I am a teacher fighting…
For the voices of those encased in a city
Still crying for justice,
a human right, and
—from “We Can’t Fight Alone” by Jessyca Mathews,
pictured above in downtown Flint’s Café Rhema
There’s a saying that dates back to the Roman philosopher and playwright Seneca—Aut inveniam viam aut faciam—I shall either find a way, or make one.
It could be the motto of MEA member Jessyca Mathews, a Flint-area high school teacher and writer who’s channeled anger into action, changed victims to activists, and turned the voiceless powerful. As the best educators do, she has transformed tragedy into opportunity.
She made a way.
“I’m halfway through my career, and my purpose is bigger now,” she said. “When you see a city having to fight and argue to have clean water for children and ourselves, that makes no sense. I can’t sit idly by and watch it happen without, in some way, trying to make it right.”
For her collaborative work using art and advocacy to connect and empower young people, the 17-year Carman-Ainsworth High School veteran has been honored among seven national finalists for NEA’s 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year.
I’m in search for others
It’s been more than three years since the first time she drew discolored water from her kitchen tap in the south end of Flint—water that “should not come out/ the same color as my skin/ and blend/ into the soil with no notice,” she wrote in a haunting poem titled “I’ll Call Back Later.”
Different telephone numbers comprise several lines in the poem—numbers Mathews and others called to complain about the water’s appearance, smell, and taste, only to be told by state officials that no problem existed. One line repeats through the poem: “Something isn’t right.”
Those suspicions were correct. Independent investigations by pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and researchers at Virginia Tech University revealed dangerous lead levels in Flint’s water—conclusions the state denied until the shocking story made national news in late 2015.
A struggling American city, under emergency state management, poisoned in a money-saving water supply switch—then ignored: It’s a story of mismanagement, neglect, reckless disregard, incompetence. Damage. Death. Despair.
Lead is known to cause permanent neurological injury in children. In addition, the improperly treated water most likely led to an outbreak of deadly Legionnaire’s disease in Flint—one of the largest in U.S. history—which sickened nearly 90 people and killed at least 12.
Time magazine ran a stunning cover image of a sick Flint toddler in early 2016. Yet many months later residents still are cautioned to filter tap water today, even as the number of bottled water distribution sites around the city has shrunk by half.
Recent testing in Flint has found lead contamination below federal action levels, although state officials have warned that aging pipes could cause sporadic spikes. Replacement of lead-tainted water lines could take two additional years or more.
Last February, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission issued a report that concluded “deeply embedded institutional, systemic, and historical racism” were partly to blame for the scandal. More than half of Flint’s residents are black, and 40 percent live below the poverty line.
Many traumatized Flint residents will never trust their tap water again, Mathews says, and it’s no wonder as she wrote in “I’ll Call Back Later”: “My child is crying!/ My people are dying!/ We keep asking,/ ‘Why?’/ We keep screaming/ ‘HELP!’/ And there are no answers.”
Remaining helpless in the face of glaring injustice was not an option for the published poet. “When kids are being poisoned, I say, ‘No.’”
I’m asking you to stand
Mathews, 40, did not happen upon social justice activism as a result of the water crisis. She credits her parents—a father who educated her in the Civil Rights Movement and a mother who modeled the importance of reading—with planting the seeds of engagement in her childhood.
“When you put together my dad saying, ‘You need to stand up for what’s right,’ and my mom saying, ‘You need to read to find out what’s right,’ you get an activist teacher.”
Flint’s tragedy merely deepened her commitment, while she stayed true to a long-held core principle: “Social justice is simply when you know that something is wrong, you use your God-given strengths to make it right,” she says.
That is the message she has taken to heart and extended to students.
Two years ago, Mathews completed an institute for writing teachers at Michigan State University, the Red Cedar Writing Project, where a book called to her, The Activist Learner.
Inspired, Mathews returned to her school in the summer of 2016 ready to take on two enormous new projects that would change her life and the lives of her students. A third project would happen along the way.
First, she approached her principal about revamping the senior English course she taught for years from “the same humdrum, forget-what-you’re-doing high school English class” to an activism and research focus.
Students in the class choose a problem or injustice to research and write about, culminating in “Activism Day” where findings are displayed and discussed that include key takeaways for a huge audience of school peers and folks from the community.
More than anything, the students learn from each other—and even teach Mathews a few things, she said. With a diverse population that includes kids who are black, white, Muslim, Latino and others, the class incorporates many viewpoints.
“I tell them, in this class we’re a family,” she said. “We come from different areas, and we’re going to learn from one another. There are things someone may ask about that you go, ‘They should know that answer.’ They don’t know. There are things I might ask that you’re like, ‘Ms. Mathews, you’re educated. You should know.’ No, I don’t know!
“We should be able to question and ask for help and dialogue in order for us all to build into activists.”
Through the ups and downs of a new class, Mathews felt re-energized by her students’ excitement, dedication, and successes. She watched in class as students shared information and validated each other. She learned issues she knew nothing about.
