The student movement meets the new labor movement in the classroom.
“How do we make democracy stronger?” community college instructor Salvador Sanchez posed to the room crowded with more students than chairs. By the end of the day, all the students stood loudly chanting “Yes, we can!” as Sanchez (pictured here) writes their paper assignment on the board.
Originally expecting a little fewer than 50 students, Sanchez stood in front of several hundred answering the call of the teachers union to elect Obama for president. The session had to be moved to the outside yard to accommodate the overflow of enthusiasm.
“I’m here because my story means something and we the young people have to change the country!” declared 18-year old Sheila, a first year student at East LA Community College.
The dramatic rise of young people flocking to the election polls and Get-Out-the-Vote activities has intersected with the movement of teachers unions advocating for students.
In 1968, the late Al Shanker, the founder of the American Federation of Teachers, infamously declared amidst bitter strikes in New York , “I represent teachers, not children.” Two decades later, he would come to turn against his previous remarks and advocate for educational reform and the need to restore the public faith in public education.
“Students’ best interests are in the teachers’ best interests” has replaced Shanker’s original pronouncements with a growing number of local teachers unions. In California , the California Faculty Association (CFA), the union for state college instructors, and several unions for community college faculty joined students in fighting rising fees at the state and city college level for the last several years. This past year, the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) went on strike for an hour and took to the street with parents and their children to protest cuts in K-12 education spending in the state budget. Prior to his death, the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild was meeting with the late Miguel Contreras, former head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, to figure out how to make textbooks free for community college students.
In Los Angeles , the rank-and-file led AFT 1521, the Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, has invested their resources in providing paid internships and trainings for students who wish to be involved in the electoral process. With over a hundred paid interns and several hundred more volunteers taking to the union’s member to member phonebanks and car caravans to battleground states such as Nevada , the union and the youth are deepening the meaning of public education and democracy.
A political science instructor at Los Angeles City College , Salvador Sanchez explains, “We have a responsibility to engage students in civic conversation. The purpose of public education is to prepare students for the job market and their democratic responsibilities.” Sanchez, who once passed out leaflets in front of buildings as a former union organizer for the Justice for Janitors campaign, actively takes students across the campus border and into the “real world.” “In the classroom, I never tell students what to think but how to more effectively think. I take students to Chamber of Commerce meetings and labor union meetings during my class sessions,” adds Sanchez.
Outside the classroom, when Sanchez finishes his day as an instructor, he coordinates the L.A. College Faculty Guild’s student Get-Out-the-Vote operations. His work has paid off as these students from a college district that is 81% people of color interact with voters in less racially diverse states. One student, Mijan, commented, “My experience doing the phone banking has been a heartfelt experience… some voters will say, ‘Not in this life time. I will not vote for a black man.’ It shows you race is still, definitely a problem in this country. Some white people are very ignorant and hateful.” Gonzalo, another student, added that this experience “has helped me see what kinds of ideals are still in this country and it helped enforce our ideas of change and how badly we need it.”
On the blog of their website, www.lacommunitycollegeactivists.com, an anonymous student writes, “One day when I have kids I want them to know how the democrats and republicans came together to make a change in this country. It is truly a beautiful thing to see blacks, Hispanics, Asian, and whites come together. I am honored to be a part of this election.”
This teacher and student alliance is attempting to re-define education as the practice of democracy and they are making it happen.
Originally published by the Asian American Action Fund.
John Delloro is the Executive Director of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute, LACCD and currently sits on the Legal Advisory Board of the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance (KIWA) and the Board of Directors of the PWC. He was one of the co-founders of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California (PWC) and served as the president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). For the past decade, he also worked as a regional manager/organizer for SEIU 1000, Union of California State Workers, a staff director/organizer for SEIU 399, the Healthcare Workers Union, and an organizer for AFSCME International and HERE 226, the hotel workers union in Las Vegas.
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