2015 Social Justice Activist Award Speech by Jose Lara at the 2015 Representative Assembly

Orange County Convention Center – Orlando, Florida
Sunday, July 5, 2015


Thank you. I am deeply, deeply honored. I want start off first by thanking my wife, Janet Montoya, who has been by my side during all the various campaigns for social justice. Secondly, I want to give a special shout out my good friend and fellow organizer, Sean Abajian, who is an adult education teacher, teaching English to many parents in Los Angeles, who is equally as deserving of this award. And lastly, because you are only as great as the people you surround yourself with, I would like to give a shout out to the United Teachers Los Angeles, the California Teachers Association, and all of you, the NEA, thank you very much.

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 and oppressed in our community. And today, it is precisely those students who are left out of our curriculum, out of our classroom, out of our histories. Whose fault is it when our students do not know about Japanese internment camps? When they do not know who Fred Korematsu, is or Emmett Till? How about when they forget the Message to Aztlan that was given to us by Rodolfo Corky Gonzalez? What about important court cases like Mendez v. Westminster, or Brown v. Board of Education?

NEA, social justice is a verb. And as teachers who believe in social justice, we took action. We started by electing a teacher, myself, onto the school board of the El Rancho Unified School District. We won the largest percentage of that vote and then we worked quickly to pass a resolution making ethnic studies a graduation requirement–the first in California. We established the website, ethnicstudiesnow.com. We built a multiethnic coalition of community groups to demand school districts statewide bring the stories of people of color into the curriculum.

It inspired and exploded into a movement that has made ethnic studies a graduation requirement in five other school districts. It expanded and (is) established in 11 others. And it continues to grow. This past year alone, we have changed education policy in enough school districts that over 200,000 students will now have ethnic studies added to their curriculum. And we’re not done yet.

You see, keeping students from learning about their own history is institutional racism, and as educators we have a responsibility to do something about it. Ethnic studies is what anti-racist education looks like in the classroom. It is the forgotten stories of brilliance and resilience of women and men of color that has been systematically kept out of our classrooms.

In the wake of tragic acts of violence in Charleston, South Carolina, the movement of thousands of undocumented students demanding legalization, with social movements across the country demanding that our Lives Matter Again, it is imperative that we make ethnic studies a reality in our public schools. We have to be like Bree Newsome, who goes up the flagpole and takes down that Confederate flag. You can’t just talk about social justice. You have to be about social justice. You must speak with your actions, and NEA, it is time we speak with our actions.

As Frederick Douglass once reminded us, “Power concedes nothing without demand.” It is time we start organizing. It is time we start making demands. Please, visit our website, ethnicstudiesnow.com. Sign up for e-mail alerts. Make a donation. Bring the movement to your school district. There is a tool kit link that has resources ready for your school district to bring ethnic studies and bring anti-racist education to your school district. We are social justice warriors. Let’s continue the struggle! Somos los maestros!