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Q & A: Get to Know the 2016 SJA Finalists - Bianca Zachary

Bianca Zachary has worked to make racial justice a reality in the Mizzou campus. As president of the National Education Association Student Chapter at the University of Missouri, she joined the protests about the lack of response by the administration to the race-related threats of violence on campus. When the University failed to act with appropriate timeliness and seriousness to threats against students of color, enough was enough. Students organized protests and the football team went on strike. The University of Missouri President and Chancellor resigned as a result of the student actions and the university recognized the need for change.

We caught up with Bianca amid finals and graduation ceremonies to talk about organizing, activism and her view on what the future may hold for public education. Below are the highlights of our conversation.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Bianca: I guess I don’t think of myself as an activist. I think of myself as someone who stood up for what is right. In the face of injustice you have to stand up and have your voice heard.

Racism unfortunately is still prevalent in our everyday lives, it’s so much an accepted part of the culture that it may seem impossible to change. However, it was a confluence of events at Mizzou this year that created the climate for action. Events like the health insurance cancelation for graduate students and the denial of clinical privileges for Planned Parenthood created opportunities for organizing. When the University failed to act with appropriate timeliness and seriousness to threats of violence against black students, enough was enough. We organized protests and the football team went on strike. Just two days later the President and Chancellor resigned.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Bianca: Public school education is one of the most vital resources we have. I am a product of the public education system from pre-school to now, and I’ve seen first-hand what good schools can do for a person. Everyone deserves that opportunity.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where schools are not funded equally and students don’t all get a chance to succeed. Your ability to succeed in life should not depend on the zip code in which you were born.

NEA: What role do students play in movement building?

Bianca: Students are really the ones that got things rolling at Mizzou. There were certainly professors and others who were there to lend a hand, but students had the passion to drive the change.

It is students who we really need to listen to as we seek to better our public schools. They are the ones who know what is best for them; they know what is right. I think of this 3rd grader that I met who was so stressed out and crushed by the pressure of the testing system that he couldn’t embrace learning. He said to me, “I don’t want to take this test, I’m not going to college.”

It is his voice that we have to listen to when it comes to change. Students know that it’s not scores on a test that prove they are getting a great education, it’s being moved, inspired and truly educated in the classroom that makes the difference.

Students know what makes education great for them and we have to listen.

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

Bianca: Personal stories inspire, validate and transcend boundaries and differences. They play a critical role in social justice activism. Sometimes it is the stories we tell that allow us to put people at ease and allow us to connect to others in a way that they can understand.

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

Bianca: There are really two important elements to movement building. The first is to have the support of a team with a shared vision to build a movement. You can’t make a movement on your own. Movements aren’t about individuals, but about collective action.

The second element is to have the ability to reflect both on yourself and on the movement in the context of the broader environment. You have to be able to understand who you are and what you are trying to do and be thoughtful and intentional in your actions.

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

Bianca: Social media has profoundly changed the way that we engage and can engage others in a movement. Twitter has sparked some really amazing conversations and a hashtag can connect people and spread news in almost the blink of an eye.

But on the other end of that spectrum is the creative ways people can connect in person with one another. Getting different people together in small groups to share ideas and help to create those really important bridges to collaboration.

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

Bianca: Segregation. I think of the Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, such an iconic image of the Civil Rights movement and reflect that despite how far we’ve come, we haven’t come that far. Black students in this country are more likely to go to segregated schools than any other students in America. These schools are under-resourced and the students are paying the price.

We need to take action to resolve this. We cannot lose an entire generation of students of color simply because of the zip code in which they live.

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

Bianca: Your beliefs are important and you have to step up when you see injustice because you have a duty to your students. They need a voice and you need to be that voice. It is hard work and it can be intimidating but you have to stay true and keep moving and pushing forward.


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