Jessyca Matthews is a high school teacher in Flint, Michigan who has used her voice and her story to inspire students and move them to action. Jessyca has written poetry and a play to bring community and national attention to the Flint water crisis. Her students have been moved to use creative expression to channel their responses to the crisis. They have also developed collaboration with students in Lansing, Michigan, finding the power of their collective voices to advocate for clean water.

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In between writing, advocating and educating we found time to talk with Jessyca about what moved her to social justice activism and what keeps her going.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

The educator activist influence comes from my father. He was the one that made sure to explain the importance of standing up when something wasn’t right within society. He still does. He taught me the importance of having a voice and standing firm against injustice. He also was the first person to tell me that I was supposed to be a teacher.

I had a wonderful education throughout my youth, but the one issue that I could not get over as a student in high school was I never had a teacher with the same shade of skin as mine. At times, that made it difficult to connect with the people who were so vital in my education. During my third year of college, I started to think heavily on the issue of the lack of African-American teachers, and I realized that my father was my Dr. Victor Frankenstein. I was supposed to be not just a teacher, but one taught others how to be an activist in society. My calling in life was to fill the need that I didn’t have a child. At that moment in college, I made the decision of becoming an activist teacher. I was going to devote my life to making other young people understand that we must fight for change as a teacher of color.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Social justice activism is the basis of making a genuinely productive citizen when we send our students into the real world. Building students to step out on their own and make the world a better place is our primary job.

Students need to know how to analyze situations. Our children in the classroom must know how to listen to others points of views and process what is being said to develop their opinions. This younger generation needs to know that they have stories to tell and that their voices have value on issues that affect their lives. It’s our job to set the example for them to know how to be strong in front of opposition and negativity. The primary goal as an educator is to stand for what you believe in.

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

Today’s children are the most powerful generation to grace the planet I believe that they have a power that other generations never had. They have access to information and audiences that reach across the world with social media They can create music and words to make change. These young people have power, and can use their voices, passions, and views to change the direction of our society.

NEA: What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

Personal stories are the foundation for social justice activism. Without stories, and hearing the emotions and struggles of people that have gone through different experiences, there can be no expansion of empathy and understanding. Being a citizen of Flint, Michigan, I have learned that my story of living in my city is the most vital way for people to understand the need to speak up when injustice is upon you. The more that I use my personal stories and talk using creative means (poetry, articles, plays, lesson plans and conversation) the more people can feel a connection with a need for change.

Teaching students to share their stories empowers them and gives courage to others from my city that we can receive justice. Being an activist inside and outside of the classroom gives me my personal paradise because I know that my story can make a difference.

NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?

Personal stories and creative outlets are the foundations of activism. Telling your story makes people realize that it is not fiction, it is real, and there is a struggle that needs to be addressed. I also find that using multiple creative outlets is the way to reach different audiences. Each person should use their talents to speak and reach out to others for a change. If a person needs to draw, paint, write, sing, dance, speak, or use any other outlet to be heard, they should do it to make a change in our society.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

The segregation in our school system is the biggest issue facing public education. It has always been the problem that we try to avoid, but it is the major factor in the quality of education for all students in our country.

There are schools where students of color make up the majority of the population and are not receiving the same quality of instruction as majority white schools. Rich kids get a better education than poor kids and it will not get better without discussing the issues of race and socioeconomic status. We must focus on quality education for all students, no matter their zip code.

NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?

Fight the Power by Public Enemy. It fires me up so much that it is the name of our Activism Project for my senior class. I can hear it playing in my head now:

Lemme hear you say
Fight the power
We’ve got to fight the powers that be!

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

Don’t be scared.

You are vital to our survival, and you have the most important job on this earth. We are the creators of success stories and tragedies. We are the voice of change. If a teacher doesn’t tell his/her story or teach kids how to share their stories and listen to others, then all is lost for our future. There is a child right now in your classroom that is looking to you to be their role model. Don’t be afraid to be it for them. Show them that you are a warrior, a fighter, a person who believes that you have value and will stand for others during times of injustice.

You are strong enough to do it. Don’t be afraid.

Vote for the 2017 Social justice Activist of the Year!