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.

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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.

 

Vote for the 2018 Social justice Activist of the Year!

 

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