A Teacher’s Duty: Activism as Education

Silvia GonzalezBy: Silvia Gonzalez (Technology & Art)

On Tuesday, November 25th, teachers at Village Leadership Academy decided it would make sense to take some of our young leaders to Chicago’s City Hall to a protest initiated by the Black Youth Project 100. As soon as we arrived, we were warmly received—all with the Ferguson verdict heavy on our hearts and minds.

The night before, I had spent time with friends celebrating my birthday.  I came home and immediately checked social media and the news. The grand jury’s decision was not to charge Darren Wilson, the white police officer, who shot young, black, unarmed male, Mike Brown, 12 times. I couldn’t sleep very well that night, disturbed by thinking about the degree to which racist ideology and white privilege have pervaded our society. More than that, I was thinking about the students of color I work with daily. Their lives matter. As a Brown educator that works with Brown and Black students, I am committed to do better—to teach unapologetically, to remember, to make visible, to call out the invisibility, to fight, to love, be angry and cry, to heal, to radically imagine possibilities that are inclusive and just. I often think about the need for insisting on justice by acting for freedom as stated by Assata Shakur’s words: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”o-CITY-HALL-PROTEST-570

The BYP 100 activists and cameras present immediately turned to our students. Though we might have been a little overwhelmed by the attention, I know we were excited to learn from other activists in our own city. We started off by singing a song about freedom fighters and the crowd was asked if there were any heroes we wanted to acknowledge—people that fought for justice either past or present. Our students raised their hands right away. While some remembered Harriet Tubman and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., one student acknowledged our very own social justice educator, Ms. Harris. This moment made me grateful to be working in collaboration with a group of dedicated educators and administrators who are committed to active, relevant, and liberatory learning. The fact that we organized students in the middle of the day to join a protest at City Hall made me realize that we are not only learning about history, but also making history—actively shaping our present as we work to form and cultivate our futures. This is a beautiful responsibility—a labor of love—to share with young, powerful students and hard working, dynamic n-VILLAGE-LEADERSHIP-ACADEMY-570educators.

When we came back to the school, we held a mini-assembly with our entire student body for student leaders to report back and share what they learned at the protest. We opened the floor to engage in courageous conversation about race, the policing and profiling of Black and Brown bodies, student encounters with police, activism and the role of protests, and their overall feelings on Ferguson and discussions they’ve had at home around the verdict. We talked about the important role that education plays in developing their perspectives and amplifying their voices and their ability to both imagine and create change within our society. Our school provides the unique opportunity for students to critically interrogate history and contextualize it within current events, and I don’t take this for granted. In a city where 39% of the city budget goes towards the Chicago Police Department, while only 6% goes towards community service, I have a duty to use relevant and critical curriculum. In a system that often renders empowered narratives of people of color invalid, even transgressive, I have a duty to make those stories known and raise my voice in chorus with my students to make our realities known. I have a duty to fight alongside students by learning and sharing with them knowledge and skill sets to help them engage, grow, and evolve as leaders. Hearing students speak up during our discussion, I was moved by the level of maturity and vulnerability they were willing to share. I have no doubt, that through our learning and activism, we are preparing for ourselves a transformative and healthy community.

Towards the end of our shared dialogue, we closed out as a community with Assata Shakur’s affirmation entitled, “I believe in living.” I share it here with you as a declaration:

i believe in living.
i believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
i believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs;
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
i believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
i believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.

i believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path
i have seen the destruction of the daylight
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted

i have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
i have walked on cut grass.
i have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference

i have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know anything at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.

i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.

And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.

– Assata Shakur


2 thoughts on “A Teacher’s Duty: Activism as Education

  1. Dear Ms. Gonzalez:

    Blessings to you and your students, as well as to your wonderful school. Sincerely, even though I haven’t seen anything recently, I am always pleased to see writings by one the staff members of Village Leadership Academy. Your intentions for your students are admirable.

    I loved your overview insofar as your thoughts (and especially your writing) as teacher and duty as activist–and your trip to City Hall in protest “against” the Ferguson verdict. Because of the prefix “pro” I would imagine you went to City Hall with your students “for” something…perhaps to have rights and justice not as blacks and browns per se, but as “humans beings” like all people under God and America’s Constitution. Would that be correct? To protest means you’re “against” something and “for” something?

    As a Mexican-American, I grew up in a predominately Black and Mexican neighborhood. Our teachers–almost all White–had an openness to us and to rights and justice: They taught us the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and left us with a sense that we were true Americans by natural and political right…and it was up to us to believe it belonged to us.

    By contrast, the Black and Brown Power movement of today supplants the old civil rights movement–which at its core is natural (God) and political (Constitutional) tradition–and in its place is a demand for black and brown identity, not universal rights. Not rights per se–but power counted. Today people insist on respect as blacks and browns, not as human beings simply.

