Students remind us: Make the struggle beautiful

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Above, Educators and students at Venice High sparked a #PublicEdDanceChallenge through dance activism during the strike that captured the joy of engaging in a struggle for justice.

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Our strike was the grandest lesson we ever planned

By Hazel Kight Witham, Venice High School

There were a dozen of us, and you could barely hear the song we were dancing to: Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” But there we were in front of Venice High, mostly in sync, definitely in the rain, decked in our finest red, dancing for public education and calling on our community, our city, our state, our entire nation, to think about what they were trying to do to us.

We were small, but mighty: teachers and students, dancing in protest, reaching and stepping and scooping and celebrating our worth with abandon. We sang along with Aretha as we rallied for just working and learning conditions. Community ally Evan Geary tweeted the video, and my little dance activism dream went viral.

The next day, a longer video of a larger dance crowd also went viral, this one edited by Evan to have full sound and the meaning behind our moves: “Lower those class sizes, call in our community, go all in for public ed, scoop into that two billion reserve, dust off those excuses, and celebrate our just victory.” Together the two videos would exceed 2.5 million views.

Soon striking teachers on other picket lines were joining the #PublicEdDanceChallenge, posting their own “Think” dances, sometimes to new songs, sometimes with new shimmies and shifts, sometimes to creations all their own. Our union began a new language out on those picket lines in many ways: with our chants, with our umbrella twirls, with our picket signs, with our dance moves.

The seeds of this dream were planted back in August, after Aretha passed, when I learned the moves at a dance class. I imagined this number as the perfect picket line anthem. UTLA had already been organizing for substantial change in how we prioritize public education. In the event that we might strike, I wanted to give my school something that would fire us up as we rallied for more resources. 

I put the call out to my faculty again and again to come learn the dance, but we are busy, overworked folks. Only two teachers, strong women of color, had any desire at that time to dream dance activism with me. I rallied friends at other schools in the hopes they would teach their colleagues. My dream seemed small, sad, unachievable. Finally, I went to the source of every teacher’s inspiration: our students. When I shared my dream with a handful of young people, magic happened.

Students know how to show up. Just a quick mention one morning, and an hour later I had three young women from our dance team learn the simple moves and say, “That’s it? That’s so easy. We got this,” and then scatter like dandelion seeds into the wind of our school day.

When we took to the streets, we carried our students, and the generations before and after, with us. We made public our fierce love of this work, and challenged the narrative that we are broken, that we are failing.

One student became our dance champion. Mya learned the moves back in November with her team, added swagger and style, gave us a video tutorial that was much better than mine. And Mya and her team did something essential: They captured the joy I wanted educators to feel while engaged in this struggle for justice. In early December, Mya and two other dancers went to a local West Area meeting of chapter chairs and taught a room full of stressed-out, strike-nervous teachers how to get out of their seats and dance for their cause.

The spark was lit. Teachers wanted to learn from our young people. It’s what we do every day. Students are the root of our inspiration.

As we organized through the stress of uncertainty, all while still working to serve students, wise words from Black Lives Matter organizer Melina Abdullah lifted me. I heard her speak about how to have resilience inside sustained actions for social change: “You have to make the struggle beautiful.”

 

Above, the 'Dance Challenge' grooves downtown at the UTLA rally with UTLA/NEA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz (center).

 

Make the struggle beautiful. In my 18th year as an educator in the Los Angeles Unified School District, this idea is critical as I wrestle daily with conditions that define systemic and racial injustice in a public setting. 
I have learned that the only way to sustain myself in this struggle is to love what I do and who I serve. That is usually between 180 and 200 students a year. And like my colleagues, I’m breathless much of the time. I try, every day, to not take out my frustrations with the system I work in on the students I serve.

I am tired of all the ways I have to recalibrate my own practices to accommodate the systemic injustice of our district. And most of all, I am tired of the invisibility of this struggle. And so, when it came time to strike, I was invigorated, relieved to be out in the rain, having prepped for months for this biggest of lessons. My red clothes ready, my signs laminated, my dance steps practiced, my strike playlist assembled, my courage summoned. And it was students like Mya, and so many others, who fueled that courage.

Cornel West wrote that “justice is what love looks like in public.” If United Teachers Los Angeles accomplished anything in this collective action, it was demonstrating what love looks like in public, outside the four walls of our classrooms, as we demand justice for those we love. 

When we took to the streets, we carried our students, and the generations before and after, with us. We made public our fierce love of this work, and challenged the narrative that we are broken, that we are failing. We showed, in those four days of rain and two of sun, in the grandest lesson we ever planned, that we are anything but. All our students, from their rainbowed backgrounds, their diverse stories and struggles, deserve a dramatic reinvestment in their education. Our schools must be made worthy of our students.

We call in our community: Come fight with us. Come dream with us. We are in this for the long haul, and after this strike, we know exactly how to make this collective struggle beautiful, together.

Hazel Kight Witham is a writer, teacher, artist, mother of two, and proud member of UTLA. She teaches at Venice High, where she loves listening to young people and challenging them to think more critically and creatively about their place in the world they wish to live in. 

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Note from UTLA/NEA Vice President Cecily Myart-Cruz: I’m giving over my officer column this month to Venice High teacher Hazel Kight Witham for her powerful words on her strike experience. We went on strike just over one month ago, and it still feels like yesterday. Our strike has reverberated across the country. Denver Classroom Teachers went on strike for three days, and they named UTLA as their inspiration. West Virginia education workers decided they had had enough when a pro-privatization bill threatened their livelihood. After one day of striking, West Virginia shut down that bill indefinitely.

On February 21 the brave educators in Oakland went on strike. The common theme that weaves throughout these struggles is that educators are fighting back on behalf of our students, the community, and ourselves. We have rewritten the narrative on public education, and the privatizers know that when union members act collectively, we win!

Let’s continue the fight to ensure that all of our contract victories are implemented, that we never again remain silent when a threat comes to our professional doorstep, and that we exercise our outside voices to reclaim the promise of public education. When we fight, we win … when we STRIKE, we WIN!