Stephanie Wheeler – Orlando, Florida
2018 Social Justice Activist Nominee Profile
A tireless advocate for undocumented students, their families and all immigrants of University Central Florida, Stephanie Wheeler has had a significant impact in the Central Florida community. Stephanie engaged students and brought together a coalition of almost 40 organizations to move the city of Orlando to become the first southern city to pass a Trust Act Ordinance which limits cruel and costly immigration “hold” requests in local jails and allows immigrant crime victims and witnesses to be able to come forward and cooperate with police without fear of deportation.
Stephanie has also stepped into the role of faculty advisor for the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP) at UCF. Stephanie helps guide the group as they run campaigns based on student and worker issues, and act as a link between campus and community organizing as they work towards economic justice and building student power.
We caught up with Stephanie between her work helping students mobilize for a community action and preparing for the final vote on the TRUST Act. We talked about what moved her to be an activist and her thoughts on what is at the forefront of the social justice movement. Below is our full interview.
What spurred you to become an educator activist?
Having grown up with a sister with disabilities, I’ve always been sensitive to the realities of how people can be marginalized, ignored, and devalued; by the same token, I was also able to see how much easier things were for me because I did not have disabilities. Graduate school taught me how power works and why this kind of marginalization happens. It also taught me what it looks like in a different setting: my best friends were all people of color, and were constantly told that their experiences, research interests, and opinions had little to no value in the field we were preparing to enter. By virtue of my white, able-bodied, cisgendered identity, I was able to move more freely in these same spaces with half the effort for double the attention and validation. So if I really had to point to the thing that spurred me on, it would be two-fold: it was the first time I recognized my big sister being regarded as less-than, and then years later meeting my familia from scratch, because ultimately everything I do, I do it to honor them.
Why should social justice activism matter to educators?
The topics we teach our students don’t exist in a vacuum: every subject we teach is imbued with a complex, cultural and sometimes paradoxical histories. If we do not explore these histories of our subjects of expertise with our students, who will? If we, as educators, do not validate the lived realities of our students and teach them how to navigate systems not built for them – sometimes built explicitly to keep them out – who will? If they cannot see themselves in the knowledge we are sharing with them, how can we expect them to create and be a part of the kind of changes we want our activism to generate? I’d say that social justice activism doesn’t just matter to educators, it is education, and can’t exist without it.
What role do students play in movement building, especially in light of the new political environment?
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, students are the movement. Most students don’t know what it’s like to live in a world where school shootings aren’t a recurring event. So many of our students don’t know what it’s like to go to school and not worry if their parents will be there when they get home. Even more students don’t see themselves in the curriculum. I think students are angry, afraid and ready to fight. That’s exactly the kind of energy needed to build a sustainable movement. In the absence of curriculum left untouched by whitewashing and other forms of systemic oppression, students are curious, and quick to access and share information that has been left out. Students are creating new tools to navigate, succeed, and survive the world. Without students, there is no movement building.
What is the role of personal stories in social justice activism?
Thomas King says that “the truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” Simply put, personal stories make our activism embodied. It reminds us that we all move through the world differently, one way no better than another. It honors those differences and opens possibilities for new understandings. But there are some stories that need to be undone – those that make some lives meaningful and others meaningless. Personal stories have the potential to drown out the harmful stories and carve out a new way of moving through the world, the very kind our activism seeks to create.
What issues are on the forefront of the social justice/education justice movement in this country?
Based on my own experience, the social justice movement that’s on the forefront of my mind is DACA. When students have to ask me to walk them to class because they are afraid to walk through the chants of “build that wall!” alone, that student’s right to a safe, equitable learning environment has been ripped from them. I have had students afraid to come to class because of campus groups popping up whose purpose is to find every DACA recipient and report them to ICE. The resistance to creating a Trust Campus (also known as a Sanctuary Campus) is mind-boggling to me: students are being told by their government, campus, and peers that they don’t belong here. Educators owe these students the right and the space to build their own identity that is independent from the negative stereotypes perpetuated by the political climate. Their agency is being taken away from them, and we need to provide a way for them to get it back.
What song gets you fired up to do this work?
“Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga. (Or literally anything else by Gaga.)
What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?
Surround yourself with people who share your values, and take care of yourself! As the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, so rely on your support networks to lift you up so that together you can make a difference.
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