Activism has turned into a mission for Teri Jones, whose horror over child detention at the hands of the U.S. government drove her to join hundreds of other educators and allies last month for a national day of action to end child detention and family separation. Thousands of children are languishing, even dying, in makeshift detention centers, separated from their loved ones and forced to represent themselves in court.
“The idea of separating a child from its family is horrifying,” says Jones, a school library staffer and member of the Oregon School Employees Association and the AFT. “Taking a group of people and incarcerating them—haven’t we learned that lesson already?”
Educators from 25 states as well as Mexico assembled in the border city of El Paso, Texas, to hold a daylong “Teach-In for Freedom” organized by 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning. During the afternoon march and rally, AFT President Randi Weingarten led them in a somber reflection of the lifelong trauma imposed on these children and their families.
Participants learned from each other, sharing practical resources to protect the rights of students and families. The AFT donated books in Spanish for the event, which featured lessons and talks by educators and activists. Our union’s leadership also provided valuable resources from Colorín Colorado and Share My Lesson.
“It was inspiring,” says Jones, who runs a Title I primary school library in Coos Bay, Ore., where she says some people have been indoctrinated to fear immigrants. “Education is the only thing that can replace fear with facts,” she says, adding her hope of reaching out to more classified school employees, showing them the worth of all children. “I’m at a K-3 school, but I do what I can to share the world with my students, and to build empathy.”
Immigrants live in fear, too. Jones reflects upon a high school student who approached her son, a teacher. The boy was so worried that his family would be forced to return to Mexico that he asked Jones’ son to take him in. It’s stories like these that have galvanized Jones.
For the Oregon native and veteran paraprofessional, this month’s Texas teach-in exemplifies our members’ ability to defend social justice through their union.
“There are so many social justice issues—special education, poverty, mental health—and for some of our students, immigration,” she says. “Every worker has something they care deeply about. When our union taps into that, then that’s something we can accomplish together. That’s what unions do.”
Just days after the teach-in, congressional leaders in Washington prepared to subpoena records on the Trump administration’s practice of separating immigrant families at the border. And this week, a congressman from Florida released federal documents revealing thousands of sexual abuse allegations at shelters for unaccompanied children. The AFT, along with 37 national community partners, has filed an official complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Council to look into these atrocities and injustices.
“Donald Trump talks about the ‘crisis at the border.’ The only crises are the ones that Donald Trump has created,” Weingarten told teach-in participants. “Children are dying in border detention—that is a crisis. Trump terminated the DACA program—that is a crisis.”
Joining Weingarten and Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro was Alfonso Cepeda Salas, general secretary of the AFT’s partner in Mexico, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, or the National Educational Workers Union. “There is no force more powerful than a human shield of educators, parents and other community members,” Weingarten told rallygoers. “I am proud to stand here at this international border crossing with my brothers and sisters from SNTE, our sister union in Mexico. Together, we can build bridges, not walls.”
Teri Jones could not agree more. “What better way to help kids,” she says, “than to speak out for those who can’t speak for themselves?”