For the past four years, the Newark public school system has gone from bad to worse under the supposed “leadership” of now former Superintendent Cami Anderson. Along with Governor Chris Christie’s dramatic budget cuts, Anderson’s privatization of public schools has left our youth segregated, stripped naked and frustrated. Resources have been drained, public schools have been shut down or left neglected, and hundreds–if not, thousands–of Newark teachers, aids, administrators and board workers have lost their jobs.
While people all over the city are coping with the changes and hoping for resolve, one ferocious group of Newark students has actively taken matters into their own hands; leading massive walk-outs, orchestrating sit-ins and using their voices to scream out against the injustices destroying their schools, and their city. They go by the name Newark Students Union. And since their inception three years ago, they’ve been nurtured under the wings of one brave community leader: Katt Ramos.
Now, with a fresh school year and brand new superintendent underway, NSU is still fighting to rearrange the face of Newark’s public school system. In this in-depth interview, Katt breaks down the history of this teen-led organization, the plight of the Newark public school system, and what herself, NSU, and other community leaders are doing to restore power to the people in this predominantly Black and Brown city.
Me: As someone who’s deeply invested in what’s going on in Newark, how did you get started in community activism?
Katt: Well, I grew up in Newark and went to all Newark schools. I organized in 2006 with immigration-related things and that was in New York mainly. And then I got pregnant with my munchkin who’s eight years old. And in wanting to get back into organizing and having done things with OCCUPY in New York and New Jersey, specifically with Sandy-related work, when the storm hit, I began to miss doing more community-related work in my hometown.
So, because I’m connected through social media with OCCUPY Sandy and with all these groups like Global Revolution, etc., I was able to find Newark Students Union. They formulated about three years ago—all student based—[with representation] from every high school in Newark. And they [formed] because they were seeing all of the ridiculousness that was happening with the budget [cuts], which then would turn into them not having their teachers; their teachers [losing jobs or on the brink of losing their jobs].
And then that first walk out that they did [in 2012], I’d say it was about 500 students. They didn’t have a huge social media presence, and for me that was like ‘it.’ So I was like, ‘Let me get them started with that so they could get their stuff out there.’ And I reached out to them through Facebook initially, and then though email. And after that first action, they did a sit-in at a Newark Public Schools building. Cami Anderson was having a meeting and the students walked in and gave her their demands. And the top one was ‘resign.’
[Laughs.] So this was around 2012 too?
Yes, but when I saw that fire in these kids [I knew I wanted to help them]. And when I went to physically meet them [after the sit-in], I asked them some questions. And they were a little loopy from being up and awake for all that time and I’m like, ‘We gotta get you some civil disobedience training, we gotta get you some know-your-rights training, we gotta get you some direct-action training because there are healthier ways of doing this.’
So basically, you’re like a mentor to this group of students.
Right. Because I didn’t [want things to get to a point] where they were physically harmed or burned out; because in these circles, it happens a lot if you’re not fully prepared for it. So I was like, ‘These are 15, 16, 17-year-old kids who don’t have that kind of information, but I have it, so let’s do this.’ And when I went to visit them and I was trying to talk to them and I saw that they had The New Jim Crow book and I saw that they were really, really about this, I decided at that point that my primary focus was going to be to help these students elevate the initiatives that they’re a part of.
How many students are there collectively?
The whole group is about 30 to 40 students [with a core group of about 15].
So Cami Anderson resigned over the summer, and word is that NSU had a lot to do with that. Besides that initial sit-in three years ago, tell me some of the things these kids were doing that led up to her stepping down from office?
In September of 2014, they executed this Freedom Schools [initiative] and they had two days of action. First, they had a walkout. Then on the second day, they used PVC pipes and shut down the street right in front of the Newark Public Schools building, where the superintendent’s office was at that time, on 2 Cedar Street. They shut that [street] down for nine hours, that was one of the bigger actions that they did. After that, they took over Cami Anderson’s office, they snuck in. There was some meeting that was supposed to be for the public and they decided to go a few floors up instead and just kind of beelined to her office and took it over for 72 hours; they stayed from Thursday night all the way until Sunday and had a big press conference.
And most recently, a few months ago, they did the 2,000-student walkout. And they also shut down one of the entrances to the turnpike or 21 for some time. That was the biggest turnout for students [at a walkout]. It went from 500 to 1,000, and now the max number that we’ve seen has been 2,000 with the last action. So it’s been a continuous escalation because Newark Students Union is more well-known now—
Yeah, their presence on social media has grown so much. They get invited to do panels on education everywhere. And so [people all over] are getting to hear about what’s happening in Newark and the privatization is really destroying a lot. The thing with that is it’s not just what they’re doing in terms of education, but that ties into everything else. When you have a lack of education, and you displace people, you’re basically sending them right into prison. It’s a school to prison pipeline. And with a third of people of color, specifically Black people, going into the system that way, our first line of defense is education. And real education. Not some of the stuff they try to pass off as education.
And these students know that it’s not, ‘Oh, I’m fighting to get books in my school, I’m fighting to get better lunch.’ It’s, ‘This is at the core of me not going to prison, this is at the core of me not becoming a statistic; this is at the core of me not joining a gang because I actually have a voice in this group of people that is doing something positive.’ And they’re connecting with the groups in Philadelphia, with the groups in Camden, the groups in Trenton—the groups all across this country that are in the same fight for public education so that it’s not State controlled.
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