Karen Reyes – Austin, Texas
2018 Social Justice Activist Nominee Profile
Karen Reyes came to America from Mexico with her mother when she was just two years old. Growing up undocumented in America, she understands the struggles, hopes and worries of the millions of people just like her.
Karen credits President Obama’s Executive Order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) with changing her life. She was able to fulfill her dream and become a DACAmented teacher with Education Austin, working with deaf and hard of hearing students. Deaf education specialists are in high demand, and Karen loves her work changing the lives of her students and their families.
However, the actions of the Trump Administration have put her ability to teach and even remain in this country in jeopardy. Karen was moved to organize and demand Congress pass a clean #DreamActNOW and to speak up and educate her fellow immigrants about their rights.
We caught up with Karen between classes and organizing to talk about being an undocumented educator activist, the biggest challenges in public education and advice she would give to others just starting out.
What spurred you to become an educator activist?
There are quite a few things that brought me over to the activist life, but the one reason that sticks out the most is this: Last school year we had a lot of ICE raids going on in Austin and my school community was directly impacted, since most of the children we serve lived in that area. I had a parent come to me one day and told me not to worry, that if anything happened (deportation) to her or her husband she would let me know what happened to her son. I had the chance to tell her that I knew exactly how that felt because I am also undocumented. But I didn’t. I was still scared at that time, and I carried that with me. If I am scared, so are our students, their families, and our communities. That has spurred me on in my work on immigration. I am advocating for myself, but I am also doing it for those people that are scared to speak up – just like I was.
Why should social justice activism matter to educators?
Because it matters to our students. These are their lives, these are the issues that directly impact them. We can’t just teach the academic subjects. Our students are coming in from all different experiences and we need to advocate and fight for the things that impact them and show them that they matter.
What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the new political environment?
Students are going to be the driving force in movement building. These are personal issues for them, these are their lives. We are seeing it happen on gun safety and immigration and I wouldn’t be surprised if in the coming years we see a huge rise in student involvement. I think students are having to navigate through a lot of uncertain political waters – we don’t know what is coming next. As adults, we sometimes react to something, but I can see these kids wanting to be proactive instead of reactive. It is so inspiring!
What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?
As someone who is undocumented, I know the critical role that personal stories play. Personal stories help make connections and
those who might not be personally affected by the issue can put a name or a face to an issue. It helps humanize the issue.
What is the biggest issue facing public education today?
Public education is not being treated with respect. We see this in lack of funding, resources, promotion of charter schools, attacks against unions, etc. Our students of color are disrespected every day that we do not have the resources to tackle issues like homelessness, immigration, violence, lack of counselors, the inequality of schools in rich areas versus those found in poor areas and the fact that many do not believe institutional racism includes schools. We need to be the driving force for change.
What song gets you fired up to do this work?
I can’t pick just one! I have a whole playlist of music I listen to right before a rally or action. These two songs always make the cut:
“Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” from the Hamilton Mixtape and “Run the World (Girls)” by Beyonce
What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?
There are so many things I want to share! But I think the most important thing is this: it’s hard. The work is exhausting, but it is SO worth it. It is worth it, because the issues are important and our students are worth it. I know we all work full-time jobs + other jobs to make ends meet, but knowing that you are having a huge impact on people’s lives – that is amazing. I will also say this: self-care is very important. You can’t be an activist if you don’t take care of yourself. Be a little selfish sometimes, it is OK to say no. Build up a community, inspire others to lead — you don’t have to be the only one doing the work.
Freedom to ReadCensoring books written by mostly Black, brown, and LGBTQ authors denies students the ability to see themselves and understand our similarities and our differences. We’re joining together to make sure every student has to look no further than the shelves of their own school libraries to find age-appropriate books that show they are reflected and respected.
COVID-19 & Our CommunitiesThe 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 JusticeOur 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 ProgramsFrom 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.
Ending the School-to-Prison PipelineZero 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 TogetherImmigration 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.
Protecting Our Students' Civil RightsIn 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.
Educational Equity for Women and GirlsAll 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 SchoolAll 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.