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Q & A: Get to Know the 2016 SJA Finalists - Union City Educators

As members of New Haven Pilipino American Society for Education (PASE), Ivan Viray Santos, Joe Ku’e Angeles and Tina Bobadilla are instrumental in leading a decade long movement to rename a school after Filipino American Labor Leaders. As organizers, educators and activists, they have brought Pilipino heritage into the schools through ethnic studies curriculum, student and community engagement, and activism.

The NEA team had the opportunity this week to catch up with Ivan, Joe and Tina between their outreach and organizing to and talk about the social justice movement and what inspires them to do their work. The highlights of our conversations are below.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Tina: During the 25 years I have taught in the New Haven Unified School District, I have seen the achievement gap widen to a chasm and this weighs heavily on my mind. Working on the campaign to rename a district middle school after two Filipino farm labor union leaders, Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz, was a huge step in providing the large Filipino population in our district with role models and a history to which they could connect. It was an effort to narrow the achievement gap by providing students with inspiring heroes and histories they can identify with and to imbue students with a sense of pride and identity.

Ivan: I have been involved in community organizing and activism since I was a junior in high school, back in 1995. I was active in organizing the opposition to California’s Propositions including 209, 187, and even 38 in the late 1990s, all of which targeted poor, working class, immigrant populations, as well as public school education. My organizing and activism continued through my college years, but focused more so on youth organizing, leadership development, and the fight for Ethnic Studies.

Joe: Being an activist goes back to my college days when I was introduced to the indigenous community movements of the Native Americans, Polynesians and the Pilipino community. Those three movements really captured my mind and turned me to social activism and social justice.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Ivan: I believe social justice activism should matter to educators because it’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to give students knowledge and skills that will allow them to analyze their current situation(s), see the root causes of different dilemmas, and synthesize plans of action to address the issues for the betterment of their communities.

Tina: Social Justice activism should matter to educators because we are the adults who work most closely with the youth who have the power to bring about change. It is our responsibility to teach them to critically analyze our society and to recognize injustice and act upon it in order to bring about a world that is more just and fair.

Joe: I find it still surprising when teachers haven’t connected the two. Social justice is really the foundation of public education.

NEA: What role do students play in movement building?

Ivan: The saying goes, “The children are our future,” but I whole-heartedly disagree. The youth are NOW, they are the present and everything they can do to help educate and even organize the families on pertinent issues that impact them and their communities are of utmost importance. In today’s fast paced, high tech world, it is often our youth that are the quickest to access and disseminate information. Their immersion in the realm of social media trumps most of what their teachers know and understand. Their ability to create in and navigate the networks are important tools in spreading awareness in pretty much all different movements. They are realizing their power, and to get their voices, minds and opinions out there as a resource to their voting-age counterparts can be integral parts to any movement for positive social change.

Tina: Students are so important to movement building because they have the idealism and energy to keep a movement aloft, and the innovative minds to creatively strategize and utilize social media to raise awareness.

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

Ivan: Personal stories, or narratives, must be the bedrock, the foundation of activism. So much of education has been about quantitative data and numbers, but what really is at the heart of activism are the personal experiences that allow our youth to find commonalities amongst the most diverse populations.

Joe: Personal stories are the way that we connect to one another. Being able to share your story and be heard and not judged helps people feel validated. It’s how we organize in the union and it’s how we organize our activists.

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

Tina: Establishing inter-ethnic solidarity was the most important element in the renaming movement. Many who opposed the renaming caused a divisive rift by mistakenly touting the movement as "a Filipino thing" which only benefitted the Filipino community. Ironically, this paralleled how growers pitted Filipino and Mexican laborers against each other to avert unified empowerment. We had to remind people that the name change would honor Labor and the inter-ethnic solidarity of Mexican and Filipino laborers who, together, implemented the Delano grape strike. To achieve this goal, I sought the support of Anthony Chavez, grandson of Cesar Chavez and Karen Korematsu, daughter of WWII Japanese Incarceration resistor, Fred Korematsu. Both are continuing the work of their forefathers and were happy to join us in honoring civil rights leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.

Joe: I believe that it is important to have a true understanding and belief in what you are doing. At the same time you have to let your belief and vision evolve so that it can grow, flourish and be successful.

NEA: What is the most creative way you have found to engage people on your issue?

Ivan: I would say that letting the youth and students take the lead. It’s always hard for educators (and adults) to fully let go (of any project) and fully trust in the youth. With regard to the project based lesson, which turned into a campaign, then movement- it was indeed scary, but we had to trust that what we showed students in the classroom about community, organizing, and movement building. We had to trust that it was taught well and that the students mastered all the necessary components, and did they ever prove that knew their stuff.

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

Tina: Lack of funding for public schools, from Pre-K all the way to the university level is the biggest issue facing public education. Intervention programs, new and engaging curricular materials, innovative learning spaces, quality educators and teacher training, all cost money and funds these days seem to be diverted away from the place where they are need the most - public education.

Ivan: I agree, it is definitely the lack of funding across the board, but for me it is also the lack of social justice and ethnic studies based courses. I feel that the lack of support, and in many communities, the disdain for such courses to be taught is a huge issue. With the socio-political issues the youth are facing today, as they have for decades, one would think that it would really be upheld and even celebrated.

Joe: I agree with both Tina and Ivan, but I would flag the challenge we have as educators in this new information age. With all of this technology, young people pick and choose their information and communicate via picture and text and emoji. As educators, we need to bring awareness and community in a very connected, but at the same time very disconnected world. At times young people are unaware of the people and the world around them. Their interpersonal skills need some work!

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

Ivan: Fight the fight. Don’t be afraid to share your truth. Don’t ever allow yourself to be silenced because when you allow that to happen, you’ll see it translated into the attitudes of your students. The satisfactory teacher teaches, the good teacher motivates, but the truly great teacher is the one who inspire.

Tina: Surround yourself with positive energy - colleagues, students, community members who share your vision.

Joe: Be knowledgeable and be aware. Have a mentor who challenges, encourages and educates you.


Sample resolution and district policy that can be used as a template or guidance for local school districts to create their own Safe Zones resolutions.


Learn more about the work of educator activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education:

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Find memes, videos, post cards, and posters to share as you advocate for social justice in your school and community here.