The public education uprisings that began in West Virginia and spread to Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky share similar origin stories.
Teachers, long tired of low wages and a dearth of state funding, begin talking to each other online.
Their Facebook groups draw tens of thousands of members. They share stories of their frustrations and then they demand change.
Kentucky public school employee Nema Brewer co-founded the KY120 United Facebook group that drew more than 40,000 members in a month. Teachers there are calling for more education funding, triggering actions that forced more than 30 schools to close last Friday.
“We had no idea it would light a fire under people,” Brewer said.
Educators communicating online played a key role in forming grassroots groups that are storming statehouses and holding demonstrations. It started in West Virginia, where two teachers set up a private Facebook page last fall that grew to 24,000 members. The group provided a private forum for educators to plot strategy, bolster resistance and plan demonstrations. After they went on strike and won a pay raise, educators elsewhere took notice.
Jennifer Grygiel, a communications and social media professor at Syracuse University, said people are increasingly realizing they can coordinate online for social causes, such as the #MeToo movement. Engaging online can also be a way for people to form their own identities, she said. “It’s where we congregate now.”
In Arizona, teachers formed a Facebook group called Arizona Educators United that now has more than 40,000 members. Co-founder Noah Karvelis said social media has been “incredibly vital.” He said the first #RedforEd demonstration day was Twitter-driven.
Most recently, the group used Facebook Live to share news of a planned vote on whether to strike in their quest for a 20-percent raise and more than $1 billion in new education funding. The vote was planned to be held Tuesday through Thursday after Gov. Doug Ducey has put forward a proposal to raise salaries 20 percent by 2020.
The online genesis of the Arizona movement cropped up outside of organized labor. But Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said the union stands in solidary with the grassroots group. He spoke at a rally where Arizona Educators United unveiled their demands, joined them in a letter to Ducey asking for a meeting, and appeared in a video on the Facebook page.
He called Arizona Educators United a “breath of fresh air” in the fight for higher education funding.
“It shares the same purpose, and that’s why I think we can stand so easily next to each other,” he said. “I’ve said multiple times, ‘I don’t care who throws the touchdown, I want to win the game.'”
Tammy Custis has been acting as a site liaison for Arizona Educators at the school where she teaches in Peoria. In addition to staying tuned into the main Facebook group and a few other discussion pages, she’s using communication apps to stay in touch with teachers at her school about organizing efforts so they don’t have to use district resources. Online platforms have been key to staying connected, she said.
“It’s amazing how engaged these already-so-busy-teachers are in this fight,” she said. “They are finding a way to get their teaching done, and still finding time to have a voice.”
In Oklahoma, eighth-grade history teacher Alberto Morejon in early March founded the Facebook group supporting a teacher walk-out that’s now being used by about 80,000 teachers. Morejon, who said he doesn’t belong to a union, is continuing to push for new funding for public education.
“We’re going to keep showing up until they do something,” he said.
Once it started, the group grew quickly; within six hours of adding members to the newly created group, it had 17,000 members.
“I think it shows there’s a problem, and it needs to be fixed,” Morejon said.
Beth Becker, a social media coach and strategist in progressive politics, said that social media is “the great democratizer” and thus a powerful organizing tool.
“It has given a voice to people who in the past didn’t have a voice, because they didn’t have that $1 million to buy a member of Congress with,” she said.
But online activism can’t be the sole front, she said. Marches and demonstrations are still necessary to draw attention to a cause, Becker said, citing the Parkland, Florida, students becoming activists to change gun laws and spurring the March for Our Lives.
“You’re not going to win just because of your social media or anything online, but you’re not going to win without it,” she said.
Additional reporting by Michael Virtanen and John Raby in West Virginia and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma.