Hawai‘i Teachers for Change on the People's Congress and Social Justice

People's Congress Interview with Amy Perruso from "Hawai‘i Teachers for Change"

Amy Perruso at the O‘ahu People's Congress Island Forum

Q: What do you see as the role of teachers in creating a just society? What of the place of education in general, both formal and informal?

Public school teachers of Hawai‘i can contribute to the creation of a more just society by fighting to reclaim public education for public purposes. Teachers can be powerful advocates on behalf of the young people of our communities and partners with their families. Hawai‘i Teachers for Change will continue to build more progressive relationships with our communities to strengthen our public schools, to help create the schools our keiki deserve.

In Hawai‘i, public education can contribute, in both its formal and informal manifestations, to the development of a more just society.  We, as educators, recognize the importance of enabling students to become economically responsible and independent. We also emphasize the role of public education in helping students understand and appreciate their own cultures and respect the diversity of others. In Hawai‘i, that means always beginning with the host culture and the history of this place. We can support students in becoming active, compassionate, and critical citizens. And public education should have a personal impact: it should serve the students themselves, to contribute not simply to their ‘happiness’ but ultimately, to their ‘flourishing’. 

Q: Can you share how you got involved with Teachers for Change and AiKea. 

While I have been involved politically on teachers’ issues for a while, beginning with the 2000 strike, I started to become very involved again around the Aloha POSSE movement in 2011  and then began to connect with Aikea and Surfrider around the PLDC issue. All of these issues, sustainability, gender issues and the widening chasm between the wealthy and poor in Hawaii, intersected for me around issues of governance. Because I see a progressive people’s movement as providing the only reasonable response to such a situation, I began to try to learn more about labor and community organizing and to try to contribute to the effort by working with Local Five and Aikea. I saw my own union, HSTA, as critical in addressing this imbalance of power, and became increasingly frustrated with HSTA’s complicity in neoliberal education “deform” under state leadership. My colleagues and I soon realized that we not only had to publicly question the leadership of our union, but to challenge their status quo policies by running for office.

Q: In what ways do unions support progressive values? Or in what ways are they embodiments of progressive values?

I think that the extent to which unions support progressive values is almost completely dependent on the extent to which progressive members of those unions have fought to bring those values front and center, and bring those values to life through action.  We have seen that, for all of their roots in progressive and radical labor history, unions in many sectors across the country have become top-heavy, complacent and even corrupt.  Progressive and radical values have to be kept alive through action. While these fights to reclaim our unions are often painful and hard-fought, they are necessary. Unions are the one of the best organizing structures available to ordinary, working class people to fight for better working conditions and a more just society.

Q: What is it that people in general — including teachers and students — are most in need of, or most hungry for in terms of social, political or economic change?

For over a century, public schools in Hawai‘i have been starved and cut off from adequate community support, primarily because public schools generally educate the children of workers while the social and political elite send their children to private schools. Public schools play a critical role in any kind of democratic political system and should serve as centers of community and collaborative learning, and should provide opportunities for young people to explore what it means to be fully human. 

Young people need support and guidance in discovering who they are, as humans, in relation to others, and in exploring different ways of expressing themselves and developing meaningful relationships with the world around them. Young people should be given opportunities to acquire a wider, rather than narrower, range of skills, because all members of society need a range of knowledge and capacities, broad and deep enough to know how to further that knowledge should they so desire. 

Public schools in Hawai‘i should educate children so that they can be effective, reasonable and visionary participants in public decision-making. As adults, students will need to be able to critically and creatively grapple with overlapping ecological, economic and political crises. They need to be willing to engage politically to raise questions about social problems and to achieve justice. Students need to develop the ability to engage in public reasoning in a spirit of mutual respect, willingness to listen, and capacity to think critically. Right now, even with the dramatic shifts happening around public education, there is radically insufficient discussion of the human purposes of education, the role that the divide between public and private education currently plays in reproducing social inequality, and how current neoliberal assumptions about education can and should be challenged.

Q: Please tell us a little bit about how you got involved in social justice work and community organizing.

I have been involved in this type of work since I was in high school, when I was part of a group of students who wrote an underground newspaper criticizing the hypocrisy and racism evidenced by the leadership of our school. That work led to a groundbreaking California court case on student speech rights (http://tinyurl.com/qfkhxwd). When I was at USC, I helped to lead the USC student anti-apartheid divestment movement, and worked closely with the emergent radical Green movement in Los Angeles to challenge policies and practices that reproduced environmental racism. I spent my senior year in Shanghai, to learn from Chinese students advocating democratization in 1989. On my return stateside, I was awarded a Fulbright to research the ‘wage gap movement’ in Finland, and spent two years at the University of Helsinki working with left Green feminists.