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Member & Activist Spotlight

Hugo Arreola: What Education Justice Means to Me

Hugo Arreola, a high school computer lab technician in Phoenix, Arizona, first realized the importance of education justice at a NEA conference. Since then, he has become an advocate for quality public education for all students.
Hugo Arreola is a high school computer lab technician in Phoenix, Arizona
Published: June 15, 2020

To me, education justice means that every student that goes into the public education system has enough resources, has enough opportunities to focus on education. It means that teachers are paid enough, that we have enough counselors, and that support staff are making enough so they don’t have to worry about living paycheck to paycheck.

Education justice goes back to the Supreme Court ruling that separate is not equal when you have an education system that is supposed to benefit everybody, but not everyone is getting the same amount of resources, the same amount of attention. I first realized the importance of education justice during my first time going to NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice.  I was a finalist for the Social Justice Activist of the Year award for my outreach focused on undocumented immigrant students.

Going to that conference, I was able to attend workshops that opened my eyes, especially when it came to the history of the union in public education and the struggles of public education because of charter schools. I know folks have their opinions about public education, that it’s just a machine to make students regurgitate answers. And that opinion comes from not understanding why public education is the way it is and not understanding that it’s a lack of funding and resources.

I advocate for education justice because I feel like students should leave high school better prepared and better supported than they are now. 

My ability to make things better for students has come because of the support I’ve been able to get from NEA and AEA (Arizona Education Association) and my own local association. The moments when I feel I made a difference are when I am able to help a student access resources to further their education or when I am able to connect them with the resources that their families need.

Speaking from my own experience of being an undocumented high school student, I think it’s important to fund K through 12 but also higher ed. If we have universities that are setting such high out-of-state tuition, and we have students looking at the price of going to a four-year college and not understanding how loans work, the students are forced to take on high student loan debt or they are not going to pursue their education after high school. Then you have high school graduates with all this potential just settling for whatever opportunities they can. Some students want to go higher education, some students want to work, but at the end of the day, they shouldn’t feel they have to make desperate decisions just to make ends meet.

If I were speaking to educators who don’t see the need for education justice, I would ask them to look at the resources in their classroom and schools they have right now. For example, ‘How up to date is the textbook you’re using? Is it enough for your students? If your son or daughter went through the system, and they had the kind of resources your students have, would that be enough?’ A lot of the books they’re using now are books I had when I as in high school almost eight years ago.

One of the most surprising things I’ve noticed about being an educator is how much support I’ve gotten as a support staff from NEA, my state union and my local. As long as you care about public education and advocating for it, it doesn’t matter if you’re support staff or if you’re certified. You are an educator.

When a friend and I started doing community forums and resource fairs, we were doing it on our own, trying to bring resources to a community and to students who were eligible for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program). AEA (Arizona Education Association) heard about what I was doing, and somebody from their Latino outreach cadre project reached out and asked if I wanted to team up. The support they gave us was amazing. We went from a two-person team to six people working as hard as we could. We went from a small community center audience of three people to a high school auditorium with over 200 parents and students with different organizations available to them. It was a pretty amazing experience, because before that I was working with students one-on-one in my school. There were a lot of positives about helping that many students.

We were able to do three community forums in the Phoenix Union High School District and one in the Glendale Unified. After that, I started doing trainings on educating educators on supporting undocumented students.

What it came down to for me was that you had families paying crazy amounts for their DACA applications. I was hearing people were paying $3,000 for a lawyer for an application that I learned how to fill out myself. I definitely didn’t like the fact that there were a lot of families paying crazy amounts to lawyers for an application that I could help them fill out. And if they did need a lawyer, then we could connect them with a lawyer to review it. 

I had 15-year-old students who wanted to apply (for DACA), but their parents were hearing all this misinformation about how it was just a way to make a list to round everybody up. There were so many teachable moments on what people were hearing versus what was real.

I kind of understand what my counselor felt when I went to him as a 16-year-old student and asked, ‘What are my opportunities right now to get work, to get an education? And he said, ‘You’re going to have to work a lot harder.’ So I can tell my students I went through what they’re going through as a high schooler. I had to struggle for the first two years out of high school working construction, finding jobs that would take me and pay me under the table, taking public transportation everywhere. You just couldn’t risk it.

Librarian leans over seated students at the library who are reading a book

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