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National Voices Of

Voices Of: José Lopez on Los Angeles Teachers’ Strike

Voices Of is a multimedia long-form interview project that explores themes and events in major news through conversations with people affected by policy. For more information about Voices Of, read our letter from the editors here.

José is a Yale ‘18 alum from Los Angeles who majored in Chemistry and Education Studies. We sat down with José to ask him about the teachers’ strike in his home town.

The Politic: Can you first introduce yourself and explain your position at Yale?

José Yobani López Sánchez: My name is José Yobani López Sánchez. I recently graduated from Benjamin Franklin College in May of 2018 and I’m now the Woodbridge Fellow under the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning.

How did you get involved with what you do at Yale now?

I applied for the Woodbridge Fellowship about a year ago this time. During my time at Yale I was very much involved in the first-generation, low-income [FGLI] community. I identify as FGLI myself. I was in the First-Year Scholars at Yale program during its second iteration, and I was a counselor between my junior and senior year. I did a bit of research on the FGLI community for my senior project, and it just felt like a logical next-step as I found myself really involved, but also just fascinated by the research and conversations about social capital, cultural capital, and the role that FGLI students have within the perceived-contrasting elite institution that Yale is. I had a vague interest in working at Yale, definitely being a part of the initiative and the work. But it was more so studying education theory in Ed Studies that cemented the decision to do what I do now.

What do you do as a Woodbridge Fellow working in the FGLI community?

It’s the first year that there’s a Woodbridge Fellow working closely under the Dean’s office, and this role specifically focuses on first-gen/low-income students. Whereas some Woodbridge Fellows work on things more generally within an office, this position is very much tasked leading, programming, projects, services, that are for first-gen/low-income students. So a huge part of the year, as you can imagine, is just figuring out what that looks like, how that’s structured, what the needs are, what it even means, and what is the context. It’s been a lot of talking, connecting with different Yale entities and Yale students to know what the landscape looks like. It sounds like a lot of work but it gives us an orientation to know where to go from where we are, because we are still struggling to have a clear picture of that. However, in the few months that I’ve been here since June, I’ve worked with FSY to provide additional support, to be a recognizable face for students when they come in, to help with workshops. We’ve organized a big kick-off dinner each semester where we get people together to tell people about this initiative. We’ve organized a discussion series in the fall on a lot of topics ranging from: imposter syndrome, what it means to be FGLI, resilience and independence, survivors’ guilt, and we’ve had a lot of one-time events that focus more specifically on niche topics such as reorienting the job search, and meeting FGLI mentors and ambassadors. Now we’re looking into getting more faculty staff to speak to students, and having financial literacy workshops, and more STEM specific events. It’s been a lot of events and plannings.

One of the things I’ve been working on is the Winter Gear program, where Yale College has specific funds for students coming from warmer climates who’ve never been in New Haven winters. So part of my work is helping them buy winter clothes. I’ve also been working on the Career Closet, where students can come borrow professional clothes for free.

What was your experience growing up FGLI in Los Angeles and then coming to Yale?

I can pinpoint a huge shift in my overall attitude as a Yale student and in my orientation. What I mean by that is: I’m realizing my own position in the context of where I am. After reflecting with some friends in my suite really late at night after classes had ended—I think it was this one night after winter break of my sophomore year—a lot of the angst that had been developing as some kind of explosive suddenly ignited. I became aware that this was something I hadn’t been paying attention to or considered until I suddenly learned that a lot of the experiences I have and a lot of the world I grew up in give me a unique perspective that comes in various parts.

First of all: I had no idea how many people from my neighborhood within a 2-mile, 5-mile radius of where I grew up, had ever stepped into Yale and considered coming here or had ways of coming here.

Two: I was becoming aware that for me to go back was going to be actually a difficult thing to do.

Three: so much had changed since I had left the world and if I were to return to it, it would be very difficult to feel welcome again, just because of the distance and the changes that I felt in myself.

And four: that really no one in this institution is considering any of what I just talked about, and therefore is very unlikely to connect with the people there and regard them as human beings with real struggles.

Since then, I’ve come to this realization that—if just for that—it gives me a unique perspective of that place and a unique connection with the work that I do and the words that I say in the classroom. By this time, I was very committed to being in Education Studies. And [going all the way back] to the spring [of sophomore year], that was very fresh in my mind whenever I contributed to anything, especially when it involved public schools or disenfranchised students. Since then, it’s empowered me to feel comfortable speaking and comfortable challenging and demanding the conversations about the support that these students receive.

On Monday, January 14, 2019, teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District began striking for three days, demanding more money for underfunded schools, higher pay for teachers, and smaller class sizes.

More than 30,000 Los Angeles public-school teachers began a strike on Monday (two weeks ago), the first in three decades in the district. According to The New York Times: This school district covers about 720 square miles of both wealthy areas and working-class neighborhoods. Overall, the district is mostly low-income and over 80 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Latinx students make up about 75 percent of the student population.

