Erika Strauss-Chavarria is a high school teacher in Howard County, Maryland. Erika leads education and awareness efforts to end the school to prison pipeline by employing restorative practices and by advocating for policy changes. She also busy organizing Know Your Rights training for undocumented students and families.

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The NEA team had the chance to catch up with her between teaching and organizing activities to discuss the importance of social justice activism.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

There was one particular incident in my first year of teaching that really spurred me to activism. A student came to my high school from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore city. He had one goal- graduate. He made the decision to come to live with his aunt after his mother passed away to avoid the adversity he faced living in Baltimore. We built a relationship based on trust and mutual respect, and he had a great year.

One day, this student got into a fight because another student made a vile comment about his deceased mother and he reacted defensively. An adult came at him from behind, and instinctively, my student hit the person who he thought was attacking him. What he didn’t know was that person was a police officer. He was handcuffed, dragged from the grounds, thrown into jail that day and never returned to school.

The injustice of what had happened to him angered me to my core. The zero tolerance policies in the school system that didn’t allow for circumstantial perspective when deciding this student’s fate was unacceptable. I began to reflect on my own experience in high school and the harsh consequences that my black and brown friends in particular had faced. The anger I felt fueled my desire to fight back against unjust and biased discipline policies in our schools, as well as the implicit bias that leads to the pushout of our students of color.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

To quote Paolo Freire “The educator has the duty of not being neutral”. Educators and students alike face a system of oppression daily. We are all oppressed by the corporate driven privatization agenda for education, which pushes the illusion of failing schools based on culturally bias and unjust standardized tests, in order to justify public school closures only to be replaced by privately run charter schools and private schools.

We deal with severe inequities of resources and staffing in our schools. We have more school cops than mental health workers and counselors. We face harsh working conditions and low pay. Many of our students are living in extreme poverty and come to school hungry. Our students of color live under constant attack by a systemically racist educational system that was never meant for them in the first place. It is our obligation and moral duty as educators to be social justice activists, because there is not one aspect of education that is free from injustice.

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

There is no movement building without students. Historically, students have always been at the forefront of movements for civil and human rights. Many of my students are directly impacted by the policies of our current administration, however many of my students have always known a life of injustice and oppression, way before our current political environment.

Our students need outlets to focus their anger and fear. It is our job as educators to first provide our students with the truth about our history through honest and historically accurate curriculum, so that they recognize the broader social context of their own experience in our society. We then need to provide students with the tools and opportunities to utilize the power that they possess to take action on the issues that matter most to them and take leadership roles in social movements.

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

Social justice activism is fueled by personal experiences. Everyone has their own perspective that is rooted in how they experience life. By facing racism, prejudice, oppression, or privilege, etc. in our own lives, we begin to question how our own experiences reflect broader social injustices.

Through sharing our personal stories with one another, it both confirms and expands our understandings of the way our society impacts our own personal human experiences. This helps us build a sense of solidarity with other people who have similar or divergent experiences from our own. As we connect with each other, we discover our common goals, build power, and create change.

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

I believe the most important element of movement building is recognizing and acknowledging that real social justice activism is also racial justice activism. We cannot build movements without putting racial justice at the forefront in our society. We cannot build a labor movement without addressing the specific struggles that immigrants face as laborers or what men and women of color face in terms of wage gaps and denial of basic human and civil rights. The feminist movement cannot only be discussed in terms of reproductive rights and wage gaps, which have historically been the main concerns of white women. A real feminist movement must focus on the issues of race and class faced by women of color including but not limited to systemic racism, immigration issues, healthcare, LGBTQ rights, poverty, micro-aggressions, police brutality against black women, etc. The leadership of the Women’s March in response to the presidential election did not even include one woman of color or address issues of race or class until they were met with justified backlash from communities of color.

We cannot fight against educational injustice without specifically addressing the lack of access of students of color to advanced courses, or the pushout of our students of color into school to prison pipeline. In addition, people of color must be the leaders and the primary voice in social justice movements.

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?

The biggest issues on the forefront of the social justice/education justice movement in this country are systemic and institutional racism in education, the School-to-Prison Pipeline, the need for historically accurate curriculum and inclusion of ethnic studies, the threat to unions through loss of agency fee, poverty, inequity, a completely unqualified Secretary of Education, privatization and corporate takeover of public education, and ALEC.

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

It is impossible to pick just one song– it depends entirely on my mood. However, the songs and artists that really get me fired up are anything by Public Enemy, Police State by Dead Prez, Letter to the Free by Common, A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke, anything by Bob Marley, Damian Marley, Israel Vibrations or Reggae in general, and anything by TUPAC.

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

Think about what is best for your students and what they deserve in order to live quality lives free from hardship and struggle. When you witness the injustices that our students face, let that motivate you to take action as an educator and member of society. Be intolerant of those injustices. That is the driving force behind activism. Educate yourself about history and social justice issues. Do not rely on other people to educate you. Read authors of all backgrounds to understand various perspectives. Research organizations who are already active in the fight for justice and join them. Once you join, have an open heart and learn how to really listen instead of attempting to be the expert or dominant voice. Finally, remember, we are NEA. NEA is our union, do your part to make a difference, don’t wait for NEA to do it for you.

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