2018 Social Justice Activist Nominee Profile

Erica Viray-Santos is the driving force behind the Social Justice Academy, which has provided students the opportunity to explore their identities and cultural strengths and apply them to transform their communities for a more socially just world.

Over a decade ago, Erica drew upon her experience to construct a Social Justice cohort within the larger school campus.  She now serves over a hundred sophomores, juniors and seniors with a team of teachers.  Students get a range of experiences that allow them to construct positive and cultural affirming connections to their campus and greater San Leandro. This year as one of their projects, students chose to address the trend of gun violence in school.  They developed a comprehensive discipline plan, the goal of which was to build a better relationship between at-risk students and members of the school community. This runs counter to the trend of discipline that punishes and pushes young people out of school.   The students ultimately presented their plan to the San Leandro School Board.  These type of lessons and experiences grant the students the ability to navigate many of that cultural divides that place underserved youth at a disadvantage within the education system.

We caught up with Erica to talk about what spurred her activism, the challenges ahead for public education and what keeps her motivated.

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What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Growing up in a poor working class, immigrant household presented many struggles for my family and me, struggles I never really understood when I was younger that made me angry, confused and extremely resentful. I didn’t understand why my mom had to work multiple jobs or why my dad turned to substance abuse and was in and out of the criminal justice system.  When I started learning more about social justice, ethnic studies and the power of activism, I began to understand my family’s experience in the context of the larger world and it helped me to not only understand, but to heal, transform, and take action, not only for myself, but for all people.

Education and activism have been powerful forces in my life, which is why I have committed my life to helping youth through my role as the teacher and coordinator of the Social Justice Academy, to understand their own experiences through a social justice lens and empower them to transform the communities they are a part of.


Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

I think it is essential that we not only give our students content knowledge and hard skills, but we also instill compassion and a sense of accountability to their local and global communities. As educators, we have the responsibility to help young people realize their value and power.  It is our responsibility to teach them how to look at the world critically, challenge systems of oppression and discrimination, understand how they can be agents of transformation, and inspire them to take action.


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

The youth should always be in the forefront of movement building, all youth regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, immigration status, gender, sexuality, religion, physical ability, and so forth. They are inheriting this world, with all of its flaws, and they have the ability to not only transform it for their own generation, but for the generations that will come after them.

What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

This is always the foundation in my classroom and in the work I do in the community. Understanding each other’s experiences and building that human connection is essential to education and activism.  The prejudices we hold, walls we build up, defense mechanisms we use, in a lot of ways come down when we start to hear each other and see our common struggles.   For instance, early in my career, when Oscar Grant was shot and killed by Bart Police Officer Johannes Mesherle, the Social Justice Academy youth did not hesitate to take action, collect petitions, hold know your rights workshops, and so forth. They did not hesitate because Oscar Grant’s experience reflected their own.  Racial profiling and discrimination was something that they’ve seen and experienced themselves.

The youth in the Social Justice Academy also held several actions and events this school year for undocumented students and to challenge rape culture, not only because it is obviously unjust and morally wrong, but because youth in the program inspired everyone with their bravery and their experiences. All of the projects, events, pieces of writing, and the curriculum I build in my classroom are a reflection of the students in it and are authentic to them. It has to be, there is no other way.


What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

I think the biggest issues facing education today are the lack of social justice education and restorative justice/ socioemotional learning that creates lifelong learners with a social justice mindset.  Ensuring that our students are able to understand and contextualize their experiences in the larger fabric of the world and feel that they are in safe spaces that allow them to do so is essential. I think by building safe spaces through restorative practices and socioemotional learning, it enriches social justice education that will then naturally inspire activism and personal and social accountability on and off school campuses.  That kind of education will transcend their time in high school. It helps them realize that social justice is a mindset, a way of life, not just a set of practices and curriculum.


What song gets you fired up to do this work?

Ruby Ibarra, Rocky Rivera, Klassy, and Faith Santilla’s song US most definitely brings out the fire in me because the strong, bold, and unapologetic Filipinx womxn in it help to fan my flames. When the beat drops and Klassy says, “Island woman rise, walang makakatigil (nothing can stop you). Brown, brown woman, rise, alamin ang yung ugat (know your roots),” I start bouncing around like I’m back in the Bay in 2005 getting hyphy.  That means I’m ready to put on that armor and do some work! I draw strength from other lines in the song like, “Your DNA contains building blocks made from the mud of over 500 years of resistance and survival.” Those words help me to stay grounded, vigilant, intentional, and resilient by remembering the strength and hxstory of my people, especially, Filipinx womxn like my mom who taught me to struggle and hustle with love. No hxstory, no self. Know hxstory, know self.


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

Stay on your grind, warrior educators!  If you feel that you are doing what is best for your students, their families, and the larger communities as an educator activist, don’t let anyone stop or silence you!  You matter! Your work matters! Your students’ voices and experiences matter! There’s no rest for the weary! Isang bagsak!

Pagmamahal at Respeto! Salamat!


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