On April 2, 2011, I accompanied seven students from Mission Bay High School in San Diego who traveled by train to the California Teachers’ Association (CTA) statewide convention in Los Angeles. The purpose of their trip was to receive an award given by the Peace and Justice Caucus of the CTA to their school’s chapter of MEChA, a student organization with roots in the Chicano political movement of the 1960s. The award included a plaque that reads: "For Outstanding Commitment to Peace, Social Justice and The Empowerment of Youth."
When presenting the MEChA members with their award, Andy Griggs, the caucus co-chair, told the audience that these students had achieved something incredible: at their young age, they were able to bring about important changes to school district policies. He was referring to several victories in the San Diego Unified School District. They included closing down the district’s eleven JROTC shooting ranges, imposing strict limitations on military recruiting in all San Diego schools, and reinforcing the need for parent consent before students enroll in JROTC. None of these achievements would have been possible without the students, who spoke at school board meetings, rallied supporters outside of district offices, helped form a new coalition (Education Not Arms), petitioned the community and conducted important outreach and education with their peers.
On the train ride to LA, which was paid for by the San Diego teachers’ union, the seven students huddled in two facing seats to write their acceptance speech. This being the first train ride for most of them, the distractions of the scenery -- along with the absence of their MEChA faculty sponsor -- could have produced a mediocre speech. It did not. Their speech, given by Luis Osuna, drew supportive applause from the audience several times. In its introduction were these words:
In MEChA, we fight for the well being of every student. We know that above everything else comes a student's right to an equal education. With these ideals we take action upon injustices in our community.
Tears came to many eyes.
Each year since 2007, different students have stepped forward at Mission Bay High to continue the struggles of those who graduate from the school. Wanting to understand what motivates these young activists, I recently spoke to some of them. I asked several questions: What did the award mean to them? What triggers and sustains their enthusiasm? What makes them think about and understand the need to organize? Do they see a need to create more student activism? How do they cultivate more student interest?
Nancy Cruz was a senior at Mission Bay High in 2007 when the principal invited the Marine Corps to set up a JROTC unit at the campus, including a shooting range for marksmanship training. Already very active in MEChA and other community organizations, Nancy became the natural leader. Her energy and dedication were endless, as she spent many hours explaining to other students, one-on-one, why they needed to get involved. Nancy, now a senior at UCLA, responded to our questions:
It is fundamental to continue to influence younger students to advocate for themselves. I grew up with my mom having to work seven days a week. She would come home too tired to always make the school meetings. She would try to go to all of the open houses, but sometimes my sisters and I would feel it was too much to ask. For this reason, I believe that although it is important for parents to be involved in their child's education, students need to take a greater initiative in order to make up for the forced absence of their parents. At the end of the day, it is OUR future. It has been three years since I graduated from Mission Bay High School, but it seems like students and parents are still struggling to be acknowledged. I urge more students to get involved because the political is personal. School politics will impact our futures and that is why it is our responsibility to organize and create collective change.
David Morales was one year behind Nancy in school. In his senior year, his speeches at San Diego school board meetings and rallies were quite amazing. The school board closed all the JROTC shooting ranges, and the superintendent implemented a parent consent procedure for enrollment in JROTC. Just days before David was to graduate, the principal, basing her decision on a ridiculous technicality, refused to allow David to walk in the graduation ceremony. In response, a school board member who was scheduled to officiate boycotted the event, and protesters marched outside in support of David. Now entering his third year at UC San Diego, David commented:
I think that what motivates me to continue to do this work is my surroundings, witnessing the need for change in my community. I see that my people do not get an equal or dignified treatment when in school, or at work, or in everyday life. It fills me with the need to do something -- to organize with them and change those current situations. This then has become a way of life, something that I have dedicated my life to and that I always carry with me. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to another student or to a mother or father in the community about our struggles and work, I do so. Being part of important victories, such as being able to remove shooting ranges from all high school campuses in [San Diego], makes me understand that it is possible, que sí podemos. We as people do have much power.
Alicia León and Stephane Balderas are two of the current MEChA students at Mission Bay and were active during the struggle to pass the new recruiter policy. They were part of the group that traveled to Los Angeles to receive the award. Stephane said:
As a member of MEChA, I am thankful for the actions we have taken for our community. We can possibly inspire and change the minds of other students. Sure, you may think that what we are doing is wrong, but the true meaning of it you may not understand. I have learned a lot through the obstacles we experienced and through the victory. In other words, this award may have awakened us from our “sleep” and hopefully more students will follow in our footsteps.
Alicia added the following:
Realizing that, as a student, we can change what happens in our schools for a better education is what triggered my enthusiasm; experiencing the success of projects such as the recruiting policy is what sustains my motivation; and receiving the appreciation and support from those around me, and even from those I don't know, shows me that we are making a difference. I am sure it is like this for all Mechistas at Mission Bay. Every year there are new members and every year members leave, yet we somehow keep a family within MEChA. We are all friends. Newcomers become old buddies after a short time. I can only appreciate what this club, its sponsor, and members (my friends) have taught me, like why we need more students participating in activism. You see the world and how it's run differently and you exercise your rights as an individual alongside others; rights that you either use or lose.
The thread that runs through all of these comments can be summed up in words later added by Nancy: "Only when students are able to make connections between their lives and school politics can they become empowered." This was further confirmed by Mr. Villanueva, Spanish teacher and faculty sponsor of MEChA at Mission Bay High:
If teaching is done the way it should be, it relates to the students' surroundings. If classes are relevant, the students will respond. When they respond, you provide them with a way to organize in order to fight the injustices that they learn about and see. Look at the immigration marches by the millions and the student walk-outs by the thousands. Students saw the connection there . . . between their lives and the politics of this country. Recently, at Mission Bay, the students have even had to fight for the classes they need!
Every school has potential student activists and good teachers who can guide them. Every school must grant students the right to organize into clubs that give students a united voice. Every school has parents who want nothing more than a good educational opportunity for their children. Every community has members who promote peace and social justice. What is happening in San Diego can happen anywhere.
This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (http://www.comdsd.org/)