2019 SJA – Kimberly Eckert, Louisiana
What spurred you to become an educator activist?
In truth, from the moment I was born a biracial female in the 1980’s, on a bayou in Louisiana, I was thrust into both a world of activism and a world without it. The only choice I ever had was whether or not to be a leader within it or a victim of it. Until now, I never thought of myself as an activist. I never attributed the trajectory of my dedication to students and classrooms to just one action or moment. I never stopped to think about how it is when we’re in the thick of it… over a lifetime of work… those moments become the very movements that bring about lasting social change. Yet here I am. Called an activist or not, this is the work of my life and I’ll do it for as long as I live.
Why should social justice activism matter to educators?
I don’t see how social justice can in ANY way be mutually exclusive from the truest work of educators. What is an education? Why do we educate? My original training was as a social worker, where the goals are essentially to provide people the means to empower themselves, thereby working yourself out of a job. I just felt like I wasn’t changing the world fast enough. As a teacher, I feel like I am engaged daily in the ultimate form of social work, using content as the vessel. Education has always been the tool that, once sharpened, serves as an equalizer, elevator, evolver. If we, as educators, don’t believe that this promise should be kept for every child everywhere, and if we don’t remain ready to engage in activism to advocate for assurance that this happens, then what exactly are we doing? Why are we doing it?
What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the current political environment?
The loudest voices we hear are often the ones amplified and inflamed by fear and ignorance. Adults should never claim to hold the sole onus in changing the world, especially not those whose limitations for humanity have largely chiseled the environment we see. Student voice has never been more powerful than it is now, and this generation is remarkable in the way it views and values a world that grows daily in its connectedness. Every day, more and more students are discovering their voices as mighty human beings. They should be front and center so the sounds of empathy and education become the loudest we hear. Students need to exercise their voices so they’re living their values and dreams, instead of being the ones society keeps trying to silence or push aside.
What is the role personal stories play in social justice activism?
When it comes to activism, facts and statistics alone have never been enough to spark the energy and passion needed for lasting change. People don’t bother to solve problems they don’t care about. People don’t care about truths they’ve never stopped long enough to notice. Storytelling is our human legacy, providing the first, truest, and strongest forms of education. Through stories, we’re able to humanize injustice and share truths in ways that people can’t easily discredit or reject. At a time when it is easy to dehumanize as we desensitize, stories are capable of magnifying our senses as much as ever. Stories can light fires and, when needed, they can put them out.
What is the biggest issue facing public education today?
Where public education began as a means towards one’s Bible, the purpose was shifted, and then gifted, to those with the most money, the most freedom, the most ability, the most power. This left indelible and gaping holes in access to education. Too often, communities simply ignore the holes by taking wider steps to avoid them. Therefore, perhaps the greatest issue in public education isn’t the overt existence of inequity so much as the apathy and complacency in response to it. All the studies, facts, and figures we have provided to us with decade after decade of information that has left public education in a state of highly informed inaction. Until we get communities to truly care about the effects, they’ll continue to move further away from the center of where it all began… leaving the holes wider and deeper until there’s nowhere left to step.
What song gets you fired up to do this work?
Tracy Chapman’s song “Change” gives me life. No matter how hard or painful my work is, this song reminds me that it’s too urgent to get stuck in the holding pattern of comfort. What does it take to make us react? To try? To change? For me, it takes waking up. Living. Breathing. Seeing. Loving. That’s enough.
What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?
Never wait for someone to invite you into battle. Just put on your war paint and charge. There’s never going to be a better moment or a better person. There will never be a better cause than the one you believe in most.