As an Education Studies major and an alumnus of underserved Los Angeles schools, José has both grappled with and studied the conflicts facing the striking teachers.

How involved have you been in the strike? Have you kept up to date? What’s been your relation to the strike?

I remember teacher strikes growing up. I remember my teachers all wearing red shirts; even if they weren’t striking, they’d wear them to school. If anything, it’s a reminder that my thoughts and intuitions which have been influenced by my experiences should be voiced at the table— especially at a place like Yale, a private institution with such a meritocratic system that is inherently very limited because it celebrates its exclusivity and it celebrates the borders it creates amongst people. It’s really difficult for a place like this to really truly be public.

When I see things like the strike, it empowers me, not only [because of] what they’re saying, but also [because of the] the familiarity of what they’re saying. Like I said: I remember seeing those teachers, I remember seeing strikes when I was a student there, within videos of my neighborhood, literally where I went to middle school. A sea of people demanding better schools. I’m reminded of the people who helped me through my application process, talking about my narrative and the points of students like me—the points of low-income students— [and I’m reminded of] people who are validating students who had low SAT scores and had low means, and could see that that was a very important factor in the profile of college applications. That’s to say that I feel very comforted and the strike reminds that I’m not alone. It’s so crazy that a place like my neighborhood sends so few students from those types of neighborhoods and backgrounds to a place like Yale. It only encourages me to be more vocal because I think when you’re surrounded by people who are used to a different way of imagining education and imagining change, it’s really easy to question what your intuition is and to question, “am I asking for something inconvenient or unrealistic?” But [the strike is validating because] so many voices are saying what you’re saying in a different setting.

If you were home in LA during the strike, what do you think your involvement would be? Do you know anyone who’s involved with the movement in LA?

I can imagine a lot of teachers are there. I know I saw a lot of people back from LA: high school friends, old teachers. I saw a lot of pictures on Facebook. There’s a non-profit organization that helped me with my college application—a very small organization, they meet in the basement of a residence—who were posting a lot of pictures and going to the protests. It’s really a lot of my community, a lot of the people are in my neighborhood. People were walking through my high school where I graduated. That big picture where they compare it to the Trump inauguration? That’s where I had my graduation. It’s home. And that’s what I’m saying: I think it’s really difficult for these settings and these streets and these names and these spaces to have any validation by anyone, and it’s really empowering to see that a lot of the leadership that I’ve developed is a reflection of what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen and what I now get to represent in some way.

If I was home, I’d probably be organizing. Maybe not leading, but definitely organizing. I can see myself being very involved in the leadership of organizing something like this. It’s hard to say because I feel like I’m very much inclined to be among leadership groups like officials and administrators. I also often work around parents and students. I’d very much question how to connect that whole gap, how to create a platform or something where those voices are meeting. Something I’ve seen as the challenge in making progress is the limited perception each of these parties has when trying to figure out something like [the conflicts that the teachers are addressing in the strike].

I’d also definitely be out on the streets and definitely taking pictures. I could see myself as a teacher, having conversations with students about what the strike is, and seeing this as an opportunity to empower them and to make them believe that they do have ownership over their education.

You’ve talked about how you want to go back to LA to teach. How did you come to that decision and do you feel guilty or responsible to go back?

When I had that rant in sophomore year, I asked myself: “if not me, who? If not me, then who is going to care about coming back?” I think I’m surrounded by people who would rather go somewhere else than their own home communities and I personally, as an FGLI student at an elite institution, am hyper aware of how I might become assimilated to mentalities that are foreign and mentalities that want to make you [want to] live a wealthier, comfortable but economically segregated life. Partly because of that and definitely out of some need or responsibility, I’m inclined to go back. And also, again, I think a huge reason why I’m inclined to make that type of decision is because any student can ask within their immediate circle, especially amongst the FGLI students, “How many go back? How many really go back to engage with their community, instead of making it a subject of help? How many people actually go back to these communities and learn from them instead of be some service provider or be some teacher, be some leader?” I think there’s a lot to learn from these communities [so we have to go back], especially when you’re trained to not think that. I see it as a huge gap within Yale students.

I like a model where students are trained to go and work with what they know. I think it also validates where they come from and the teachers that brought them there. I still remember all my teachers growing up, and I think we like to think of them as pillars or shoulders for ourselves. I question the ways we can make progress against the socio-economic segregation and the inequality in this country through ways that are not within the community. That’s not to say that when I go back I will be poor again, but I think I have more trust in making progress that feels very much done by action instead of comfort. That’s very controversial and I’m sure a lot of people have different thoughts, but that’s my own inclination.

In the experience of growing up FGLI in LA, were there things about your community’s education system that you wish could change?

Funny enough, one of the things I think a lot about or that comes to mind was difficult in public schools is actually the students. I really ask anyone who’s reading this to not limit this issue to only this point because I know that will lead to a problematic perception of students. I think that the perception that students internalize [thoughts] about their own capability and their own position in school is hugely influential to their own behavior, and [influences] whether they use educational institutions to their advantage, or feel in opposition to them.

