Still fighting for justice & equality

Jonathan Fickies UFT Vice President for Education Catalina Fortino (second from left) was among the more than 1,000 UFT members who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Aug. 24 to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

I and thousands of others traveled to Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Aug. 24 with a twofold purpose. We wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his monumental “I Have a Dream” speech to the 250,000 participants. But we also wanted to remind the nation that the dreams that animated the original marchers — jobs, justice and freedom — are still, 50 years later, just that, a dream for many in our country.

This is why we must continue the fight for social and economic justice. The recent court ruling regarding “stop and frisk,” the increasing disparity in wealth between the 1 percent and everyone else, the acquittal of the man who fatally shot black teenager Trayvon Martin and the slew of voter suppression laws being passed show us that racism, economic inequality and injustice still exist half a century later. I find it especially sad, and also ironic, that on the 50th anniversary of the event that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1964, five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court chose to gut that law, citing as a reason that it was no longer necessary.

The path to turn the dream of those original marchers — many of them educators and union members like those who joined me this year — into reality is also twofold: political action and education.

The civil rights workers of the 1950s and ’60s knew the value of education. They played an important role in establishing Freedom Schools in the deep South. Some of them paid for this commitment to education with their lives. The students who attended these Freedom Schools also risked their lives, but in return they learned valuable lessons about their rights as citizens and the price they had to pay to secure those rights.

The test that students in those schools took was not standardized; each of them had to overcome their fear of the very real possibility of death for both themselves and their families that their attendance might cause. Student data did not come in the form of computerized reams of paper. The data these students generated was their everyday experiences in places such as 1963 Mississippi, which was, in Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable evocation, “sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression.”

Educators in the Freedom Schools were truly facilitators, using questioning to elicit understanding and develop critical thinking in their students about their role and potential in the segregated society of that time.

As teachers today, we must use these models from the civil rights movement to teach our students about this defining moment in the history of our country, a time when Americans fought, both individually and collectively, for the ideals of justice and equality. Throughout this coming school year, we will guide students so they can also recognize and discuss injustice and inequality in its current form and what to do about it. A challenge of the Common Core Learning Standards will be to make sure that students are able to question and evaluate the rhetoric, images and experiences they encounter with appropriate vocabulary and a keen intellectual perspective.

There are those who will confuse this role of teacher as activist with that of propagandist. I am not espousing the presentation of one political or social viewpoint over another but rather an activism born from imagination. One of my summer reading books, “Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts and Social Change,” written by renowned educational philosopher Maxine Greene, has inspired me in this regard.

Greene calls on us to use our social imagination — our capacity to invent visions of what should be and what might be in our society, on the streets where we live, in our schools — in our quest to improve things for those we teach and for the world we share.

As the educators in the civil rights movement showed us, education is one of the strongest tools we have as citizens. With a solid education, we can actively and intelligently question what exists, discuss our role in the community and determine what actions are needed to address that which is not right.

As educators, that is how we can recommit ourselves to the fight for jobs, justice and freedom that propelled the marchers 50 years ago.

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