(pictured above: Jose Lara, recipient of NEA’s 2015 Social Justice Activist of the Year Award, and NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia)
by Kate Snyder
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In 2015 Jose Lara won the first ever Social Justice Activist Award given by the NEA for his fight to implement an Ethnic Studies program in California schools.
Accepting the award at the NEA Representative Assembly, Lara said: “Social Justice is a verb. It is a sense of community and responsibility that goes beyond the classroom. It is fighting for the most vulnerable students.”
Looking back, Jose Lara observes: “This award gave me the opportunity to elevate this issue across the country. I had the chance to help people think about things in a different way. This is a different America. It is okay to question our history, to want a more inclusive conversation, and to want the faces and voices of people of color included. If you look around, this is a different America, and we are stronger because of it.”
A high school social studies teacher, Jose Lara ran for and was elected to the El Rancho Unified School District Board and quickly worked to pass a resolution to make Ethnic Studies a graduation requirement—the first in California. This made a huge difference for the students in California. Now they can learn about the role played by their people in our shared history.
“Given the language used by Trump and the other Republican candidates in the primaries, we need people to understand what an anti-racist education looks like,” Lara says. “We can’t let students only hear this hurtful rhetoric, we can’t keep them ignorant of the brilliance and resilience of women and men of color—we must bring those stories to our classrooms. These students are the voters, workers and educators of tomorrow.”
Building on his success, Jose Lara put together a multiethnic coalition to demand school districts across California bring the stories and rich histories of people of color into the classroom. The website ethnicstudiesnow.com details the victories that the coalition has won during the last year. Today 2o Districts across California are implementing an Ethnic studies curriculum. And thanks in part to Jose Lara’s work, interest in the curriculum has expanded beyond California’s borders.
“It was an amazing year, I had the opportunity to light the fire for ethnic studies in other states like Texas, Oregon and Minnesota. I just want to give a shout out to the educators that I met across this country who are doing amazing work. I can’t wait to hear what the 2016 Social Justice Award recipient will do.”