NEA awarded the Social Justice Activist Award to Jose Lara, a social studies teacher at Santee Education Complex High School in Los Angeles, for his work in educational justice. The award was presented on Sun., July 5 at NEA’s Representative Assembly in Orlando.
The award is given to an NEA member who demonstrates the ability to lead, organize and engage educators, parents, and the community to advocate on social justice issues that impact the lives of students, fellow educators, and the communities they serve.
In his remarks to the delegate assembly, Lara said, “Social Justice is a verb. It is a sense of community and responsibility that goes beyond the classroom. It is fighting for the most vulnerable in our society. And today, it is precisely those students, the most vulnerable and historically oppressed, who are left out of our curriculum.”
Lara has a long history of social justice activism, from helping to organize a bus caravan of students and educators to protesting an Arizona law that legalized racial profiling to speaking against local school closings and the distribution of pink slips. But even as a boy, he knew there was something amiss with the world.
“I remember learning from my teachers: ‘This is America. If you want to make it, you must work hard.’ But we weren’t making it,” says Lara, who remembers seeing his mother work hard everyday, yet struggled, as a single parent, to raise her family.
To help make a difference, Lara pursued a profession in education. “I came into teaching to change the world,” he says. “I thought I could do that within my classroom, but I saw that I had to go outside of it.”
He’s gone far since that realization, too, becoming vice president of the El Rancho Unified School Board in the city of Pico Rivera, where his children attend school; dean of students, where he teaches; and a board member of his local Association, the United Teachers Los Angeles.
His most recent efforts led to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
It started in 2013. As a school board member in El Rancho, he quickly worked to get a resolution passed to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement. The district is thought to be the first school system in the state to have made such a requisite. Now, the class of 2016 must take and pass an ethnic-studies course before graduating.
With much success and support from the community, Lara formed the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition, which set out to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in Los Angeles, which it did in 2014.
Data from the California Department of Education shows that ethnic studies courses are offered at 19 out of 94 of its senior high schools. This means that only 691 out of a total of nearly 153,000 high school students are taking ethnic studies courses.
“In this past year alone we have changed education policy and over 200,000 students will now have ethnic studies added into their curriculum. And we are not done yet,” he said to 7,000 of his colleagues.
To date, more than five school districts have made ethnic studies a graduation requirement while 11 others have established a program or expanded an existing one.
Ninety percent of the students in the district, which is the nation’s second largest, are students of color, and it’s been important for Lara to help bring those voices into the mainstream—ethnic studies help to do just that.
“Keeping students from learning about their own history is structural racism, and as educators we have the responsibility to do something about it,” he said. “Ethnic studies is what anti-racist education looks like in the classroom. It is the unforgotten stories of brilliance and resilience of women and men of color that has systematically been kept out of our classrooms.”
Ethnic studies have shown to highlight a more positive sense of self, which helps to increase student and social engagement, as well as improve academic performance. Additionally, it shows to offers all students an opportunity to learn about more diverse experiences and perspectives.
While some districts in California have added ethnic studies to its course offerings, Lara hopes that districts nationwide will follow suit.
For more information on how to start an ethnic studies program visit the Ethnic Studies Now Coalition website.