, waking up to witness in horror the unfolding events of American bombs raining down on Iraq under the guise of 'democratisation'. The weight of defeat and exhaustion settled upon me as I made my way to school that day.


Despite the daunting challenges of being a young Muslim in a predominantly non-Muslim environment, I consider myself fortunate to have had Mr Michael as my year 7 teacher—a remarkable individual who instilled in us a sense of pride in our identities as young Muslim Australians. Whilst the whole of society and its network of marginalising institutions made us feel inferior, Mr Michael's pedagogy of liberation empowered us.


Mr Michael, although not a Muslim himself, recognised the importance of providing inclusive education and acknowledging the contributions of individuals like Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. He taught us about their lives, highlighting their achievements, resilience, and commitment to social justice. Through their stories, we not only learned about these iconic figures but also gained a sense of pride in our own identities as young Muslim Australians. Mr Michael's efforts to celebrate our cultural heritage and encourage us to embrace our identity played a significant role in shaping our self-perception and instilling a sense of belonging.

Muhammad Ali inspires and liberates youth
Image taken from Wikipedia

Interestingly, it was the very same Mr Michael who taught my younger brother History at that school. I recall my brother coming home one day, bubbling with excitement, as he shared an incident involving Mr Michael. During a lesson on the crusades, Mr Michael vehemently dismissed the negative portrayal of Muslims on a particular page of the textbook, labelling it as nothing but complete 'nonsense'. The passion and conviction with which he challenged such biased narratives left a lasting impression on my brother and further reinforced the importance of having educators like Mr Michael who are willing to challenge stereotypes and provide a more balanced perspective.


Mr Michael inspired me to become a teacher. I'd say that he inspired me to a great extent because the very reason why I became a teacher was so that I can inspire and empower others too. As my journey continued and I transitioned into a role as a secondary teacher in Islamic schools in the West, I came to a stark realisation: even within the context of these educational institutions, the negative effects of colonialism on the identities of Muslim students persisted. This observation challenged my initial expectation that a school for Muslims wouldn't be so damaging.



One would assume that Islamic schools would prioritise the preservation and celebration of Muslim identity. However, my experiences revealed a different narrative. Despite the intention to provide an environment that nurtures and safeguards Muslim identities, the harmful influences of institutional exclusion and racism persisted, permeating through the very institutions meant to support and preserve these identities.


Colonialism had left its mark with its deeply ingrained power dynamics and structures of dominance. The remnants of colonial ideologies and prejudices had seeped into the educational systems, perpetuating a sense of inferiority and self-doubt among non-white students. It became clear that the struggle against exclusion and the reclamation of identity required a concerted effort to dismantle these oppressive systems and foster a decolonial approach to education. Despite this sad reality, I still believe in the power of a liberating educator. Because in the same way Mr Michael liberated me and my brother, I believe that I also liberated my students in an Islamic school that didn't do so well at liberating them.


Liberating Literature - Books for Diversity


Reflecting on my own experience, I deeply understand the significance of inclusive literature and an empowering teacher in fostering a sense of pride in marginalised identities. It is within this context that "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara becomes a symbol of hope and empowerment for young readers.


Books for diversity example

From a young age, I found comfort and inspiration in the extraordinary life of Muhammad Ali. As I moved on from that pivotal experience in grade 5 to my secondary school years, a connection with Muhammad Ali and a growing sense of empowerment accompanied me on my journey. Muhammad Ali's unwavering determination, commitment to justice, and unshakeable self-confidence resonated deeply with me. In him, I found someone who defied societal expectations, challenged the established norms, and redefined what it meant to be a person of colour. While his athletic abilities were undeniable, it was his courage in using his platform to advocate for civil rights, racial equality, and religious freedom that truly inspired me.


It is within this context that "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" emerges as a valuable resource for young readers. The book captures the essence of Muhammad Ali's journey, presenting it in a way that directly speaks to the hearts of children, particularly those who have experienced exclusion. Through its vivid illustrations and accessible storytelling, young readers are encouraged to embrace their own identities, stand tall in the face of challenges, and recognise the power within them to make a difference. It serves as a reminder that one's identity should never be a barrier to pursuing dreams but rather a source of strength and motivation.



Furthermore, the book invites critical discussions about the impact of colonialism and its influence on the experiences of marginalized communities. It serves as a catalyst for conversations about decolonisation, racial equality, and the preservation of cultural heritage. By incorporating such literature into the educational framework, we can facilitate a transformative journey towards a more inclusive and empowering educational experience for Muslim students and all marginalised communities.


Analysis of the Book:


"Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara is a captivating portrayal of Muhammad Ali's journey, accomplishments, and cultural heritage. The book effectively captures the essence of his life, showcasing his successes, challenges, and the profound impact he made on society. Through its narrative and illustrations, the book becomes a powerful medium for inspiring young readers to embrace their identities, challenge societal stereotypes, and recognise their own potential to make a difference.


