In keeping with our theme of Social Justice, rather than focusing on a writer or poet, we decided to choose an activist: Noah Karvelis is a third year music teacher in Tolleson, Arizona, president of the Littleton Education Association, co-founder of Arizona Educators United (AEU), and the leading voice within the RedForEd Movement, which organized the largest teachers’ march in Arizona history.
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David White: Usually, our interviews are with writers and poets, but for this go around, since our issue focuses primarily on politics and social justice, we decided to speak with you because of your efforts with the RedForEd Movement, which –for those unfamiliar with it—seeks to better fund public education in Arizona. But before spearheading this movement, you decided to go into the field of education. What led you to become a teacher?
Noah Karvelis: A desire to impact and benefit my community and work with young students.
DW: And how long have you been teaching?
NK: Two years
DW: How would you describe your own experiences of teaching in Arizona?
NK: It has been incredible. The students and the community are fantastic. Of course, it does come with many challenges.
DW: Why teach music?
NK: Music has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. I can’t imagine teaching anything else at this point. My approach to teaching music focuses on creativity. Students in our class work to create their own songs and learn various styles, mainly popular styles, of music.
DW: In your own experiences, how does arts education, with that emphasis on creativity you’re talking about, affect your students?
NK: It opens up new ways of engagement and expression. For many students, it also provides a space for them to exist in individual, authentic ways. The power of the arts and arts education is difficult to overstate.
DW: And how does teaching music speak to your passion?
NK: It’s hard to summarize. There is nothing better than creating art with young adults and kids.
DW: And then came RedForEd. What led you to becoming an activist?
NK: A desire to change our realities for the better. I became frustrated with the status quo. I managed a campaign before this and have volunteered regularly for different efforts. Nothing similar to RedForEd in scope, though.
DW: How would you define or describe the RedForEd movement to those unfamiliar with it?
NK: RedForEd is a movement to increase funding for education in Arizona. The primary goal is to restore the 1.1 billion in education funding cuts. It all started with a tweet between myself and Joe Thomas discussing what the climate among educators in Arizona was like. Ultimately, we decided to have me start a RedForEd day.
DW: you mention the climate among educators in Arizona. How would you describe the climate before and after Red For Ed? How has the climate shifted?
NK: There is a far greater sense of solidarity, particularly among educators. This has changed the entire ways in which we engage with the system, as well as our views of our own roles as individual actors within a democracy.
DW: How is the RedForEd movement related to the AEU (Arizona Educators United)?
NK: AEU oversees and organizes the movement.
DW: When did you realize that Arizona teachers were going to embrace the cause outlined by the AEU?
NK: On March 6th, the day before our first RedForEd day, I felt that something had been sparked. I certainly could not have articulated what precisely, or what it would lead to. In that moment, you are excited by the energy, but you also have to realize the next steps forward. In organizing, there is almost no time to stop and appreciate moments like these simply because the battle has just begun and you must continue moving forward. Although, it is so important to deliberately take time to realize those moments as they are happening.
DW: There are several states, such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado that have recently staged walk outs in order to call upon educational reform. How does Arizona’s Red For Ed movement differ from them?
NK: We each have specific focus points. Our primary focus point was restoring funding and it remains to be so.
DW: And how has the recent rise of social protests in America, like the Women’s March, the March for Science, the March for Our Lives, and so on, affected the Red For Ed movement?
NK: They are all examples of the ways in which people are standing up and fighting back. They are all movements to create social change, much like RedForEd. As for RedForEd, though, we’re fighting for one thing: the children of Arizona’s access to a great education. And we fight against anything that tries to prevent even a single student from having the greatest possible education that they can receive.
DW: There are a number of critics who suggest that the RedForEd movement is a communist, socialist ploy. I’ve heard ridiculous words like “commie” and “pinko” being thrown around. How do you explain such a McCarthyist reaction to a relatively basic call for educational reform in Arizona? Why the vitriol?