    Yet, I hope you and other teachers there teach that America’s Constitution does not promise respect for blacks, whites, yellows, Catholics, Protestants, or Jews, et al. It guarantees the protection of the rights of every individual human being in accord with the rule of law…not the rule of man. So, at the heart of conflict is a selfish heart. And, it all starts in the community of home, and proceeds in the community of man. If one
    cannot or will not live in their own community of home, the probability is that same person is destined not to be able to live in the community of man.

    If a student in your class cannot or will not conform to the dictates or mandates of his or her parents at
    home–given that one’s parents are relatively healthy–he or she will not conform to the rule of law in society.

    Silvia, even though I do not know who Assata Shakur is, I enjoyed his words of prose. I, too, would like to share with you the words of a young terminally ill patient I knew when I was a young medical student. She grabbed my thumb and said these wonderful, contributory words upon her last breaths of life:

    Remember Me
    The day will come when my body will lie upon a white sheet tucked under
    four corners of a mattress. At a certain moment, my doctor will determine
    that my brain has ceased to function and that for all intents and purposes,
    my life has stopped.

    When that happens, do not attempt to instill artificial life into my body by use
    of a machine. And please do not call where I lay my “deathbed.” Let it be
    called my “bed of life,” and let my body be taken from it to help others lead
    fuller lives.

    Give my sight to the man who has never seen a sunrise, a baby’s face, or
    love in the eye’s of someone who loves him. Give my heart to a person whose
    own heart has cause nothing but endless days of pain. Give my blood to the
    teenager who has been pulled from a wreckage, so that he might live. Give
    my kidneys to one who depends on a machine to exist from week to week.
    Take my bones, and every muscle, nerve, and fiber in my body and find a way
    to make a crippled child walk.

    Explore every corner of my brain. Take my cells, if necessary, and let them
    grow so that someday a speechless boy will shout at the crack of a baseball bat,
    or a deaf girl can hear the sound of rain against her window.

    Then, burn what is left of me and scatter the ashes to the winds to help the
    flowers grow. And if you have to bury any part of me, let it be my faults, my
    weaknesses and whatever bad I did to people. Give my sins to the devil, and
    my soul to God. And if by chance you wish to remember me, please do it with
    a kind deed or word to someone. If you do all I have asked, I will live forever.

    Blessings be to you, Silvia and your students. –Rick Martinez

  2. Mr. Martinez,

    Thank you for reading the blog post and providing a thoughtful response.

    I want to first begin by clarifying that the event that occurred on November 25th was organized by Black Youth Project 100 and We Charge Genocide. It was an effort to build solidarity among young people who desire to speak out against excessive police violence. A protest in this instance was used to critically gather people in “demanding justice for those who have been taken from us, and those who are living in spite of a system that has deemed them disposable” (statement taken directly from the facebook event page leading up to the event on the 25th: Chicago Emergency Call to Action in Solidarity with #Ferguson & #MarissaAlexander). The Ferguson verdict was to not indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer that shot unarmed Michael Brown 12 times. This is where having events that protest excessive–and deadly use of force against a young black male becomes a necessary means for protest. The event also stood as a vigil for other lives lost, as a teach-in with poets, educators and students rallying together in order to remember we are not alone, we demand justice and we are looking to heal. I think that events like these humanize the faces that have historically been marginalized as “other” given the statistics of police violence being highest towards black, natives, and latinos. It was to make known that every 28 hours a black man is killed at the hands of a police officer, and that furthermore we cannot normalize and accept this within our society. It was to remember the lives lost, rendered invisible, and continuously affected by an oppressive system that continues to commit violent acts…

    We pride ourselves in teaching multiple perspectives, particularly those that tend to get left out because they do not fit dominant narratives of history. Black Panther activist Assata Olugbala Shakur, (Joanne Deborah Chesimard), is a woman that was criminalized, by the U.S. government because of her participation in black liberation movement, the student rights movement, and the movement to end the war in Vietnam. Her story is one we teach as we unravel what it means to stand up against injustices. We value what each unfolding narrative brings as we study our past and discuss our present. We teach the complexities of individuals and communities as they risk, face on, intersectional systems of oppression. I want students to make deeper queries between the formations of history in order to be critical in our present context. When I think about my curriculum as a teaching artist, I want students to walk away with the knowledge that both education and art are a tool of resistance; art is a means to remember, create, recreate, and reclaim our powerful histories and narratives. As a teaching team, we want students to be critical thinkers, to ask and learn, and ask again, “whose law, who is considered a “man” who is valued and why…who writes the narrative and to what end, will we continue this way, why should we care, how will we get involved and transform present systems? As far as community goes, isn’t community the building of relationships in order to take on the vision and work that leads towards restorative and transformative realities? I am not interested in conforming, I am interested in learning and teaching the act of critical reflection because we are capable of caring about our relationships enough to want to build and sustain healthier communities.

    As an educator, this responsibility is one I cannot take lightly, but one I am glad to share with a dynamic team of educators and young rising leaders.

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