Books for diversity encourage one to embrace identity and culture

The book "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" echoes this transformative power of positive representation. It presents Muhammad Ali's journey as an inspiration for young readers, inviting them to believe in themselves and challenge societal limitations. The narrative beautifully captures the essence of his life, highlighting his bravery, determination, and unwavering spirit. It showcases his activism, his advocacy for racial equality, and his refusal to compromise his values.


Specific examples from the book, such as Ali's decision not to participate in the Vietnam War due to his religious beliefs and his unwavering commitment to civil rights, deeply resonate with young readers who may be grappling with their own identities and facing societal pressures. By witnessing Ali's bravery and the impact he made, young readers are encouraged to embrace their own identities, stand against injustice, and make a positive difference in their communities.



Books for diversity inspire young people to be resilient and strong

This type of representation is incredibly important, as it allows young readers to see themselves represented positively in the stories they engage with. It counters the negative stereotypes and misconceptions that can be internalised when marginalised identities are absent or misrepresented in mainstream media and literature. Through the story of Muhammad Ali, young readers are empowered to embrace their own cultural heritage, challenge societal norms, and envision a future where they can achieve greatness regardless of their background.


Drawing a parallel between my experience in grade 5 and my later years as a year 7 student, the profound impact of positive representation and inclusive education becomes evident. While grade 5 exposed me to the exclusion and negative perceptions surrounding my Muslim identity, my later years taught me the power of representation and the significance of educators who go beyond their roles to celebrate and empower diverse identities. The book "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" serves as a powerful tool in fostering that celebration and empowerment.


The impact of inclusive literature extends beyond individual readers; it has the power to shape society as a whole. When children grow up surrounded by diverse stories and positive representations, it cultivates empathy, understanding, and appreciation for different cultures and identities. By normalising inclusivity in children's literature, we create a generation of empathetic and culturally aware individuals who are equipped to challenge systemic biases and work towards a more equitable society.


This importance became evident to me as a parent when I sat down to watch the movie "Back to the Future" with my children. In one scene, Muslim terrorists were depicted attacking the protagonists, and my innocent children were taken aback and shocked by the portrayal. This was particularly jarring because they had not encountered such negative representation before. At that moment, I was transported back to my own experience in that grade 5 classroom, where I felt the weight of exclusion due to my Muslim identity.


This stark reminder of the impact of negative representation reinforced the significance of inclusive literature, such as "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams." By providing children with positive and authentic portrayals of diverse identities, we counteract the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and challenge the limited perspectives that can shape their worldview. It is crucial for children to encounter stories that celebrate the richness of cultural heritage, promote empathy, and nurture a sense of belonging for all.


"Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" becomes a powerful tool in addressing the consequences of negative representation. By presenting Muhammad Ali's journey and achievements in a positive and empowering manner, the book offers young readers an alternative narrative that inspires them to embrace their identities and challenge societal stereotypes. It fosters a sense of pride and self-worth, giving them the confidence to navigate a world that may sometimes seek to marginalise them.



As parents and educators, we have a responsibility to curate diverse and inclusive literary experiences for our children. By introducing books like "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" into their lives, we create opportunities for them to see themselves represented positively, fostering empowerment and a sense of belonging. We also equip them with the tools to critically engage with narratives that perpetuate stereotypes, encouraging them to question and challenge such representations.


The impact of inclusive literature extends beyond storytelling. It lays the foundation for a society that embraces diversity, promotes understanding, and works towards equality. Through books like "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams," we pave the way for future generations to envision a world where everyone's story is celebrated and where inclusivity is the norm.


Conclusion


"Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara is an outstanding work that promotes pride in marginalised non-white identities. Through its pages, the book provides a platform for representation, inclusivity, and empowerment, leaving a lasting impact on young readers.


By celebrating Muhammad Ali's journey and highlighting his cultural heritage, the book inspires children to challenge stereotypes, develop a strong sense of identity, and pursue their dreams with resilience. It serves as a catalyst for change, encouraging young readers to question societal limitations and contribute to a more inclusive and equitable world.


Books for diversity encourage us to have a voice

As we reflect on the significance of this remarkable work, we are reminded of the power of diverse children's literature in fostering cultural pride, understanding, and unity. "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams" exemplifies the transformative potential of representation, providing young readers with positive role models and narratives that affirm their identities.


We encourage readers to explore this book and engage with other diverse children's literature that celebrates the richness of our collective human experience. By embracing such works, we can shape a future where every child sees themselves reflected positively and where the barriers of exclusion are dismantled.


Remember, as we empower the young minds of today, we are shaping the leaders, change-makers, and dreamers of tomorrow. Let us celebrate the power of literature to inspire, ignite imaginations, and create a more inclusive and compassionate world. Together, through books like "Muhammad Ali: Little People, Big Dreams," we can foster a future where every child feels seen, heard, and valued—a future where diversity is celebrated, stereotypes are challenged, and the potential for greatness knows no bounds. As Muhammad Ali once said, "Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it." Let us empower our young readers to embrace their identities, challenge stereotypes, and shape a world where dreams are within reach for all.

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