So… I know I promised you a “four part series,” and I’m going to keep that promise, but I had to chunk out part 2 because it got kind of long. I realized that I can’t encourage people to go out and be teacher activists without explaining how to protect themselves first and what it even means to be an activist. So, part 2A in my four part series is some theory and soul searching. It builds on part one of the series by defining what I believe a leader is and then expounding on the idea of unconditional love of our community as a foundation for activism. Part 2B will give concrete examples of how I’ve worked to dismantle hierarchies with my community of teacher activists!
DO YOU EVEN ACTIVIST?
I’m going to start off part two by bringing it back to the title of this website, “Teacher Activist.” I reluctantly call myself an activist. I didn’t set out to be an “activist.” I went into teaching because of my experiences as a student and a woman of color. I knew I wanted to provide a different experience for students like me, but I wouldn’t have called it “activism” when I first started out.
The more I act, though, the more I consider myself an activist. I can trace it back to my junior year of high school when I found out I was pregnant. I was being told I needed to get married, go on welfare, go to the special school for expectant mothers, get an abortion, give my child up for adoption, and worst of all, from my mother I was told, “Your life is over.” My mom was also a teenage mother, so I realize she was speaking from a place of regret. She often made comments that she gave up her dreams to raise us kids. That’s when I made a conscious decision to break whatever cycle I was born into. That was when I began to be an activist.
I guess it took me so long to realize it, because we have this image of what an activist is. I always thought it looked like this, or like this . I’m here to tell you, though, that activism can happen in small moments and actions. It can happen when you decide to not be a statistic, when you examine and transcend personal biases and allow yourself to love your students unconditionally, and when you refuse to teach from the textbook because you know it’s wrong. It can happen when you tell your administrator, “No. I will not align my professional growth goals to standardized test outcomes because it is racist and immoral,” which is based on a true story. Challenging and dismantling hierarchies can be as covert as ignoring building-wide policies, or as overt as challenging a high ranking district official when they lie in a school board meeting – also true stories.
TEZCATLIPOCA: CHECK YOURSELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YOURSELF
I’ll be referencing what I learned from the XITO scholars a lot for a while because it makes so much sense to me, and it’s an affirmation of my Mexican roots. Tezcatlipoca means “smoking mirror,” and refers to the need to constantly reflect on your actions, your beliefs, and your positionality. If you don’t practice Tezcatlipoca, you probably shouldn’t be an activist – and you definitely should not be an educator. Both positions are positions of leadership and require a sense of humility and force that compliment one another. I believe these two things generally work in opposition of one another, and Tezcatlipoca helps mediate them.
Many of my colleagues tell me they are inspired by my ability to stand fearlessly in opposition to what I believe is unjust. This paints a picture of me that doesn’t match my own self image. What they describe looks kind of like this ,
but my mind’s eye sees something more like this .
I think this perception I have of myself is the key: I don’t do what I do for personal gain, and I’m willing to get into trouble or lose my job. Yes, there are risks in challenging the structures, and I believe this is the difference between a “teacher” and a “teacher activist.” Not only am I willing to take the risks, I feel it’s my responsibility as an educator and an activist to do so.
Part of my practice of Tezcatlipoca is finding trusted advisors that I can share my insecurities and vulnerabilities with. The realization that I am a teacher activist was not an easy one to accept. As I said, I didn’t do this to be an activist. I wanted to make life easier for students like me. I wanted to empower them with knowledge I didn’t have access to when I was coming up. One conversation I continue to have with a good friend and colleague, Marquita Prinzing, is my reluctance to step into the spotlight. I resisted it so hard. Because of the love I have for my students, education, and racial equity, I couldn’t help but get involved when the opportunities arose, but I never meant to be here today. That’s the humility. The force that was born of Tezcatlipoca is called Huitzilopotchtli, the hummingbird on the left mentioned in part one of this series. Through Tezcatlipoca I realized that acting from the heart includes acts of bravery. I’m still uncomfortable in the spotlight, but Tezcatlipoca helps me realize that I have already made huge changes and being in the spotlight will help me teach others how to do the same.
If you are not practicing Tezcatlipoca, you aren’t acting from the heart. Watch the leaders you trust and admire. Listen to the words they use: we or I? love or authority? organizations or humanity? Individual or community? We, as a community, should always be using the language of love for humanity. If I talk about my authority as an individual in an organization, I am creating hierarchies, not dismantling them. Huitzilopotchtli: if your actions don’t say, “I do this because it’s right, not because someone will like it, or I will get recognition for it, or because I’m afraid to lose my job/standing/recognition/respect,” you are in no place to lead anyone.
WE ARE EDUCATORS
Before I start giving examples of the barriers created by hierarchies in my building and district I want to go back to and emphasize the importance of leading in and with a community. My activism as a teacher skyrocketed when I became involved with my education association. It was Marquita who recruited me for a new project she was hired to launch which ended up to be The Center for Race and Equity. Through that I was connected to other educator activists and agitators, and next thing I know, activism is my life. Although it’s stressful at times, I’ve never felt more fulfilled.
In addition to a network of emotional support, mostly from women of color, The Center and my work within the union have created a safety net. Because I love my work, my students, and my colleagues, I know that when I stick my neck out, they will be there to support me. Small acts of activism can be carried out by an individual, but only if they carry the community with them in their heart.
This brings me to my next point. As an educator, other educators and families of students are my community. Too often educators are told they have no power, and we jump through hoops to please our principals because we’re afraid that rocking the boat will make our lives miserable. It could very well do that, but as an individual, you will be able to withstand whatever your administrator hurls at you as long as you have the support of the community. Here’s where love of humanity and dismantling hierarchies comes in. “Other educators” refers to any person that cares for children. Educators are paraprofessionals, custodians, counselors, food service workers, bus drivers, tutors, parent volunteers, and administrators. When we see ourselves as a collective community we are stronger.
When the families of our students see and feel that we love their children unconditionally, they will move mountains for us. I’ve seen it happen. When Seattle educators went on strike in 2015 we saw families rally around us and even go so far as to create a support network called Soup for Teachers, which currently functions as an education advocacy group. And in order to really break down hierarchies, we must include families as educators. They are our students’ first educators, and when they come to us we are building on the cultural wealth their families have passed down to them. We are educator activists.
Come back next week for Part 2B where I’ll share stories of how we are working to dismantle hierarchies in our building and district.