FLINT TWP. — Jessyca Mathews, a Carman- Ainsworth High School teacher and coach, is one of seven finalists nationwide for the National Education Association (NEA) 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year award.
Online voting, open to educators, public education allies and partners, will end at midnight, May 30. Vote here: educationvotes.nea.org/2017sja/
NEA will recognize the winner during its annual Conference on Racial and Social Justice, which is scheduled to take place in Boston this year on June 28 and 29.
The NEA is the nation’s largest professional organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.
NEA EdJustice engages and mobilizes activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education.
Matthews was a co-author of the play “Appointments: An Accounting of the Flint Water Crisis,” presented in February by C-AHS theater students. Set about three years in the future, the play takes place in a doctor’s office, focusing on patients whose health has been affected by an ongoing problem with contaminated public water in Flint.
The play helped to bring community and national attention to the Flint water crisis, according to Matthew’s nomination bio. She also empowered her students to use creative expression to channel their responses to the crisis and find the power of their collective voices. This work also led her to connect her students with students in Lansing, Michigan in advocating for clean water. Matthews was nominated for the award by Dawn Reed, a high school language teacher at Okemos High School, who was her co-advisor for the Red Cedar Writing Project (RCWP) though Michigan State University.
“I now work with Dawn through RCWP with developing curriculum on activism for a program called Youth Voices and LRNG,’ Matthews said. “I was able to make a program on the Flint Water Crisis with my work with Dawn. She is my mentor and friend and I appreciate her thinking of me for this honor.”
Still, Matthews doubted that she would be chosen as a finalist for the award.
“To hear that you are one of 7 educators up for such a high honor in education is overwhelming but it feels fantastic,” she said. “If I win I know that this is the beginning of a major change in my life. I know that being an activist is what I have been called to do. Being a teacher activist can be a huge instrument for change in so many areas. Our society needs more stories and more dialog so that we can learn from one another’s experiences and grow as a people. I am hoping that I can start to work with others in this area and grow as an activist for different causes. I want to talk to people and hear what they want to say. I want to help others grow into the role of being an activist for issues that aren’t right in our society. I know that this is just the beginning of inspirational things to come.”
Matthews also said she hoped her nomination will inspire people to continue to speak out about the Flint water crisis.
“Don’t allow people to believe that this isn’t an issue that needs America’s attention,” Matthews said.” I have talked to so many people not from Michigan and many believed that since the media had gone away from the topic that things were fixed or had gotten better. We know better, but people will not understand if we don’t continue to tell our story. There is power behind a person’s story, and the emotions connected with their view can bring about change and empathy for issues that need to be fixed. If winning this award strengthens my story as a Flint resident, teacher, and activist, and takes me to new heights for making the world a better place to live in, so be it.”
Matthews was selected from an unprecedented number of impressive nominations this year, according to NEA officials. The 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year award will be presented to the exceptional effort that demonstrates the ability to lead, organize and engage educators, parents, and the community to advocate on social justice issues that impact the lives of students, fellow educators and the communities they serve.