When you have schools that have police or metal detectors, when that’s normalized for a student, it’s really easy—and when I was in middle school, it was easy for me too—to be anti-institutional and anti-authority (which teachers inherently are). I think about the teachers who affected even the most trouble-making students and who were willing to love them and believe that they could do things despite their immaturity and despite their resistance to developing relationships and being genuine and wanting something good for themselves. I think any system that complicates that and instead chooses to give up on those types of students is just not going to help those students.

In today’s political climate, we [Latinx young people] already told we don’t belong in this country. That’s something there’s no question about. There’s no question about who’s considered valuable and who’s considered smart. To just create more borders, especially in educational systems, where students are so personally affected, it’s really important for us—as difficult as it is—to take these populations with all that they have.

I can speak for myself when I say that I know it’s very difficult to love people who are so negatively hurt by this country’s history and its legacies internationally, but I think that, administratively, people can make decisions to facilitate that work and validate that work and validate those students and sincerely believe in every single one of them.

Do you think that these strikes and protests that disrupted hundreds of schools and students’ education is effective? Why or why not?

It’s funny because I think getting outside of school is one of the rare instances where there’s any effort or place for students to get empowered. Seeing Facebook posts of old high school friends supporting the movement is like, wow you care about education, you care about school. Wow you really do care about your teachers and you care about the quality of education. It’s so difficult for any student to express that in the classroom. It takes vulnerability. Any one who goes to a public school that’s underfunded knows how toxic and how really difficult middle school is, and how it’s really easy to make [yourself] unpopular [by] being smart and being aspirational and liking school.

I think it’s beautiful that this is the opportunity for students to see their teachers and so many people they care about to suddenly become united because school matters and we want better education. Maybe people don’t really know what that looks like and maybe it’s not them putting in the work to actually learn, but when else are students given the opportunity to feel empowered and feel allowed to express that they actually do care about school? Otherwise they’re just perceived as people who [don’t care]. You’re gonna have to sacrifice a few things to make progress. It is unfortunate, but I’m empowered [by the strike]. I know those students are empowered. Any kind of analysis into the strike should also look into how students return to classrooms and what performance looks like after those changes.  

What have the teachers and students gotten out of they strike?

They reduced class sizes, they’re looking to hire a nurse because they were coming once a week if at all, and maybe a counselor.

Have you talked to people at home about it?

No. It’s been difficult to talk to anyone about it really because I haven’t had the time to call people back home often enough.

How involved are your parents? Do you talk to them about it?

No, not really. They’re in Washington now so no.

I know you briefly considered doing Teach for America (TFA) in Houston, a city whose demographics are similar to that of LA and whose education systems suffer similarly, too. What made you lean towards working in Houston, and ultimately, lean away?

I don’t like the corporate feel of TFA. I don’t like that you’re expected to have a specific kind of persona and a right/wrong way to teach. That was my general impression. I never went through with applying, I only learned about what it was about. I don’t like that they gave me a water bottle and a notebook. I’m very anti-corporate in that sense. I want the solution to education to come from the neighborhood and engaging with those people.

[My reason for going to Houston was] need-led. It was a needier space. Houston has fewer resources to train its teachers. In LA, there’s UCLA and a couple different universities and programs [that can train teachers to work at public K-12 schools]. I’m not super sure how it is in Houston, but in Los Angeles, there’s a lot of social activism in recent years whereas in Houston I haven’t seen as much, personally. It was also because I was gonna be around friends.

Ultimately I’ve decided to go back to California because I want to be a good teacher before going to a school that’s in need. Just because I come from these environments and I’ve experienced a lot, it doesn’t mean that I automatically know what students need. I want to focus on myself in that sense. I don’t know if it’s selfish, but I want to be well-equipped and surrounded by people who are committed to this type of work before I go and really develop myself as a teacher. A really close friend of mine in Houston just stopped TFA [because they felt unequipped and overwhelmed] and I don’t want that to happen to me quite honestly. I don’t want to go in so unprepared.

What do you hope for the future of LA and its schools and its students?

My hope is for the youth to continue taking up space to be vocal—to stay close to the people they care about, and to continue seeing value in themselves outside the context of this country and outside of the context of those who are the leaders. I think that’s a really beautiful thing that I’ve seen. In East LA, there’s gentrification with the public schools, but there’s a lot of community action and involvement. Actually I’ve seen a lot anti-capitalist rhetoric amongst young people. That’s just crazy. Among young people, that’s really beautiful because it’s knowing that there’s no aspiration for a savior but rather for a narrative of success and change being possible. There’s a demand for that. Involve the community and be inclusive. Take the community as it is now. I hope that continues to happen because with that, not only does the narrative begin to change so these people aren’t seen as something to be solved, but also people end up taking the leadership roles and doing the organization and work that is needed. I think that’s the best way to arrive at appropriate change.

My biggest hope is [for the movement] to continue going as it is. Remain in conversations. We need more empowerment and validation.