NK: They are challenged by the grassroots power and energy, so they launch smears and try to destroy the movement that way. Clearly, unsuccessfully.
DW: For years, teachers have been pegged, negatively, as having “the best part time job ever” and asking for too much since they have their summers off. When teachers complain of their jobs, as anyone who works does, ultimately they are shouted down with that age-old mantra: “you knew what you were getting yourself into.” How would you address such statements?
NK: It’s ridiculous. Every teacher works through the summer. And many did not in fact know that they were getting into this. 10 years ago, their salaries and careers looked much different.
DW: A number of educators I have talked to have said that they were frustrated that the only talking-point among the public and among policymakers was the 20% raise. On the other hand, many teachers work several jobs. I have three jobs total, and Shantih isn’t one of them—it’s my labor of love, for which time is scarce. How should the movement balance the need for a raise with the perception of selfishness so often portrayed by politicians? How should those demands have been balanced against the others?
NK: It is frustrating. We have continued to talk about student spending and support staff pay, but it has been largely ignored. The narrow focus of the policy makers is very telling.
DW: How would life change for Arizona students if education were fully funded?
NK: It would completely transform their lives. They would have the resources- like textbooks- that they need. They would have a chair and a desk in all of their classes. They would have smaller class sizes. They would have more experienced, certified teachers. They would exist in a totally different setting.
DW: The Red For Ed march held in late April of this year drew between 50,000 and 75,000 people. I’ve been teaching since 1998 and my father was a teacher from 1960 to 2000, so I know what education in Arizona looks like and where it’s been. Within those sixty years, I’ve never even heard of anything like this happening in Arizona. There was a teacher protest in Tucson in the ‘70s, but that pales in comparison to the events of the Red For Ed movement. By any metric we’ve made history. How does it make you feel to know that you were an integral part of such a historic movement?
NK: It’s incredibly moving. It is hard to even put into words.
DW: Certainly the sheer size of the movement dwarfs any kind of telling of it. For me, there were so many take-aways from the march and then the rallies held outside the Capitol. What memories stand out for you?
NK: If I had to pick one single memory, it would be marching down the street and realizing the amount of people present and the beautiful solidarity of everyone present. From the days that follow, I would say every single time I met with a teacher at the Capitol and heard their story. Those were the moments that were so deeply moving and have stuck with me in profound ways.
DW: The number of rallies in front of the capitol were equally impressive. I understand the movement pulled in over 150,000 people if I’m not mistaken. For many educators, the rallies were not simply a political strategy; they were a unifying force for educators across the state. What would you say Arizona educators created?
NK: We’ve created an entire movement and a powerful infrastructure to carry it forward. We now have a powerful vehicle for mobilization and bringing change to the state of Arizona.
DW: I know in my own district, educators were ready to return to work the 3rd of May, but the events of that day took a strange turn when legislators stalled on passing the budget, which meant that we extended the walk-out one more day. Can you relate to me your own experiences of that last day before the vote on the bill? Were you surprised by the behavior of state government?
NK: It is disappointing. The legislature refused to move quickly. On the Thursday, Friday, and weekend of the walkout they refused to even work. This could have been solved much earlier.
DW: One of the weirder moments for teachers were the three amendments proposed by representative Kelly Townsend who sought to silence teachers for “espousing political ideology[ies] and beliefs” and fining teachers $5,000 fines for causing school closures. Even members of her own party denounced her proposals. She’s now soliciting teachers to “inform” on other teachers—for what I’m not crystal clear. I’m not sure how to phrase this, so I’ll just ask it as I felt it: what in the heck is this about?
NK: No idea. I really honestly can’t tell what she is trying to do here. It seems like a distraction tactic.
