Young Voice

A Detroit high schooler is among 13 young adults steering two national student protests against gun violence

Detroiter Alondra Alvarez is standing up for gun control

Among the 13 teens and young adults spearheading two nationwide student protests against gun violence is a Detroit high schooler who says guns have created fear in her neighborhood.

Alondra Alvarez, a senior at Detroit’s Western International High School, is on the steering committee for two student walkouts being planned in response to last week’s school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The March 14 Women’s March Youth EMPOWER Walkout will last 17 minutes to symbolize the 17 lives cut short in that shooting, while a full-day walkout on April 20 will commemorate the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.

Alvarez, who says she once considered herself a “shy Latina girl,” has become a fierce warrior for young people in Detroit and beyond. She spoke at the Women’s Convention in Detroit last October and has since stayed involved in the youth initiative of the Women’s March, launched last year to resist the Trump administration.

Chalkbeat talked to Alvarez about how gun violence affects her and her city, what sets her apart from the other organizers, and the message she wants to relay.

What’s it like to be selected to be a youth leader representing Detroit for the walkout?

I feel really honored. Of the Women’s March Youth, I’m the only Latina and the only person representing Detroit. A lot of times youth in Detroit are not really represented. I feel if I represent my community, then that will help other people want to get involved. I’m a person of color, and we share similar experiences. We know how gun violence influences our community, and we know it affects us. Since I’m involved, that will make other people who look like me want to get involved.

How do you believe gun violence affects Detroit?

It makes it really unsafe. I know every night, gunshots are fired around my neighborhood. It made me fear my neighborhood growing up, and I wouldn’t go out late at night. It shouldn’t be like that. We should be able to walk around our neighborhood at night or anytime and not have that fear.

The walkout will be held one month after the Parkland school shooting, a place where many people assumed such an incident could never happen. How do you feel Detroit is different than a city like Parkland?

Detroit is different because most of us are aware random shootings can happen. We are aware of our surroundings, so we check all students to make sure something like that doesn’t go down. At school, we all get checked because there are metal detectors. So there are less chances of something like that happening. I don’t want to say something like that couldn’t happen, but metal detectors lower the chances of somebody shooting up the school. It makes us feel safer.  

How does it make you feel to be a youth leader and a voice against gun violence?

It actually makes me feel really good. I don’t do it for myself. I do it for the youth in my community. It’s a really good feeling. I do it for the youth in my community because there’s a lack of resources that I’ve seen. The system is not meant for people of color, and it’s made me go out of my way to be a role model for people, to be involved with higher education and seek change. I want to help youth know that even though the system is not for you, you can overcome that and be whatever you want to be in life.

What message do you plan to relay during the walkout?

I came up with a quote this week, and it’s called “Another Bullet, Another Life.” We can’t control bullets, but we can fight for gun control because the gun violence is getting out of hand. All these school shootings are happening, and with gun control we can avoid some of these issues.

How did the news of the Parkland, Florida, shooting personally affect you?

It was really devastating. It was Valentine’s Day, the day people like to show affection. I can’t imagine losing a brother, sister or son or someone close to me on that day… Knowing it was the 18th school shooting this year — that’s just crazy, and we’re not doing anything to control it. It really breaks my heart.

Uphill battle

Recruiting when your team is full of ‘detractors’: As the Detroit district searches for talent, most of its employees aren’t on board

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
New Detroit school superintendent Nikolai Vitti addresses reporters outside a teacher hiring fair on his first full day in the job.

Michigan’s largest school district has its share of critics, from lawmakers pushing for school closures to families who send their children to schools in the suburbs.

As it turns out, the Detroit Public Schools Community District has plenty of detractors on the inside, too. A survey of 19,000 teachers, students, parents, and district employees underlined the challenges facing Superintendent Nikolai Vitti’s administration as it races to fill nearly 200 teaching positions and boost enrollment before the first day of school next fall.

Only a quarter of administrators are happy with the district’s hiring processes. Fully 63 percent of office staff are “not at all likely” to recommend the district.

“If our own employees are not favorable toward the organization, then how can we ever recruit new parents to schools or new employees to the district?” Vitti asked at a school board meeting this week.

Students reported their own concerns, especially about the climate and safety of their schools. Less than half of students in grades 3-8 felt safe, putting the district in the bottom 10 percent that asked the same question nationwide.

But one of the survey’s more promising results also came from students, 60 percent of whom said they felt a sense of “school belonging.” Among schools nationwide who asked the same question, more than two-thirds reported a lower score.

Nonetheless, as Vitti pointed out, the survey labels 40 percent of parents, 50 percent of instructional staff, and 63 percent of office staff as “detractors,” meaning they were not likely to recommend the district.

Response rates for the survey were: 97 percent of teachers, 55 percent of office staff, 29 percent of families, 85 percent of students. Most took the survey online.

Scroll down for results from the full survey.

Looking to Michigan

Detroit teachers unions won’t be hurt by the Janus decision. They already survived.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Unionized teachers at the Southwest Detroit Community School gathered last month to demand a new contract.

Faced with a looming Supreme Court decision that could adversely affect unions, some labor leaders from across the country are looking to Michigan for a way forward.

“We’re constantly deluged by staffers in non right-to-work states,” said David Crim, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the public teachers union. “They ask, ‘how did you stay alive?’”

Michigan’s legislature passed so-called right-to-work legislation in 2012, dealing a blow to the coffers and membership of public sector unions, including those that represent teachers.

At issue are the fees paid by all workers, including those who are not unionized, in some union workplaces. The fees cover services, such as legal representation, that are provided by the union to every worker regardless of their membership status. In right-to-work states, such such mandatory contributions are prohibited.

Now, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision in Janus v. AFSCME that would expand right-to-work to the 22 states where it doesn’t already exist.

The plaintiff in the case is Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who says he shouldn’t have to pay union fees because he disagrees with the political activities of the union that represents his workplace, AFSCME. He filed suit in 2015 to overturn a legal precedent established in 1977, in Detroit, when the Supreme Court ruled in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that these fees were constitutional.

Detroit’s teachers union, which recently negotiated for its members $30 million in bonuses and salary increases, is evidence that teachers unions won’t likely disappear even if the Supreme Court votes to expand right-to-work. But drops in union membership — MEA saw a 25 percent decline — have some observers looking to Michigan to understand the possible implications of Janus.

“We’re already in a post-Janus world,” Crim said.

Before the law went in to place, union dues could be deducted directly from teacher paychecks. That’s now illegal, so Ivy Bailey, president of the Detroit branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said she has become a dues collector in addition to her other duties.

Despite devoting a “big part” of her time to collections, she said that teachers are less likely to pay for union membership when it doesn’t happen automatically.

That’s why unions in Michigan have ramped up their efforts to recruit teachers, and why unions in states that could be impacted by Janus are preparing to do the same.

If a ruling in favor of Janus has any impact in Michigan and other right-to-work states, it will be indirect. Problems for national teachers unions could mean trouble for local affiliates, which receive some funding from their national umbrella group. In Detroit, such funding is minimal.

The National Education Association, of which MEA is a subsidiary, expects to lose about 10 percent of its members and $50 million in revenue if the Supreme Court rules in favor of Janus, according to a report published in the 74.

In this scenario, the national union “would certainly downsize, as would revenue and support that we receive from NEA,” Crim said.

Regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision, teachers unions won’t be disappearing any time soon. The Michigan Education Association remains the largest public union in the state with about 140,000 members, and has said that membership has stabilized and may even be growing.

When right-to-work passed in Michigan in 2012, legislators “felt that would destroy unions in Michigan, specifically us, Crim said. “That hasn’t happened.”