First Generation Students Aim to Change the Course of History Lessons

Lozano_ProfYou’ve no doubt learned about civil rights activists, like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, in your history classes during school. But did you learn about Dolores Huerta, the woman who fought for the rights of farmworkers? No? Thankfully, two first generation students at Michigan created Leesta to tell her story and others like hers.

A play on the Spanish word “lista,” which means smart or clever girl, Leesta is an online educational platform committed to educating elementary school students. Founded by the Lozano sisters—Beatriz and Virginia, both seniors in the University of Michigan’s Stamps School of Art & Design—Leesta relies on interactive storytelling to teach the students about important women who are too often left out of public education.

The Lozano sisters created Leesta because, “as Mexican-Americans going through the school system we never saw ourselves in the curriculum being taught.” Leesta is dedicated to telling the other half of history—the half that too often gets left out, but is just as important—American history through women’s stories.

“This idea has been in the making for a while,” says Virginia. “Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school definitely shaped the need for this. For us it really started reflecting on our own education, and, as Latinas, we never saw ourselves in the curriculum taught.”

“We want to show young girls that they are capable of doing amazing things, by showing them other women in history to inspire them.”

“I’m minoring in American Culture, and it wasn’t until college that I started learning about my own history as a Mexican American. It was really eye-opening and frustrating at the same time,” says Beatriz. 

Virginia agrees, adding, “When asked, a lot of people can’t name female or non-white historical figures. We were guilty of this ourselves, once.” 

“People shouldn’t have to wait until they get to college to learn about these women,” says Beatriz.

The core values of empathy and cultural competence attempt to meet this need for diversity. Leesta, ultimately, aims to provide students with as diverse and inclusive an education as possible—for all children.

As first-gen students, the Lozano’s recognize the importance of primary education. “Not everybody has the privilege to get a higher education. And this is something that shouldn’t wait.”

“Most importantly, we want to show young girls that they are capable of doing amazing things,” Beatriz says, “by showing them other women in history to inspire them.”

The Lozano sisters also stress the importance of visual art in the process of learning.    

“Too often artists are undervalued,” says Beatriz. “We want to really showcase them on Leesta.”

Acting on an Idea

Once they had the idea, Virginia and Beatriz connected with optiMize Social Innovation, a challenge administered by U-M students and the College of Literature, Sciences and the Arts that provides support, resources, and $100,000 in prizes to various student teams to turn innovative ideas into action.

After an intense six month, Leesta ended up as a 2014 optiMize finalist. “During the year, optiMize was pretty intense,” says Beatriz. “And we were coming from a position where we didn’t have experience in this world [of social innovation and entrepreneurship]. Working with them really prepared us; learning how to pitch, setting up our model, and getting to know other teams really helped us.”

leesta photo

According to the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think tank in Washington D.C., online education revolutionizes K-12 learning by breaking down geographical barriers to learning, overcoming learning challenges, and tailoring education to students’ learning styles. Already over one million K-12 students use some form of online ed. A benefit of online ed, says the article, is innovation— the increasing use of online learning will provide instructors and online learning operators with incentives to innovate and develop new learning tools that could improve students’ learning options in ways unimaginable today.”

Leesta is one such site dedicated to innovation. The platform is looking to share the stories of women who have contributed to America’s History. Stories of women who have had a national impact, inspiring others throughout generations, but are often excluded from history books.

Balancing Life as Students with a Startup

Balancing Leesta with school has been challenging, but the sisters say they’re learning how to adapt.

“We treat it like a job, and we make sure we’re working a couple hours each day and meeting with our team each week,” Virginia says.

The process for getting new timelines on the site is an intense one, but thankfully the Lozano sisters have an incredible amount support from their professors, who aid in the process of selecting women, as well as from entrepreneurial programs at Michigan, such as optiMize. The first step, of course, is picking the women to showcase. Beatriz says that they usually will talk with their professors from the Art & Design School for inspiration, as well as professors from the History and Education departments. From there, their team does research. Once they have their subject, the Lozano sisters, along with the writers on their team, will create the timeline. They even work with different organizations and foundations dedicated to the memory of the chosen subject to ensure the information is fair and accurate.

And the sisters continue to take advantage of Michigan’s entrepreneurial offerings, and receive regular mentorship and help growing their team from the Center for Entrepreneurship at the College of Engineering. And they recently received one of the Provost-funded Jump Start Grants, administered by the CFE.

After Beatriz and Virginia graduate, they plan to make Leesta a full time endeavor, adding more stories to the site, officially launching their educational platform in September of 2016. They plan to continue to work within schools, with teachers and students, to see how effective the site can be. They hope Leesta can become a nationally known and used site after five years.

“We want Leesta to be accessible to everyone,” Virginia says. “We’ve spent a lot of time in Southwest Detroit, when we were growing up, and even in college, and you see there that a lot of lower income kids have access to the Internet. The Internet is really becoming something that can help spread education.”

Beatriz and Virginia also hope to someday expand the timelines to include historically notable men of color. They also hope to employ different forms of storytelling including, but not limited to, mini-documentaries.

Have a suggestion on who you’d like to see showcase their place in history? Leesta would love to hear from you.

Written by Hannah Gordon, Innovate Blue Student Associate. Profile photo by Hannah Ervin, Innovate Blue Student Photographer.

More about Leesta.
More about optiMize Social Innovation.

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