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!

COVID-19 & Our Communities

  • Build power in your community — join the NEA EdJustice League!
  • The systemic inequities that are laid bare by COVID-19 increase the stressors on our students, our families and the most vulnerable in our communities. As we organize together for a better tomorrow, we are sharing ways that educators and allies are addressing the challenges and keeping us connected and caring for each other.

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

  • Sign the pledge to shut down 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

  • Stand with educators and support DACA
    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

  • Stand with educators and support DACA
    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

  • View an interactive Google map to see where school districts have passed or are considering Safe Zones policies to protect our immigrant students.

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.

Facing Hate and Bias at School

All students have a right to a public education in a safe learning environment. But right now, many of our students are scared, anxious, and feeling threatened. Students and educators around the country are reporting hostile and hateful environments in their schools and communities. When students feel that they are not welcome, their ability to learn and thrive is diminished.