Tucson Freedom Summer, Or 5 Ways to Fight Back Against An Unjust Law

Arizona's ban on ethnic studies hasn't stopped organizers and educators in Tucson from fighting back against the law. Here's how they're doing it.

By Julianne Hing Jul 11, 2012

Arizona’s ethnic studies ban may have shut down Tucson’s Mexican American Studies classes. But this summer in the southern Arizona city, class is in session. Educators are holding weekend community forums to educate the city about the now-banned ethnic studies courses. 

It’s just one component of what’s being called the Tucson Freedom Summer, a month of events geared toward engaging Tucson to fight back against the law and revive the program it targeted. The idea for a month of civic engagement and community awareness activities was borne out of the need to keep the fight alive. Tucson Unified shut down the Mexican American Studies program in January, and since then, the resistance has been multi-pronged and endlessly creative. But as educators remain embroiled in a legal fight to challenge HB 2281, the community needed to come together to find other ways to resist.

"The emphasis this summer is on building community," said Ernesto Mireles, an adjunct professor from Michigan State University and the Tucson Freedom Summer’s primary organizer. "They’ve been through a period of really militant direct action to fight back against the ban. The push is to keep the whole movement going." 

So Mireles, with a group of students and dozens of organizers around the country have descended on Tucson. Here’s what they’re doing.

Asking the Community What It Needs First

Organizers of the Tucson Freedom Summer acknowledged they couldn’t start their work without figuring out where the community is at. So they’re going to canvass people to find out. The goal is to knock on 40,000 doors by the end of the summer, and just over a week into the month they’ve hit more than 3,000, said Sean Arce, the former director of Tucson’s Mexican American Studies program. 

Mireles expects that over 100 activists and organizers from around the country will arrive in town to help with the canvassing and phone banking. Their surveys begin with a basic question: do you believe the Tucson Unified School District is being responsive to our children’s needs?

Canvassers are compiling data and bringing their information back for analysis, which they hope will inform their work going forward. "As a result of this canvassing I believe there will be some very rich data and we’ll have a real clear perspective on how we can further engage our communities," said Arce. (Photo: Deshá Williams/facebook.com/AmyDeshaPhotography)

Teachers Can Teach Without a Classroom

In between the door-knocking and voter registration, every Sunday educators are holding community encuentros, public education forums. The first Sunday’s session was led by three former Mexican American Studies teachers who discussed the documented educational benefits of ethnic studies courses.  

Also on the lineup are sessions about bilingual education, the educational inequities Latino youth face, and the school-to-prison pipeline. They’re all going to be taught by people who used to teach Tucson’s Mexican American Studies classes, including the recently ousted director of the program, Sean Arce. 

"There are racial disparities that exist in our schools, and based on the studies that we’ve done, ethnic studies has done a lot to eliminate them, whether it be academic achievement or discipline disparities," Arce said. He hopes the forums will help educate the community about the power of ethnic studies as a tool to educate and empower the district’s youth.

(Photo: Deshá Williams/facebook.com/AmyDeshaPhotography)

Treating Everyone Like a Potential Voter

The ultimate purpose of the civic engagement and forums, Mireles said, will be to leverage the community’s political power come Election Day. Mireles hopes the canvassing will help inform local activists about the community’s needs so they can begin to make informed demands on their local politicians. 

Among the big races organizers are watching this fall are several seats on Tucson’s school board.

"We’re focused on the school board race," Mireles said. "There are three board members up, and all of them have voted to get rid of Mexican American Studies." Mireles said that for a community of people of color who are not wealthy, leveraging their power through the electoral process is a key part of their strategy to change the game. Voter registration and get out of the vote efforts are on the calendar for later this summer and into fall.

"We’re not millionaires. We don’t have a lot of money, but what we do have is people. The important thing is figuring out how to move them," he said. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Bringing Art to the People with La Cultura Cura

The cultural is political, as well. Tucson Freedom Summer is holding music, poetry and art events alongside its canvassing and civic engagement work. One of the events will be a two-day poster-making workshop led by political artists and activists Favianna Rodriguez and Julio Salgado later this month.

For Rodriguez, it’s about more than sharing her visual communication talents. "Art offers a way to share a vision for the kind of community we want to create," she said. "Art can be the tool to expose an issue and fight back. And art can serve to mobilize others."

The workshop, which is a project of Culture Strike, will be just one of the many cultural components to the month. Locals are emphatic that art is central to the work. "Art has always been a critical component in any social movement, and it’s central to what we’re trying to do here," Arce said. 

"Culture speaks to people’s hearts, in a way that policy and legislation cannot," Rodriguez said, "visual art in particular … can offer people an alternative way to see the world." (Illustration: Julio Salgado)

Cracking Open Those Banned Books

Arizona’s Mexican American Studies crackdown included a list of banned books which were removed from Tucson classrooms. Shakespeare, Sherman Alexie and Luis Alberto Urrea were among the authors whose books were deemed too incendiary for public instruction, boxed up and banned from Tucson’s ethnic studies classes. 

Writers whose works were stricken from course curricula spoke out. Outraged activists called for "wet-book" caravans to transport those titles back into the city. 

But the downtown branch of the Pima County Library hosted a book club whose reading list was built off those banned books. The Mexican American Studies Book Club, organized by recent University of Arizona Ph.D. graduate Marissa Juarez, held its first meeting in May. As Arce says, his work as an educator is about practicing the lessons of the textbooks he assigned his students.

Their first book club selection? Paulo Freire’s seminal work, "Pedagogy of the Oppressed." (Photo: Chris Summitt/chrissummitt.com/)