2018 Social Justice Activist Nominee Profile

Elizabeth Villanueva has changed the lives of her students and fostered social justice in her classroom and in the community.  As an advocate and a teacher, she builds relationships with students, parents, and the community to provide access to resources that facilitate academic success.

In her second year of teaching, Elizabeth began an after school class for female Latina students, the main emphasis of which is gang prevention. Most of the students enrolled in the class had some affiliation with gangs, but by the second cohort of the class, the name New Age Latinas (NAL) had been adopted, and the emphasis changed to an after school leadership class focused on college readiness, community service, personal growth, and networking with other Latina college students and professionals.

After the election of President Trump, the NAL participants and many students in Elizabeth’s classes, shared their fears and anxieties about the increase in ICE raids in their communities and deportation.   Elizabeth reached out to the community, colleagues and other students and started the Luther Burbank High School DREAMers.  The weekly meetings in her classroom became a safe haven for her students. Every week, guest speakers, including immigration lawyers who provide “Know Your Rights” workshops, college counselors who share information on how to enroll in college and access financial resources.

We caught up with Elizabeth to talk about the role her students play in activism and her advice for new educator activists in this environment.

Vote for the 2018 Social justice Activist of the Year!

What spurred you to become an educator activist?

I had never thought of myself as an activist just by doing what I love—serving students, their families, and the community I work with. However, I found out that love and passion were not enough when I learned more about the needs, fears, anxiety, and all the baggage that prevents immigrants from learning and having access to a good quality education. Getting to know my students and their families and building meaningful relationships with them motivated me to become an activist. I was deeply moved to look for resources outside the classroom and to provide a meaningful and excellent education for them.

 

Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Providing good quality, transformative education to the underserved and underrepresented is an essential component of social justice. Every student, no matter his or her socio-economic status, is part of our collective society, and part of that which makes us all who we are. Each one deserves the dignity, respect, and opportunity that is provided for every other member of our collective society. Education has the power to transform our collective consciousness and improve the well-being of us all.

 

What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the new political environment?

Student voices and activism have been instrumental in movement building for decades. From the protests on college campuses in 1960s to the walkouts of high school students in the recent gun control debates, students have proven that their voices have power to mobilize and create, not only awareness, but a deeper level of human consciousness for social justice. An emphasis on social justice in the classroom can provide students the knowledge and motivation to engage in activism, especially in light of the new political environment. Students who understand their purpose and their reason for being transmit empathy and provide comprehensive answers and solutions to difficult circumstances.

 

What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

Every human life is a personal story. When we create the space to share our stories and speak from our heart, we create a safe and sacred environment where human connections strengthen our mutual sense of belonging, and where our own stories of our experience with injustice inspire others to fight for better life conditions for all members of our society.

 

What is the biggest issue facing public education today? 

I feel that three of the biggest issues are fear, lack of understanding, and lack of appreciation of the differences that exist among us. It seems that the movement to generate homogeneity in this country is developing a more hateful and divisive society as reflected by the recent atrocities that have occurred.

 

What song gets you fired up to do this work?

There are two songs that move me and remind me of my calling and my purpose in this life and my work. One of them is called “Sólo le pido a Dios” by Mercedes Sosa, and the second one is “Vivir mi vida” by Marc Anthony.

 

What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?

As an educator, I continually remind myself of the importance of living in the present moment and being self-reflective about my teaching and learning experiences inside and outside the classroom. This is a constant reminder of who I was, who I am, and who I can become. This message is of value for anyone and everyone we interact with every single day. Having this in mind I reflect on who I serve and why I do it.

 

Vote for the 2018 Social justice Activist of the Year!

 

  • Racial Justice is Education Justice

    Our education system is intended to uphold equal opportunity, but too often it also entrenches racial disparities by its design. We are engaging educators, students and allies to foster real dialogue around issues of racial justice in education and to mobilize and take action for education justice.
  • Support Ethnic Studies Programs

    From campaigns to require schools to offer ethnic studies courses, to efforts to change the names of schools honoring Confederate leaders, students and educators are mobilizing to include voices of the diverse ethnicities that have contributed to the history and culture of the United States.
  • Black Lives Matter @ School

    The goal of Black Lives Matter @ School is to spark an ongoing movement of critical reflection and honest conversation in school communities for people of all ages to engage with issues of racial justice.
  • Ending the School-to-Prison Pipeline

    Zero tolerance and other exclusionary school discipline policies are pushing kids out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system at unprecedented rates. Learn how educators, students and families are building relationships and community to address and prevent conflict.
  • Families Belong Together

    Immigration issues are complicated. But some things are simple. We should not punish children for decisions they didn’t make. We should not separate families. And we should provide a trusted path to citizenship for immigrant Dreamers. Read how educators are taking action on these issues.
  • Dreamers

    Dreamers are young, aspiring Americans – part of our communities. They are students who deserve every opportunity to learn, educators who inspire children each day, members of the military, our neighbors and friends. These are their stories. This is their voice.
  • School Safe Zones

    All students should have the opportunity to learn without the fear and distress that results from harsh immigration enforcement. Many school districts are making their campuses “safe zones” for immigrant students and communities. You can be part of this movement.
  • Protecting Our Students' Civil Rights

    In the face of federal civil rights rollbacks and threats, educators, parents and students are organizing to adopt school board policies that strengthen student protections. Find model policies and strategies that will empower you to ensure all students’ right to a safe and affirming school.
  • Supporting LGBTQ Youth

    LGTBQ students face unique challenges in our schools. They are more likely to face bullying and harassment leading to poor grades, higher dropout rates and homelessness. Safe and affirming schools are a core element of student success.
  • Educational Equity for Women and Girls

    All students deserve equal access to educational opportunities. However, girls and women often face structural barriers that threaten their success in school and beyond. Girls of color are more likely than white girls to face unfair discipline. And sexual harassment and violence in school are problems that confront most all girls. Learn how educators, students and allies are mobilizing to support the needs of all students — regardless of gender.