She swelled with pride seeing all of her students publicly advocate on issues—ranging from police brutality to animal abuse and sex trafficking—but especially the quiet ones, dressed in their finest clothes, who found their voices and elicited emotional responses from audiences. The benefits were too numerous to count, she said.
“We were feeding the community with information, and my kids were completely empowered, saying, ‘I can do this. I can be an activist. I can research. I can inform, and I can talk to people.’”
Show belief in the children
Most teachers would have their hands full launching a new class that required a significant shift in approach, but the activism course was not even the biggest project Mathews took on last year.
During the same period, she was part of a unique creative collaboration involving an art teacher from Lansing’s Everett High School, Pam Collins; a Chicago-based artist, Jan Tichy; and 80 students from the two schools—part of the MSU Federal Credit Union Artist Studio Series.
The art installation that resulted from the six-month project was a breathtaking “sound mural” made of 1,430 feet of copper pipes that traversed the length and vaulted heights of the education wing of the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at MSU from January through August.
In the most striking feature of “Beyond Streaming: A Sound Mural for Flint”—museum visitors turned spigots, and student voices flowed from the pipes: the voices of Mathews’ students, sharing their pain, anger, frustrations, hopes.
“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in teaching, because my kids were like, ‘People listen to us. People are paying attention. That’s cool!’ And I’m saying, “You deserve it. You have a voice that people should hear.’”
Part of the work on the project involved Everett students traveling to Flint, and Flint students going to Lansing. The exchanges paired two students from each school to share perspectives on the water crisis and the purposes of art, exposing the students to new surroundings and ideas.
Mathews served as official tour guide during the students’ visit in Flint, and no one—not high school students or the city’s highest elected leaders—could ask for a better booster to highlight the city than this lifelong resident.
Walking along the sidewalks in the city’s downtown, Mathews points out hipster cafes and coffee shops, satellite university campuses, new hospital wings, an historic movie theater under renovation, and the relocated indoor-outdoor Farmer’s Market loaded with shops and eateries.
People who’ve never seen Flint, or haven’t been there in a while, are often surprised at the redevelopment happening in the city, she said. That was true of many Lansing Everett students, who expected the city to be abandoned or rundown, based on their preconceptions.
“I had one Everett girl who said to me, ‘I want to come back here,’ and I said, ‘Good, I want you to come back,’” Mathews said.
Support the trailblazers
They say good things come in threes.
Somehow, amid the new class and the multi-city art project, Mathews accepted a third challenge last school year. Joined by teacher Carrie Mattern and former student DeQuindra Renea, Mathews co-wrote a play that was performed by students in her school’s theater department.
Each of the three wrote a different act of the play, titled “Appointments: An Account of the Flint Water Crisis,” weaving a narrative around doctor visits and featuring a character based on Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the local pediatrician hailed as a hero for exposing the crisis.
“I’ve never wrote a play, so I didn’t know if I was on the right track or not, but it all went together,” she said. “The theater teacher, Delynne Miller, said ‘Let’s put the play on,’ and it was wonderful.”
The authors have signed a contract to have the drama published and distributed to other schools who want to perform it, including a post-performance discussion guide about clean water and human rights.
Mathews understands some educators and school administrators do not see it as their place to address societal injustices in the classroom. She believes training is needed to help educators learn how to address current issues and controversies, because avoidance doesn’t prepare kids.
“When you don’t discuss it, kids are going to talk about it without you,” she said. “No matter what subject we teach, we are supposed to be making productive citizens. How do you make productive citizens by not talking about what’s going on in the world?”
It’s time to show unity
Mathews doesn’t have to look far to see a big inequality in American society: the education system—divided by race and socioeconomic status into haves and have-nots. Her awareness has grown since she attended an NEA conference on social and racial justice in Boston this summer.
The conference, part of her selection as a national activist of the year finalist, exposed her to educators doing work around the Black Lives Matter movement, the school-to-prison pipeline, immigrant rights, environmental justice, and LGBTQ issues, among other civil rights.
“I’ve come to learn from interacting with other teachers and other people, I want to use my God-given talents to be more of an activist—not only for the water crisis but other social issues where things aren’t right.”
One reason she became an educator is because growing up she never had a black teacher from K-12. African-American under-representation in the profession means she carries an extra load, she says, one she wasn’t prepared for in the early years of her teaching career.
The role model spotlight on her is brighter. For some kids, she defines the meaning of education and its life-changing power—or lack of it. She’s a go-to resource for white colleagues seeking insight on racial or cultural questions.
“It’s like different layers of responsibility,” she said. “It’s kind of like a blessing and a curse, because I love being in the classroom, and I love being an African-American teacher, but it’s hard being under a microscope.”
She draws her strength from her students. This generation is criticized as lazy, spoiled, and self-centered, but she sees them as serious about making the world better. She believes they will change the world, and she will have played a part.
“Everyone has some talent that they can do something to make a change happen,” she said. “It can be small, it can be large, whatever it may be. But it’s got to be people taking action and saying ‘I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.’”
We cannot wait
Subheads excerpted from “We Can’t Fight Alone.” To read more about Mathews, visit her website at www.JesTakeAStand.weebly.com.