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.

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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.


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