Robt Seda-Schreiber, New Jersey: 2017 Social justice Activist of the year nominee profile
Robt Seda-Schreiber was a born activist committed to social justice. He founded his school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) – one of the first- and tirelessly worked to assist educators across New Jersey and other states to form GSAs providing safe and supportive environments for LGBTQI youth. In addition to his commitment to his colleagues and causes, Robt draws on his experience as an art teacher to engage students in a mural program which creates thought provoking works for the greater community.
The team at the NEA was able to catch up with Robt between his classes and organizing to discuss what he has learned in 25 years as an educator activist and what he sees on the horizon. Below are some outtakes of our conversation.
NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?
I marched on Washington in the womb, was named for Martin and Robert; my boots have always been on the ground, both literally and figuratively. I teach now at the same school I attended as a student; community means the world to me, again both literally and figuratively. Activism cannot and should not exist without education and the converse is even more true. The classrooms are the true frontlines of the revolution.
I put this ideal into practice every day and indeed throughout my almost twenty-five year career: helping to realize our school’s Gay Straight Alliance that has served as an exemplar for so many others; creating a mural outreach program whereby students paint inspirational and aspirational artwork both in our hallways and for local charitable organizations; writing and directing plays in collaboration with my students that address social, cultural and political issues; serving in my local community on the Mercer County Human and Civil Rights Committee and on the world stage as a Fulbright MF Scholar to Japan; and in my classroom of course wherein I teach and model the idea and ideal of the intersection of art and awareness, of creativity and activism.
NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?
We are the torch-bearers. We need to light the way for our students, their parents and the greater community. We set the example by the way we teach, by the way we talk and by the way we live our lives. We need to teach in the classroom and inspire in the hallways.
NEA: What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the new political environment?
Students are the very foundation, the absolute cornerstone of any hope we might have. We need to inspire them to think, to feel and to believe and then to act upon those thoughts, those feelings and those beliefs. Allow them the freedom to create and then live in a world wherein we can be kind to each other, accept each other, respect each other, and love each other. Recently, I directed a play in which the kids each wrote a monologue about an immigrant, celebrating his or her life; his or her contribution to our society and our culture. The show was entitled “I Am America”, and it was a direct answer and stunning rebuke to the current administration’s immigration ban, but in a surprisingly entertaining and positive way. It was protest in the guise of celebration of our true national origins, our culture, and our people’s beautiful diversity, and on top of all that, all proceeds from the production benefitted the ACLU. In a school in a sanctuary city wherein so many of our kids are DREAMers, this was even more important and even more necessary.
The students were transformed by this experience but they brought about that transformation on their own terms and with their own imaginations.
NEA: What is the role personal stories play in social justice activism?
I am twelve and in the backseat as we ride up the Turnpike; my parents tell me that my beloved Uncle Les is gay. He couldn’t come out until now because his father, my Poppy, wouldn’t have understood. Now sadly my Poppy is dead but my Uncle can finally be who he has always been.
Thirty-five years later, I meet Vincent V., a student at a neighboring school district, who because of his otherness is bullied to the extent that he must be home-schooled. I become his advocate and his family’s partner in a protracted legal battle with his district, resulting in him attending our school at that district’s expense. Whilst at our school, Vincent flourishes: finally able to realize who he is and who she has always been. Vincent becomes Vee, our school’s first transgender student and she allows me the honor of helping her with that transition. Vee’s bravery and self-realization is a gift to our entire school and our greater community and to me personally: a concrete example of the power of outreach, an abstract made very concrete. A life saved; a life realized.
Empathy for others, a deeper understanding of our brothers and sisters of every color, gender (or lack thereof), religion (or lack thereof), national origin, or physical or mental disability allows us a wonderful and unique window to the world around us and the heart that beats within us.
NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?
Creating our school’s Gay Straight Alliance, the first in New Jersey and one of only a handful in the nation, made me see clearly the very mechanisms of what creates a movement. The wonderful support of our administration, my colleagues and our community as well as the homophobia and hate from other darker corners were in equal parts key to our success. From volunteering to care for a group of seven beautiful misfits to a group that is now over fifty strong, it has been the very microcosm of movement building- especially in light of the many GSA’s that have been inspired by our very existence and that have formed in our wake, many of which I have traveled far and wide to help in their genesis.
NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?
We have folks in power who bring out the worst in us rather than the best. The change in politics and in society is such an utter sea-change, it could cause whiplash in the soul. The spectre of vouchers always in the shadows suddenly taking a very corporeal form exemplifies this: So-called “school choice” allows for divisiveness whereas public schools are the very ideal of inclusiveness. We need as educators and as citizens to rail against this darkness with as much light as possible, even when it seems hard enough to light a match let alone a torch. But that is what we must do: Burn bright and burn long. Our knowledge and our spirit will light the way. This is another march, another moment to stand up, & that starts in the classroom- no doubt, no diggity.
NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?
Ooh, a playlist- muy importante because one can’t be in a movement unless one is movin’! Let’s start with the obvious but integral Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”; then groove over to The Coup’s “The Magic Clap” (“this is the last kiss Martin even gave to Coretta” gets me every time!); Ray Charles preaches the grandeur and the pain of “America the Beautiful”; Xenia Rubinos adds the Latin flavor with “Mexican Chef”; Jidenna warns us “Long Live the Chief”; then we add some Bob Marley of course, The Clash to rouse our rabble, Nina and Aretha and Billie bring us trouble, respect and soul in equal measure, and a lil’ Bruce because “between our dreams and actions lies this world” and there you have a mixtape for hittin’ the streets with some sway in your hips and hope in your heart.
NEA: What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?
Every moment counts, every word matters, both in and outside the classroom. Please challenge yourselves as much as you challenge others. Always try first to fight for something rather than fighting against something. Remember to thrive and not just survive. All are welcome always- any movement that is not inclusive of all is not a movement at all but sadly a step backward.
You cannot move forward without knowing where you are going and who you can bring with you, without seeing what is in front of you and what you can do to change it for the better. For all of us. Eyes clear, hearts full, and minds free- boots on the ground.
- Join the tens of thousands of educators who have taken the Bully Free It Starts with ME pledge.
- Sign the pledge, and together, we will work to make this vision of public education a reality.