News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

Brought to you by the Democratic Socialists of America, East Bay chapter.

East Bay DSA

January 12, 2019

“The ones who get screwed over in this system are students of color.”

Reyna Guerra-Vega, 30, is a special education teacher at Fremont High School in East Oakland. Guerra-Vega feels a calling to serve children and loves her work and her students. Because her salary doesn’t cover the cost of living in Oakland, even with a second job, she’s had to temporarily send her son to live with family in another state while she finishes a degree program here.

She talked to us about the pressures her low pay has put on her family, about how difficult it is to tell her students of color that their lives matter when their education is grossly underfunded, and how teachers’ working conditions affect students’ learning.

In late December, Guerra-Vega participated in a one-day wildcat walkout at her school along with hundreds of teachers and students.

Majority’s Jeremy Gong interviewed Reyna over winter break.

Majority: Tell us about your life in Oakland.

Reyna Guerra-Vega: I’m a single parent. I had to leave my child to come here from Arizona, because there was no education degree program there like I was offered here, with scholarships and support. In Arizona I was offered no assistance. California has offered me everything I needed in terms of my schooling, but I had to leave my son because I couldn’t afford anywhere to live that was two bedrooms on my own.

Do you want to have your son live with you?

Oh my god yes. I was so depressed when I moved here. He’s everything.

I would love to see him more. I just want him here. We talk every day, but nothing compares to being able to go home to him. When I was home during the holidays I asked him if he was mad that I’m gone, and he said, “Nah, I understand what you’re doing is a sacrifice.” And that killed me.

I’ve been saving up and he’ll be moving here in August of this year. But I’m still worried we won’t be able to get a place that I can afford. It’s $2800 a month for a two bedroom in my hood! I’m terrified that I won’t be able to get a big enough space for me and my son. I might have to move out of Oakland. Everyone I know has a roommate. No one can afford to live on their own.

Do you think teachers and students are valued in our society?

I don’t think my students are. I can’t look my students in the face, my brown students, my black students — we don’t have white students at my school — I can’t look at young black men and women in the face, young Latin men and women in the face, and say “you matter” when frankly we are being put at the very bottom. I would be lying to them.

As for teachers, I would like to not be concerned about housing. If I wanted to, I could cross the bridge and make a lot more money at a tech firm. But that’s not fulfilling for me. I want to do something that is going to help people. I’m called to serve, and I don’t think I could do anything else.

At my school, we have incredible staff. Everyone is all heart and our students are like our family. In our classrooms we keep deodorant, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, washcloths, because our students need them. I buy all that stuff with my tip money from my second job, or with GoFundMe or Donors Choose. I easily spend $600 or $700 a year on this kind of stuff.

What does it mean that the kids who are in the least-resourced schools are the brown and black and poor kids?

It feels very systematic. The ones who get screwed over in this system are students of color.

But with school closures and funding cuts to the programs they need, we are are not putting kids first, especially within poor communities of color. We are leaving them no option but to go do snatch-and-grabs, to work on the corner, to do things for fast money. But there’s so much potential within all of them.

I have students who come from very traumatic backgrounds and are able to articulate that they don’t want to grow up to be the people they’ve seen in their lives. But they don’t know another way. And that’s heartbreaking.

What can we learn from the teachers strike in Arizona last year?

Teachers in Arizona start off making $31,000. That’s disgusting. I don’t understand why people who dedicate their lives to kids are being put in the lowest place in our society.

The number one thing I learned from their strike is, just stick with it, and you can win. Luckily I think Oakland has a lot of resilience too. But it has to be a united front, like they say: strength in numbers. It would take the cooperation of all the schools in Oakland to show that we absolutely need a change here, we need to start putting our students first.

Why did you walk out of your school in December?

The bargaining process has been ridiculous. It takes so long. We don’t have the time to wait for fact finding. We’ve been presenting facts. When I saw what the district was proposing versus what we were asking for, I thought “That’s gross. You’ve got to be kidding me.” I don’t know how they feel that’s justified.

I ardently believe in following the rules, and I think negotiating is important. However negotiations have been languishing, and we’re waiting and waiting. They keep telling us to wait. But one of my coworkers said something brilliant: “If black folks had waited for the right time [for civil rights], nothing would have been done.

We’re constantly being told “there is no money for these things you want,” and “this is the way it’s always been done.” We have to do something. We can’t tell Oakland students “we support you” if we don’t also support and retain good teachers so they can live here with their families. We can’t say we care about students if our schools don’t have nurses, therapists, social workers, if we don’t have a library or sports programs or music.

Students deal with self-worth issues. If you have sports, if you have weight lifting, if you have music, more dance teachers, art teachers — it gives students a way to find their passions. Some of my students don’t really care about anything, and it’s because we’re not showing them there are things they could really care about. And that sucks. Of course they’re bored, of course there are attendance issues.

What do you want parents to know about the strike?

I don’t want parents to get the wrong idea. By going on strike, we’re not trying to harm or screw over your kids or your family. By accepting the minimum that the district is offering us, we would be giving your kids the minimum. But they deserve so much more than that. Teachers and staff at my school are phenomenal. We care so much about the kids, they’re like family to us. That’s why we are fighting for a change.