Skip to Content

Q & A: Get to Know the 2016 SJA Finalists - Hugo Arreola

Hugo Arreola is a technology educator in Phoenix, Arizona and a Dreamer. He uses the insights gained from his experience to reach out to and advocate for Dreamers and their families to ensure that they have the information they need to apply for Deferred Action and to achieve the American Dream.

We caught up with Hugo to talk about his work advocating for high school students from underserved communities and we got his views on activism and the social justice movement. An excerpt from our conversation is below.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Hugo: Growing up as an undocumented student in Arizona, I experienced firsthand many of the obstacles undocumented students face. During high school, I received college scholarships that were revoked after graduation because of my legal status.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Hugo: Educators can inspire and promote positive local and global perspectives. Students can feel the impact of social injustice, particularly, students from inner-city public education systems. More and more young adults are becoming aware of the inequalities set in our society.

To me, social justice is a path to help our students understand their own strength and allow them to grow and gain confidence in their ability to create change. As educators, we should create an environment of acceptance that allows our students to grow.

NEA: What role do students play in movement building?

Hugo: If educational institutions are the centers for free-flowing dialogue about revolutionary ideas then students are leading the change. I was part of the Manzana Dream Team, a group of undocumented college students that organized political campaigns. We ran three legislative campaigns and two governing board campaigns in 2012 with high success. The new generation is molding the future; students are becoming the leaders in movement building.

NEA: What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

Hugo: It is easier to turn a blind eye if you do not know who is affected by the oppressive policies that have been in place in our social, political and financial systems. Personal stories create an impact because they put a human face on the issues.

During my presentation for the 2015 AEA’s Summer Institute, I presented on the subject of undocumented students in the classroom. I presented statistics on immigrants, the percentage of graduates who are immigrants and resources for teachers, but when I told my story and brought in educators who are Deferred Action recipients to share their struggles to achieve their degree and overcome the obstacles, that is when I saw the people in that room really make the connection to the issue.

NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?

Hugo: During my time in campaign organizing and community outreach, I learned what can end a movement and what can project it forward. The most important elements in organizing are power mapping, organizing in the community, and transparency.
NEA: What is the most creative way you have found to engage people on your issue?

Hugo: Involving educators in outreach was creative and critical to success. Many educators were unaware what Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or what the 2012 Executive Order meant for students. I began teaching educators about the opportunity and encouraging the creation of “safe place” areas in their schools. Allowing the growth of a supportive environment where students can go for resources and assistance.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

Hugo: The biggest issue facing public education today is funding. Without proper funding, we cannot provide the resources or tools students will need to succeed. Arizona has spent 47% less per student than it did in 2008. Making us the number one state in education cuts. In addition, educators suffer from the pressure of state testing which determine our job status. This is especially complicated if you have to test students every quarter on a strict curriculum that does not apply the low-income area where students come in and out of the classroom and lack wrap-around services.

NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?

Hugo: Rage Against the Machine’s “Renegades of Funk”. The song is about revolutionary people in our society and self-empowerment. It highlights activist such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X, Mahatma Gandhi, and Chief Sitting Bull. The overall message from the song is summed up in this lyric,“ Now renegades are the people with their own philosophies. They change the course of history, Everyday people like you and me.”

NEA: What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?

Hugo: The desire to change the system and the drive to do it is activism. To create change, there must be understanding. If you want to affect your students in any form, start by listening. Learn about your students and their stories will open your eyes to a completely new perception of the system. Above all, be empathetic and be strong, stick to your beliefs and be a wolf-like renegade.


Sample resolution and district policy that can be used as a template or guidance for local school districts to create their own Safe Zones resolutions.


Learn more about the work of educator activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education:

social media shareables

Find memes, videos, post cards, and posters to share as you advocate for social justice in your school and community here.