Award-winning educators counter racism and xenophobia in schools

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Joe Ku’e Angeles accepts the 2016 Social Justice Activist of the Year Award Award

By Kate Snyder

As NEA begins nominations for the 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year Award, we had the opportunity to catch up with last year’s awesome winners—the Union City Educators. In the current political climate, the activism of educators means more than ever to students and their families—especially the most vulnerable—say Ivan Viray Santos and Joe Ku’e Angeles, two of the three award winners. Here are some outtakes from our conversation.

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NEA: Your team won the SJA Award in 2016 for the work you did to bring Filipino heritage into the schools of the New Haven School District in California. What did winning mean for your work?

Joe: We had been doing this work for several years because we know the impact it has on students and the community. This award really helped our cause. Getting national recognition just brings a different kind of attention to the passion and cause.

Ivan: We’ve taken this opportunity to expand our Ethnic Studies Department into an Ethnic Studies/Social Justice Pathway, which starts at the 8th grade level and will continue every year through the students’ senior year.

NEA: How has culturally diverse and responsive learning taken hold across the country—especially in light of the new political environment?

Joe: People have awakened to the importance of having knowledge and being involved. They’re afraid of misunderstanding what they don’t know. Our approach builds community through understanding.

Ivan: In this environment, more and more teachers are clamoring for social justice education.

As an example, in the classroom, I’ve used Project Based Learning to help students identify a Social Justice issue that impacts them, analyze the issue, organize around it, and mobilize a campaign to address it. I even hosted a video-chat for my classes with one of my former students who stood up and became a Water Protector in the fight for Native lands and rights against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Following the election, my classes came up with messages of solidarity and support for many of the students who felt targeted by the current president’s rhetoric. These images went viral and motivated other educators to do similar activities.

I feel lucky here at Logan because we have a whole Ethnic Studies department that includes social justice curriculum as its foundation and framework. However it really does concern me that as more teachers are moving toward more diverse and responsive curriculum, there are elected officials in states like Arkansas who are trying to ban books that uphold a people’s pedagogy.

NEA: Why is it important for activist educators to stay connected with others doing this work?

Ivan: This work, which teaches unity through solidarity, is nothing without community and alliance building. Keeping connected with others also allows us to constructively critique the curriculum coming out of different areas. We’ll be able to build the strongest curriculum and have a solid base of support for each teacher or district who may need it as they fight for this curriculum and teaching in their cities.

NEA: What issues are on the forefront of the social justice/education justice movement in this country?

Joe: It’s about basic rights—the protection, acceptance, and appreciation of all people. Educators need to be aware of xenophobia and point out to our students the small thinking of hate and prejudice. Students will question, find answers, and come to respect others’ opinions and choices.

Ivan: Race and class will always be issues. The youth need to see the Civil Rights Movement isn’t history; it’s still happening, and we’re in the middle of it. Hopefully, through increased social justice education programming and curriculum, this current generation will realize that the fight for racial, economic, gender, sexuality, immigrant, and worker rights are all the same. They’re all human rights and should remain protected in this country. Let us all continue to fight for these rights, across the board, and build strength and solidarity in our classrooms which will, in turn, create the same in our communities.

NEA: Any reflections you would like to share as you look to the future?

Joe: The journey continues. It’s easy to put aside, but it’s now more urgent than ever. Our work is just getting started, and we need to connect to the people who are now awake.

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