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Activism for educational growth

New York Teacher
Janella Hinds

Janella Hinds
VP for Academic High Schools

We teach — and our students live and learn — in a world of rapid change, with new technological tools for navigating that world at our fingertips. For academic high school educators, it’s an exciting and challenging time. Do we have a role in creating innovative teaching environments for our students and professional learning settings for ourselves? I say yes. 

Yes to fostering the next generation of informed, active citizens. Yes to honing our craft. Yes to stretching beyond classrooms and comfort zones. Yes to activism for educational growth.

Opportunities abound. We can tap into our authentic educator experiences to transform policies. We can align with partners who offer young activists the space to apply lessons. We can develop culturally responsive approaches to civic engagement, inspiring our citizens-in-training to join causes that uplift others. 

Our union, itself a powerful political organization, has forged partnerships with higher ed, nonprofit and government entities and within the labor movement to enable our members and our students to stretch, grow and create the change they want to see.

The Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization’s Speak Truth to Power program allows ordinary people to engage in exceptional human rights activism. By immersing educators and students in standards-aligned online tools, field trips, classroom exercises and more, it helps them dive into what it takes to champion justice in their communities. 

Each summer since 2017, the UFT has worked in partnership with the organization to hold a multi-day human rights advocacy institute for teachers and their students. They learn about taking principled, courageous stands and creating environments where students can devise bold, solution-driven action plans.

Our high school students also participate in the organization’s video and songwriting contests, using human rights issues that resonate with them to create original submissions that raise awareness and inspire action. The 2019 video winners were shown at the Tribeca Film Festival.

In 2017, our high school division introduced the UFT Future in Focus career fair in partnership with the New York City Central Labor Council to expose high school students to the labor movement and unionized careers. We view our students’ education through a holistic lens, looking beyond graduation to prepare them for life and citizenship. Future in Focus connects them with union leaders and employers uniquely qualified to explain the credentials and degrees required for a range of pathways as well as the opportunities created by union representation on the job. 

Informed advocacy is also a key element of making positive change. Through the UFT’s partnership with AFT Teacher Leaders, we create opportunities to empower members to grapple with pressing education issues so they may advocate for public schools and their students. The program recruits promising teacher leaders from AFT locals across the country, leveraging their dual strengths as educators and union members, and prepares them for a seat at the policy table. 

It is incumbent upon us as educators to stretch beyond our classroom walls to foster our own professional growth, be more culturally responsive and confront external forces intent on undermining public sector unions. I believe there’s an opportunity for every UFT member working in an academic high school to engage in activism while fostering educational growth for themselves and their students.