Unafraid Educators in Boston Build Sanctuary Schools from the Ground Up

PEWG Blog recently had the chance to interview Unafraid Educators, a dedicated group within the Boston Teachers Union who actively organize to build Sanctuary schools from the bottom-up, on their origin, work, immigrant rights organizing and how to help undocumented students within the public school system.

PEWG Blog: What led to the formation of Unafraid Educators? 

Unafraid Educators: The hardships faced by immigrant students, especially the undocumented ones and ones who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), are multifaceted and require specific attention and action. Guidance counselors across the Boston Public School system recognized that they were struggling to address the needs of undocumented students; at the same time, the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) was forming an immigration rights committee and looking for educators who cared deeply for the cause. So in the winter of 2015-16 school year, the Unafraid Educators formed as a committee within the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) to support the needs of immigrant students. While initially the group was comprised of a handful of educators and guidance counselors, it now includes a large number of school counselors, administrators, community organizations, parents and students, all of whom are dedicated to the cause of building Sanctuary Schools from the ground up in the Boston public school system. 

We built this group in collaboration with the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM), a grassroots organization run by and for undocumented youth and young adults. They have been leading this movement locally for over ten years and were already involved with BTU in forming the immigration rights committee and we were committed to honoring their leadership. We also followed the leadership of United We Dream, a national organization run for and by undocumented young people.  

PEWG blog: What work do the Unafraid Educators do as a group? Does the group have organizing principles that guide their classroom activities?

UE: As we began our work, we found an interesting conundrum. We knew undocumented students were struggling, but we did not know all of the undocumented students in our schools. Federal law prohibits schools from asking students and families for their immigration status and many students do not disclose this information to school staff. We knew the root of their struggle was their immigration status, but we could not alter it or change it (except for encouraging them to gauge their eligibility for DACA). So the question became – if we cannot change the key obstacle bringing strife to a young person’s life, and we do not know who those young people are in our schools, but we know they are out there and need our help, what can we do?

Through our work, we discovered three key things that supporting undocumented students in our schools required. These formed the three guiding pillars of the Unafraid Educators Framework, which are 

  1. To take a stand
  2. To share and increase access to information
  3. To fight hopelessness

Our monthly working meetings are facilitated by our leadership team. Each member of the leadership team takes on specific leadership tasks within an area of our work, or “bucket”. These different buckets include political education, political action and partnerships, college access and scholarship management, Week of Action planning and support, and organizational health and culture. 

Along with supporting the political work of partner organizations such as the SIM and the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy (MIRA) Coalition, we have also grown projects of our own. We have developed and shared professional development trainings for educators across the country, coordinated an annual Week of Action that has included schools over 40 local schools, and have started a scholarship that provides college tuition support for undocumented graduates of Boston Public School graduates. Since the scholarship’s creation 3 years ago we have fundraised $176,000 and awarded scholarships to 69 students. The scholarship crowdfunded and rely on people like you. Check out the link to donate and spread the word in order to support the students who will be our future doctors, teachers, counselors, etc! 

A scholarship for undocumented students is especially important since undocumented students do not qualify for federal financial aid and in many states most undocumented students do not qualify for in-state tuition. Additionally, many independent scholarships require Social Security Numbers to receive aid. This means a lot of undocumented students are paying out-of-state, or even international student, rates completely out of pocket, despite the fact that their ability to work over the table and get paid a living wage is also limited due to their immigration status. 

PEWG Blog: How do you see your work in the broader context of immigration rights movement? 

UE: Our work is not only fostering positive school environments, but also defending our students’ and their families’ rights. We also know that in order for students to feel comfortable within schools, we must also stand up for change outside of schools as well. Additionally, our students do not live solely within our classroom walls and if we are to truly stand with and for them, we must fight for them and their families in all aspects of life. This understanding drives our work with our partner organizations because we can’t pretend that our welcoming classrooms will heal the violence of a brutal system unless we organize outside of them. 

As an example, our Week of Action is a focused time to share resources with educators that can make their way into daily patterns. A way to ensure that undocumented students and students from mixed-status families feel fully welcomed in the space. It is well known that students who do not feel welcome do not learn as well. If we are not welcoming undocumented students into our schools, then they are not equally able to access learning, which violates their constitutional right to education regardless of their immigration status. 

