Kalebra Jacobs-Reed has spent the last decade fighting as an activist for her students, family and community. As a former Vice-President of her union and a high school teacher in Broward County, Florida, she works to make sure every voice is heard and that America’s democracy is truly representative. Kalebra co-founded, South Florida Activism, which engages fellow union members and other community activists to champion human, civil and environmental justice at the local, state and national level.

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The NEA team was able to catch up with Kalebra to talk about the challenges and opportunities in education and what the future holds for activists. Below are the highlights of our conversation. 

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

I became an educator activist over 10 years ago because I got tired of feeling helpless against all of the bad legislation and political maneuvering that negatively impacted my students, my family and my community. I got tired of feeling victimized, so I decided to take a stand and make a change — that’s when I began taking leadership roles in my union. I’ve grown from a building steward to being the former Vice President of my union. I’ve gone from writing letters to the editor of my local paper to giving interviews to CNN and from advocating for respect and tolerance as a speaker at a Women’s March to starting my own local activist group.

As the current political climate is repressive and intolerant of many Americans, I am still spurred on. My commitment to advocating for public education and special needs students is still just beginning.

NEA:  Why should social justice activism matter to educators?  

Social justice activism should matter to everyone, especially educators!  Public education is the backbone of our American society.  It is the equalizer that provides a pathway to success for all students; it is the foundation of American promise and prosperity.  As such, our public education system must be protected.  It is critical that educators “check-in” and actively advocate for our students, our professions, and our communities.  WE are the experts in our field; therefore, we must personally engage in activities that promote, support, and improve legislation and funding for public education.  We must fight for our jobs, our students, and the future of our country.

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

Our students are our future — their political education and opinions will shape policy in this country in the near future.  Unfortunately, many of them have “checked-out” of our current political crisis because they don’t feel a part of the fight.   If, as a country, we are going to be successful in supporting forward movement, we must activate students and allow them to play a role in the movement.  We must engage students to check back “in”.

First, we must embrace their issues and help them to understand ours.  Next, we must allow them to take part in the fight to remove barriers to progress.  Students can play a critical role in organizing efforts such as communicating messages over social media and through one-on-one contacts.  Finally, we must mentor and support young leaders and show them, in turn, how to cultivate future leaders as the movement grows.

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

Personal stories play a critical role in social justice activism because it helps your community/audience connect with the speaker.  Stories helps people see issues as a REAL struggles that affect real people, instead of hypothetical anecdotes.  Personal stories put a face to an issue and make it harder for legislators and the public to ignore the matter.  They give life to our fight — they make the fight human — and they help others remember that in the end, we are all just people trying to live, love, and be loved.  I believe that activism through stories reminds others that we can, and should, work together to make life easier for each other.

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

The most important element of movement building is getting to know everyone’s story.  I believe face to face contact, person-to-person meetings are the most important elements of movement building because these methods allow us to get to know one another as people.  It promotes unity and strength; and, it reminds us that the movement is not just about “me and my issue” but it’s about all of our stories and about finding ways to promote tolerance and remove barriers so that everyone has access to the American dream.

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 issue facing public education today is that education policy is not created by experts from the field.  Rather, it has been taken over by special interest/for-profit groups.  The results is a public education system that says it aims to meet the needs of all students but isn’t properly constructed to truly meet the needs of any student.  Through conflicting education policies, unrealistic expectations on educators and administrators, ridiculous testing mandates, and underfunded programs and facilities, legislators only success has been at failing to provide a system that supports and facilitates education.

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

1 – Katy Perry, Firework.  2 – Rachel Platten, Fight Song (Dave Audit Remix Edit)

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

Social activism is a passion, a life commitment, a calling.  Try to surround yourself with people who support you and your passion to make this world better, for the journey may be long and you will need a shoulder to lean on from time to time.  Also try to find a network of fellow activists with whom you can collaborate on idea/events/activities; it’s not always necessary to reinvent the wheel or to be a one-man band.  Finally, change doesn’t come without growing pains; when it gets rough, just remember one thing, ‘One man can change the world.’

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