Luke Michener and Terry Jess have been partners over the last three years in making the student and educator voice heard in the fight for racial and social justice at Bellevue High School in Washington and in the greater community. Terry and Luke co-founded a student group where students have taken the lead in advocating on issues like: immigration, race in policing, micro aggressions and street harassment, and anthem protests. This duo also collaborated in the formation of Educators for Justice, which works with teachers and education support professionals to create safe and supportive educational experiences for all students.

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This team was thrilled to find out they were finalists for the Social Justice Activist Award and made the time to talk with the NEA team and share their views on activism in this critical time.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Luke: Students. I have a lot of stories about kids trying to reconcile their identity with the realities of the world around them.

One example of this is from a couple years ago in the aftermath of the decision not to indict the police officer involved in Mike Brown’s death in Fergusson. In class we discussed the issue and looked at the historical context for why folks in Missouri and other parts of the country responded how they did. We talked about systems of oppression, relationships between police and communities of color, relationships between schools and students of color, activism and protest, and a host of other related topics. Students were engaged and expressed the desire to discuss more and take action. I remember one student in particular sought advice about ways he could express what he was thinking and feeling. We worked together to get a letter he drafted published in our school newspaper. It was a powerful statement from him about race from the perspective of a young Black man; a voice our school needed to hear. That student and others are the ‘why’ of this work.

Terry: The original spark was a lecture I attended in college by Tim Wise, who said that it was not enough to be not racist, one should be anti-racist. You can’t be anti-racist unless you engage in activism. However, the biggest catalyst will always be the relationships with students. During my student teaching and first year of teaching, I met students who had such powerful stories and experiences, and yet their voices were unheard in our schools.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Luke: Students (redundant, I know… but it’s the truth). I have yet to meet an educator that doesn’t care deeply about their students, yet kids who represent historically oppressed identities still face major challenges in navigating the public school system. Unmasking and dealing with issues we face as an historically racist system are absolutely critical to serving these kids. Educators also serve as models for students, and we have a platform from which we can provide them with support and mentorship in following their own path of activism.

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

Terry: Students are the movement. Our role is to activate these students, amplify their voice, and vigorously defend them when they face backlash. Change will never come from the top, it must begin and end with students fighting for their rights and for justice. If we are more than a conduit for that, we need to reassess.

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

Terry: Stories are the most powerful way to connect people. Many of the student panels I have helped organize for educators have highlighted this. It is easy to dismiss the reality of racism in one’s school, until you see the tears and pain on a 13 year old young man’s face, as he recounts how he has never been asked how his race has impacted him at school and that the last three years have been the worst of his life because of the discrimination he faced in his middle school. Stories humanize the data and have the ability to change hearts and minds.

Luke: The way we tell our stories, individually and collectively, is critically important to undoing the injustices of the past. For example, we have tried to analyze data in our school and district which points to the need for race-based discussions of equity, but people are more engaged in the work when students are willing to share their stories; to add their voices to the racial narrative of our community.

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

Terry: Perseverance and accountability. This work is grueling and seldom yields quick results. Taking a stance invites criticism and negativity. Any person beginning their journey in this work must understand that the work needs to be sustained over the long term.

Luke: This work also cannot be done alone. It takes a collaborative effort with people who are willing to support and be honest (sometimes brutally so) with each other. Terry has done that for me for the last three years, and he and we have both worked with organizing teams in other capacities that have been so important to the work. Sometimes these groups have achieved our goals, sometimes we haven’t, but we are there to keep each other engaged and accountable.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

Terry: Inequitable funding is a huge challenge in our schools. I work in a district that has an abundance of resources, while other districts barely have enough to operate. Education must be fully funded for every student, not based on zip code.

There is an increasing lack of representation of people of color as teachers, admins, and personnel. It’s a problem when students don’t see themselves reflected in their schools. We have to remove obstacles and incentivize education as a profession for people of color.

Luke: We also have to end racial predictability. We can predict graduation rates, college admissions rates, reading levels, prison populations, and too many other outcomes by looking at data organized by race. We MUST work toward ending this in schools, where it all starts.

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

Terry: Alright – Kendrick Lamar, Killing in the Name – Rage Against the Machine, Glory – John Legend and Common.

Luke: I was incredibly lucky to be part of a group that traveled to the South on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage last year. Bernard Lafayette and Bob Zellner led us in singing “We Shall Overcome” together. That was powerful. And pretty much any Kendrick Lamar gets the job done, too.

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

Terry: This is worth your time and sacrifice. There will always be plenty to pull us in too many directions, but we cannot call ourselves educators, unless we are doing everything we can to make sure everyone has equitable access to that education.

Luke: Keep at it, even when you’ve made mistakes (which you will) and when it feels hard and personal. Keep at it.

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