Chelsie Acosta is a secondary school teacher in Salt Lake City, Utah who has made social justice advocacy a central part of her life’s work. From standing with LGBTQ colleagues, to speaking up for immigrant students at raucous Congressional town hall meetings, to quietly moving colleagues to acknowledge their biases, Chelsie is outspoken and highly engaged.

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The NEA Team had a chance to catch up with Chelsie between her teaching and activism to talk about the role of educators in activism and the challenges and opportunities within public education. Below our outtakes from our interview.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Three years ago, I began graduate school at the University of Utah in the department of Education, Culture and Society. As a light-skinned, privileged Latina I found myself in what Gloria Anzaldua would call my own nepantla, or liminal space, as a human with intersectional identities and as an educator. My internally oppressed world was flipped upside down, and the inherent connection I have always had with marginalized youth and communities made absolute sense. This experience helped validate my lived experiences with Chicana Feminist theory and helped me to better provide healing pedagogies within the classroom. As healing and knowledge progressed, my voice and visibility became louder and more confident. My work and heart are grounded in the voices of Chicana feminists of the past and those that walk along side of me to speak of/for those that have been historically silenced and forced into the shadows.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

I believe it is our ethical responsibility as educators to use our privilege, voice and positions to stand up to injustices happening to the youth, communities, nation and the world at large. Oppression and discrimination are deeply rooted in this nation and the institutions that have historically kept such bigotry in play. The institution of education has and continues to provide a dangerous site of inequity. Activist educators are positioned to utilize social justice oriented pedagogies to dismantle the foundations of such oppression and rebuild a space of equity, healing and community. Furthermore, I cannot imagine a more sustainable method of fighting injustice over time, over spaces and places (divide and conquer).

NEA: What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the new political environment?

In today’s political climate students must learn how to research the issues, determine their position, anticipate the counter position, collect historical and theoretical evidence, organize a collective voice and speak their truth. In essence, learn and master the process of activism. Students need to learn it is a fluid and on-going movement with highs and lows, but the fact that they are visible, vocal and actively engaged is healing for the individual, community, nation and the world at large. Education in this sense, is the concept that students will not just learn a set of skills, but more importantly how to be responsible and respectful of their community. Experiential learning, empathy and connecting to community is the most powerful tool students can base their activism from. As educators we must remember it is not our jobs to “save them”, it is our job to listen, engage, teach and love them into resilient community and self-advocates.

NEA: What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

I find personal stories to be the single most important component in social justice. Counter-stories are the life force behind social justice. We must learn to listen intently, yearning to understand another’s experience and perspective. Such respectful listening is often times uncomfortable and those of us with inherent privilege have to sit with this discomfort and understand our role in this oppressive society. Please understand this “reckoning” is a constant process and self-check, not a one-time arrival or recognition of privilege. For it is with these stories that we build community and a shared goal to fight injustices. Whether it is regarding race, socioeconomic status, sexuality or any other issue, these stories get to our core. Institutional change cannot occur without a collective power passionately pursuing a common goal to battle the systems in place.

NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?

The most important element in movement building is creating conversations and community spaces that strategically infiltrate institutions that have historically perpetuated bigotry on all fronts. The institution of education has been in the forefront of marginalizing students and communities since the first schoolhouse. Teaching students, communities and educators to come together and question the white heteronormative stories and systems that have silenced and erased all “other” voices and histories is an urgent call to action. This movement must be done in a direct, intentional and organized manner grounded in theory and humanizing ways to seek true liberation.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today? OR What issues are on the forefront of the social justice/education justice movement in this country?

What issue isn’t facing public education?! Whether we are organizing and protesting about the privatization of our youth through assessment and charter schools (which is the latest form of segregation), looking at suspension and pushout rates linked to the School to Prison Pipeline, non-gendered restrooms for transgendered students, implementing Sanctuary School resolutions for undocumented families or voicing our disdain towards the DeVos type confirmations, the issues have risen to the surface with the election of Trump.

Students, communities and peers need us to use our collective power as an association to combat such hateful and dangerous rhetoric that is boastfully spread across the airwaves. Deconstructing these scripted hierarchies within the classroom is of the utmost importance as is reframing what a “just” world could look like.

NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?

There are too many to count. But these would definitely be in the mix: Los Lobos, De Colores; Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit; Aretha Franklin, RESPECT; Marvin Gaye, Mercy Mercy Me; Tina Turner, We Don’t Need Another Hero; Alicia Keys, Superwoman; Bob Marley, One Love; Ani Di Franco, Shroud; Ana Tijoux, Somos Sur; La Santa Cecilia, ICE El Hielo; Supaman, Why; Andrew C. Germain, Rosa Parks; Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Same Love; Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine; Melissa Ethridge, Come to My Window; Tupac Shakur, Changes; Queen Latifah, U.N.I.T.Y; Tracy Chapman, Talkin’ Bout a Revolution; Lauryn Hil, Everything is Everything; Prolific the Rapper, Black Snakes (REMIX) A Tribe Called Red.

NEA: What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?

The time has arrived for educators to stand up and use their privilege, power and voice to battle each and every form of oppression that has violently resurfaced over the last few months. It is time for educators to “walk the talk” and to model our ideals of equity, inclusion and safe spaces. Whether we like it or not, we are part of the institution of education, an institution that is in need of dire critique, reflection and reformation. No longer is it acceptable to just reproduce workers for this capitalistic society that exploits marginalized students and their families by teaching without a critically conscious lens.

As in most cases of life, educator activists should find a mentor to help navigate the social, mental, emotional and pedagogical components linking to progressive social justice work ground in theory and community engagement.

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