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Member & Activist Spotlight

Teaching in the Time of Extreme Politics

Yovanna Pineda is an Associate Professor at University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida
Yovanna Pineda Moses Mitchell
Published: August 11, 2023

It’s downright depressing to watch colleagues walk away from positions that they love or to hear whispers about impending departures from valued faculty or staff members, many of whom are women or women of color. Those who leave take years of institutional knowledge and a unique perspective of our university students. Even the ones like me – those who have chosen to stay – question how long we can hang on amid the constant barrage of attacks on education in Florida.

Unfortunately, this is the work experience in Florida’s institutions of higher learning, including where I have taught since 2010: The University of Central Florida (UCF).

In May 2023, Ron DeSantis, Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate, signed a sweeping anti-education law (HB 999/SB 266). The bill’s language is weak on specifics but clear on intent. DeSantis does not merely seek to chip away at policies and programs aimed at celebrating and understanding diversity; he wants to obliterate them. The new law bans public colleges and universities from using state funds for programs that advocate for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Although private, foundational, and federal funds are technically not “state funds” that could be used for diversity programs, the vagueness in the language could potentially bar outside funds from supporting these programs. The bill is also a threat to anyone teaching “identity politics,” critical race theory, or any topic of which the governor may disapprove.

As a Latin American historian, my job is to teach students about the injustices, tyrannies, and resistance of the past to understand our present. Memorizing names and dates is insufficient to grasp the emotional toll of those who were victimized, survived, and resisted. Higher education will not only inform their decision-making but will shape them to become empathetic individuals. That was a goal behind an interdepartmental effort I spearheaded at UCF.  With a group of professors and students across three colleges, we created a virtual simulation, called the Middle Passage Experience (MPE), to digitally immerse students in the experience of being a captive in the transatlantic slave trade. It’s a disturbing experience and it doesn’t put Brazil or the United States in a good light, but it’s the history of the Americas. We designed the pilot project from 2017-2020 to create a better understanding as to why the civil rights movements including the Black Lives Matter movement has resonated so powerfully across the globe.

Projects like the MPE are among many that are directly threatened by DeSantis.

This fight invented by the Florida governor may adversely affect my research and livelihood. Frankly, it feels personal. Before I was born, my parents left Guatemala to come to the U.S. They believed in freedom and sought opportunities in the states that would have been impossible in Guatemala. Instilled in me were the values of protecting freedom and free speech. That’s why I will continue to speak against these policies and celebrate the diversity in my classrooms; and I will make sure that every student feels his/her/their story is included and honored with dignity.

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.