PEWG Blog: How does your organizing activities relate to the larger organizing efforts by teachers across the US, like RedforEd and the wildcat strikes?

UE: There is a lot of recognition of teacher power right now, which is extremely exciting. It is inspiring to see how teacher demands have included amplifying support for undocumented students – for example in LA the teacher strike included demands for district designated attornies to support personnel, students and families with immigration related issues as well as multilingual hotlines that would support families with immigration related concerns. These demands not only meet student needs, but also educate others about the additional barriers immigrant students face. When we look at state funding formulas (mechanism through which states control school funds) we see that English Language Learners are disproportionately affected, as highlighted by the case in Rhode Island. Legislation is being introduced to alleviate the problem, for example here in Massachusetts, one of the main provisions of the Promise Act is to provide increased, and adequate, support for English Language Learners. We believe that our work is in line with the increasing shift towards more social justice oriented organizing that teachers unions are doing across the nation. For example, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers have been including demands such as responsible banking in their contract negotiations to fight against banks foreclosing on students’ homes; these demands stem from the realization that stronger communities, alongside improved teaching conditions and less disciplinary action, are also needed to improve learning outcomes in students. 

PEWG Blog: How does Boston’s proclamation as a Sanctuary City affect your work? 

UE: We view our work as a way to build sanctuary schools from the ground up. We organize and share lesson plans, Know Your Rights resources, activity ideas and more, so that educators and students in every school can engage with each of our guiding principles. 

It is one thing to talk about having sanctuary spaces, but we want to make sure our schools are fully welcoming spaces for undocumented students and their families – spaces where their futures are taken into consideration and believed in. This means being vocal about our support for our undocumented students, connecting them with resources, making sure they are represented in our lessons and not targeted by school resource officers and police, considering the discriminatory practices by Boston Police Department (BPD) of mislabeling immigrant students as gang members and BPD’s collaboration with ICE. It is crucial to focus on celebrating who they are and what they bring to our communities.

PEWG Blog: What are some ways that non-educators or folks not involved with Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Boston Teachers Union (BTU) help build a supportive community for undocumented students?

UE: Really anyone can guide their actions with our organizational frameworks. You don’t need to be an educator to take a stand, access and share information, or fight hopelessness. 

To take a stand people can:

  • Be vocal of their support of immigrants at home with family, at work, in the streets, and in our places of government! 
  • Advocate for in-state tuition for undocumented students in Massachusetts. Currently 20 states have in-state tuition, and we are not one of them. People can voice their support for immigrant students to access the same in-state tuition as their peers here: https://p2a.co/w7ePxAs

We also encourage people to learn more about immigrant advocacy groups doing important work and to follow them on social media in order to amplify any actions they are asking for support with. Some organizations we suggest are United We Dream, Student Immigrant Movement, and MIRA

The above organizations also have some great resources to help you access and share information. With raids of workplaces and homes posing a real threat, it is critical for everyone to know their rights when approached by law enforcement at home, on a bus, at work, etc. Allies vocalizing and exercising their rights has real impact.  Additionally if you want to check out the Unafraid Educators reading list (bit.ly/unafraidreadinglist) or online folder of resources for educators and families (bit.ly/unafraidtoolkit), feel free! 

Donating to and spreading the word about the Unafraid Scholarship, as mentioned earlier, is a tangible way to fight hopelessness! Check out the scholarship at bit.ly/unafraiddonate! We are crowdfunded and rely on people like you to support the students who will be our future doctors, teachers, counselors, etc! 

Lastly, Unafraid Educators is always happy to receive skilled support that will support our organization and make us more effective in our work. If you’re an immigration lawyer willing to do pro-bono or very affordable work for students who reach out to us in crisis, we’d love to hear from you. Additionally, we’d enthusiastically connect with people who have fundraising experience, graphic and web design, or expertise in connecting immigrants with housing and healthcare. Our meetings are open to partners and previously uninvolved educators and we can be reached at unafraideducators@gmail.com.

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