Robt Seda-Schreiber, an art teacher at Melvin H. Kreps Middle School in East Windsor, New Jersey, received NEA’s Social Justice Activist Award on Thursday, June 29th at NEA’s Representative Assembly in Boston, Massachusetts.
This annual award is given to an NEA member who demonstrates the ability to lead, organize and engage educators, parents, and the community to advocate on social justice issues that impact the lives of students, fellow educators, and the communities they serve.
Robt was a born activist, committed to social justice. In his almost 25 year teaching career, he founded his school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) – the first middle school GSA in New Jersey – and tirelessly worked to assist educators across the state and country to form GSAs providing safe and supportive environments for LGBTQI youth. Through his art education, he has also helped students and the community confront social, cultural and political issues.
In sharing his thoughts with the delegate assembly, Robt noted, “The very existence of GSA’s save lives every day, both literally and figuratively. By simply existing, these groups make kids feel safer, more accepted and indeed more loved. Sometimes, oft-times, this is what allows some students to get up in the morning, traverse those very intimidating hallways and make it through their sometimes, oft-times, very difficult days.”
In his role as an art educator, Robt also helps his students and community thrive through the mural program he created. Students paint inspirational and aspirational artwork both in school hallways and for local charitable organizations. Robt also writes and directs plays in collaboration with his students. This year he directed “I Am America,” a play in which students each wrote a monologue about an immigrant, celebrating his or her life and contribution to society and culture.
“It was protest in the guise of celebration of our true national origins, our culture, and our people’s beautiful diversity, and on top of all that, all proceeds from the production benefited the ACLU. In a school in a sanctuary city wherein so many of our kids are DREAMers, this was even more important and even more necessary,“ Robt said, commenting on the play.
Robt teaches at the school he attended, which gives him deep roots in the community. He also serves on the Mercer County Human and Civil Rights Committee.
Robt believes that educators have a critical role in building community, noting, “We need to teach in the classroom, inspire in the hallways and be a force in our communities. It may not seem like it, but these are our times. We will persevere, rise up and will come out the other side- stronger, faster, better, with more folks on our side and at our backs. Hold hands, lock arms, heads up, eyes clear, hearts full and minds wide open.”
Read Robt’s full remarks below
Thank you. I cannot express what this means to me and the gratitude I feel for the respect and love being shown in its giving.
Social Justice Activism is in my blood and imprinted on my soul. I was named for a Kennedy and a King. I marched on DC in the womb and I’ve followed the path ever since. Boots always on the ground.
I am twelve and my parents tell me that my beloved Uncle Les is gay. He couldn’t come out until now because his father, my Poppy, wouldn’t have understood. Now sadly my Poppy is dead but my Uncle can finally be who he has always been.
Thirty-five years later, I meet Vincent V., a student who because of his otherness is bullied to the extent that he must be home-schooled. I become his advocate and his family’s partner in a difficult legal battle with his district, resulting in that district paying for Vincent to attend our school. Safe at our school, Vincent flourishes: finally able to realize who he is & who she has always been. Vincent becomes Vee, now Vita, our school’s first transgender student and she allows me the honor of helping her with that transition. Vee’s bravery and self-realization is a gift to our entire school and our greater community and to me personally: a concrete example of the power of outreach, an abstract made very real. A life saved; a life realized.
An extraordinary story indeed but not uncommon in schools that allow Gay Straight Alliances to exist. The very existence of GSAs save lives every day, both literally and figuratively. By simply existing, these groups make kids feel safer, more accepted and indeed more loved. Sometimes, oft-times, this is what allows some students to get up in the morning, traverse those very intimidating hallways & make it through their sometimes, oft-times, very difficult days. GSA’s are not just for LGBTQI kids either, they are in no way exclusionary, hence the word straight in the very name of the group. It’s a safe space for all kids to listen to and to learn from each other, lend a hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on.
Being in a GSA keeps kids off the streets, out of the hospitals, away from the jails, safe from their own hands and even moreso, the hands of others. I forged the first middle school GSA in New Jersey and it has since inspired similar groups across our state, indeed across the country. GSAs are love and love is contagious. They are a wonderful and inspiring microcosm of community-building: kids reaching out to other kids, creating relationships and forming identities through conversation, mutual understanding, and respect. Simply hearing and seeing each other and simply being heard and being seen, for some of them, for the very first time…
That’s how we learn, we grow, we understand – It is indeed Social Justice. We can’t do it without each other, hence the “social” part.
Empathy for others, a deeper understanding of our brothers and sisters of every color, gender (or lack thereof), religion (or lack thereof), national origin, or physical or mental disability allows us a wonderful and unique window to the world around us and the heart that beats within us all.
Listen to your students. Listen to your colleagues. Listen to your friends, your family, your community.
Listen to those you love and those you hate.
Listen to a stranger. And then…
Be a voice for the voiceless. A friend to the friendless.
Love and respect all, and if you can’t do that, you have the include them anyway. Any movement that is not all-inclusive is not a movement at all. In fact it is a step backward; and we have surely taken too many of those recently.
We need to teach in the classroom, inspire in the hallways and be a force in our communities.
It may not seem like it, but these are our times. We will persevere, we will rise up, we will come out the other side – stronger, faster, better, with more folks on our side and at our backs.
Hold hands, lock arms, heads up, eyes clear, hearts full and minds wide open…
Boots on the ground.
Now and always.