Ikechukwu Onyema, a chemistry teacher from East Orange, New Jersey co-led a session on Racial Justice at the NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice that recently took place in Boston. The NEA Ed Justice team had the chance to follow up with Ikechukwu Onyema about the big obstacles facing youth of color and what holds public schools back from meeting the needs of every student.
At the NEA Racial and Social Justice Conference in Boston you shared your story with educators from around the country in spoken word. As a chemistry teacher, that is really unexpected. Can you talk about what moved you to share your thoughts in poetry?
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I really thought about what Racial Justice All Day Every Day meant. I am a part of a collective of educators who call ourselves the S.O.U.L. Era. It’s an acronym that stands for Servants Organizing Underground Legends, and we are social justice oriented and eager to assert ourselves on multiple scenes to advance the work.
One of the S.O.U.L. Era members put out the idea to do this. We didn’t want to just tell our stories but we wanted to do it in really engaging way. I am a poet and write poetry, but I’ve never done anything like this, and it really pushed me to grow artistically and professionally.
The reception of the spoken word was amazing.
My students are not future doctors
But present ones
Why do you think it is important for educators to engage in social justice?
Educators work in classrooms and we literally have students who are impacted directly by the systemic challenges in this country. We can’t behave as if those challenges don’t exist. Working in a system that sets students up for failure and feeling powerless to stop it creates cynicism, bitterness and burnout in educators. But when we use the lens of social justice to interpret what we are seeing we put ourselves in a position that creates the opportunity to make change.
As educators who are unionized we have an organization at our disposal that we can use to challenge the systems of oppression from a very unique power base. The NEA is one of the strongest unions in the world and it is our duty to fight on behalf of our students.
What do you hear from your students?
I have been blown away by what students think about, how aware they are and how they express themselves. This is across a range of races and socio-economic status. Students are all thirsty for this. They impress me.
There was a lot of great energy in Boston and folks left really excited and motivated. What do you hope happens next?
I firmly believe that to be successful one has to be intimately familiar with failure and smile in spite of that. In my classroom I fall short of my own ideals sometimes, but that doesn’t stop me from trying again. I hope that is what participants in this conference do. We all need to find what works and think beyond the classroom to our schools and communities.
I hope educators embrace opportunities to be leaders, organize others, build sensitivity to the communities in which we teach and broaden our political range of thought.
We also need to critically engage in the direction of the union. It is important to work in a collective, in groups. Honing our power together rather than being a lone ranger. We must collaborate with intention, strategy and goals.