“Boldly Stand Up,” Says 2018 NEA Social Justice Activist of the Year

King Carter was 6 years old and on his way to buy candy when he was shot outside his Miami-Dade County apartment building and killed by one of three teenagers who were aiming for a man who had argued with them on Facebook.

Every year, an average 30 children and teens are killed by gun violence in Miami, most of them black or brown children like King.

At the time of his death, King also was the fifth relative of veteran Miami-Dade teacher Tawana Akins to be killed by guns. “My students are tired of coming to school and seeing dead people in the middle of the road. They’re tired, and I am, too.”

For her advocacy work on behalf of peace and also for public education, Akins was named the 2018 NEA Social Justice Activist of the Year on Friday, during the second day of the NEA Conference on Racial and Social Justice. She was selected, after several weeks of online voting by fellow educators and community members, from among seven passionate, powerhouse nominees from across the U.S. The award was presented by Rashad Robinson, the executive director of Color of Change, who urged NEA members to “fight until justice is real.”

Nominees for the 2018 NEA Social Justice Activist of the Year Award
Nominees for the 2018 NEA Social Justice Activist of the Year Award. Photo: Calvin Knight

Akins, a math coach at Miami’s Holmes Elementary School who has taught nearly two decades in South Florida’s elementary schools, has advocated for better funding for public schools in Florida, for healthier meals for pregnant teenagers, and has brought together a coalition of community members to fight gun violence in Miami-Dade.

Akins also is the author of two uplifting children’s books and a book of poetry for all ages.

“I encourage everybody in this room to commit themselves to an issue—and do something about it,” she told the audience of approximately 800 racial and social justice warriors. “Make your voices heard. Collaboration is key. When we work together, we can make good things happen for the betterment of our communities.

“Are you going to be the fly on the wall?” she asked. “Or are you going to be the butterfly so beautiful in the sky, making the world a better place? The choice is yours.”

The other six nominees for the social justice activist award also are powerful, inspiring models for social justice activism by educators. They include Angie Powers, a GLSEN-trained high school teacher in Olathe, Kansas, who leads Kansas NEA’s social justice efforts and her school’s gender sexuality alliance, and also works with pre-service teachers on how to create welcoming classrooms; Karen Reyes, a teacher of Deaf pre-kindergartners in Austin, Texas, and a DACA-mented educator who works tirelessly on behalf of undocumented students; and Gabriel Tanglao, a Bergen County, New Jersey, teacher who has helped his colleagues develop their anti-racism skills.

Shaun King speaking at the opening of day 2 at the Conference on Racial and Social Justice.

They also include Elizabeth Villanueva, a Sacramento, California, high school teacher who runs her school’s New Age Latinas after-school group and DREAMERs support group; Erica Viray Santos, a high school teacher in San Leandro, California, the driving force behind her school’s Social Justice Academy; and Stephanie Wheeler, an assistant professor at University of Central Florida, where she advocates for undocumented students and serves as faculty advisor for UCF’s Student Labor Action Project.

Attendees at NEA’s CRSJ also spent time on Friday in the conference’s organizing lounge, where they brainstormed plans to stop immigration raids in their communities, end racism in their schools, and support trans students in their classrooms. They also viewed documentary films that included “East of Salinas,” a film about farm workers in California’s central valleys, featuring California teacher and activist Oscar Ramos.

The day opened with a visit from activist and author Shaun King, who told NEA members: “We are in a disturbing, problematic point in history. I want you to have the peace of mind of knowing that, in this moment, that even if it was clumsy, you gave it everything you had…Fight forward with an open heart and an open mind.”