DW: There were a number of positive amendments proposed, such as the expansion of free and reduced lunches, the redefinition of the word teacher to include all educators, such as librarians, counselors, and other support staff, a reallocation of money from incentive programs from results based funding to give raises to support staff, a mandated 250:1 student to counselor ratio (down from its current 900 students to 1 counselor), and a mandated 25:1 student ratio. None of these amendments passed. My question to this is, why are these pro-education, pro-child ideas meeting with political rejection?
NK: I cannot know for certain. It certainly shows where the priorities of our elected representatives like, however.
DW: The only amendment that passed was a yes vote for charter schools no longer being required to publicly post teacher salaries. Why was this proposed and why did it pass?
NK: Again, I do not know for certain. But- it does clearly show what is prioritized by those at the capitol.
DW: Critics have also claimed that the teacher walk outs were, at best, poor role-modeling for students and, at worst, detrimental to the educational process for Arizona students. How do you reply?
NK: What is detrimental to the educational process is not missing classes for six days but, rather, not investing in our students, not having textbooks, not having paper towels, not having teachers. That is what is detrimental to our students.
DW: Once the budget was voted upon, teachers returned to their classes. What was that experience like for you? How did your students and their parents greet returning teachers?
NK: It was incredible. It was a very emotional and moving experience.
DW: SHANTIH Journal is a literary journal, so naturally I’m going to ask literary questions: there were a number of times over the course of late April and early May in which you had the chance to showcase your speaking skills, and as an orator, you were very effective. What is your creative process as an orator?
NK: I typically think of a few main points or phrases that I would like to touch upon. Other than that, I just speak from the heart. That has proven to be what I feel is the best practice for me personally.
DW: There were so many moments of pure poetry over the course of that week. For you, was there a particularly poetic moment?
NK: The march was incredible. That would probably be the most poetic moment in my mind.
DW: As a creative writing teacher, I see my students’ creativity every day. But it’s always there, even in other classes I’ve taught over the year, that spark of creative energy. How do you see the role of creative energy in teaching?
NK: It’s in every aspect. It is necessary to any teacher and must be ever present.
DW: How do shortfalls in education spending affect the creative potential of our students?
NK: They eliminate so many opportunities. It is hard to summarize succinctly, but the lack of funding impacts so many possibilities.
DW: Do you feel that educators’ efforts ultimately won the day?
NK: Certainly. We moved the legislature from 65 million to 406 million invested in education and our movement is stronger than ever and continuing to move forward.
DW: What were you most proud of with regard to what you were able to accomplish?
NK: The way that educators were empowered and stood up. That is the most moving accomplishment of this experience. So many educators have now been empowered.
DW: Where does the movement go from here?
NK: Up to now, we were placing our focus on the ballot initiative—Prop 207, InvestInEd.
DW: But, recently, the Arizona Supreme Court decided to simply throw out Prop 207, which was expected to bring in an additional $960 million for Arizona public and charter schools. This was definitely a punch in the gut to the movement. What are your thoughts?
NK: The Supreme Court decision to pull Proposition 207 from the ballot is absolutely baffling. Over 270,000 signatures were just thrown out by the court. Doing so denies citizens and teachers what they fought so hard for – the opportunity to fun our students and schools. In response, we have no option but to continue to act and fight for our students. In my eyes, this is just yet another example of the corruption present in the state and the need for continued activism from educators and education activists. This is not the end of our fight by any means, and we refuse to accept this corruption and will fight tirelessly for the funding that our students deserve.
We still have momentum and we will continue to take action. It’s simple—as long as we need to advocate for public education, students, educators, and communities, we will. What that action will look like, I can’t say because I honestly don’t know. Right now, we’re mobilizing around the elections and several protest events. We have to change some seats in the Legislature. We need to put people who support education into office. We have a strong focus on that work and will also be continually mobilizing whenever we see fit in order to continue to bring changes to Arizona’s education system.
DW: Thank you again for taking the time to speak with us. One final question: Shantih is a Sanskrit word which can roughly be translated into English as “peace”. How would you define “peace”?
NK: Peace is living in perfect harmony with the world around you. The ultimate goal.