Nearly 25 years ago, Robt Seda-Schreiber was dedicated to his art, living right off the shores of the Pacific Ocean, and teaching at University of California, Berkeley.
It was an idyllic life of 78-degree days and good money. But a phone call from the East Windsor secondary school he attended as a child, Melvin H. Kreps Middle School, changed everything.
He jumped both on a plane and at the opportunity to accept a position as an art teacher back east, which he has happily settled into and hasn’t looked back from even once.
That same teaching gig he embraced in 1993 yielded a more recent, but just as exciting phone call, notifying the him that the National Education Association—the professional association and labor group representing more than three million teachers and faculty throughout the country—had named him the 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year.
The annual recognition is bestowed upon an NEA member who has proved to be a leader in, defender of, and tireless voice for the issues most tangibly impacting students, teachers, schools and communities.
Seda-Schreiber, a West Windsor resident, is reluctant to call an award that both humbles and inspires him in equal measures a “culmination” of a lifetime of advocating for social justice. He says he sees it as more of a validation to keep moving forward.
This award, he says, is far from signaling that his work is done; instead, it is a confirmation that the path he has been on since before birth (his mother marched on Washington, D.C., while pregnant with him) is the one he was always meant to traverse—and always in like-minded company.
“It starts with my parents, who are incredibly intelligent, caring people,” Seda-Schreiber says. “Compassion was never a life lesson: It was how they lived their lives and led by example. My parents showed me what was right, how to care for people, how to look for the best, hope for the best and bring out the best in others.”
Seda-Schreiber has summarily spent his life immersed in opportunities to help others and gravitating to those with the same drive. His upbringing was a constellation of exercises in empathy that reinforced the need to be a voice for his marginalized peers and others who “do not have the privilege of being a straight white male.”
His wife Cyndi is a public defender in Trenton, who he says “works her beautiful ass off every day to do even more important work than I do.”
And he credits his fellow teachers and the school’s administration for being so supportive and placing such a high priority on ensuring a safe, respectful environment for all the students in their care—which, in Seda-Schreiber’s case, is a number that far exceeds those who have passed through his classroom, stage and after-school programs.
Part of what set Seda-Schreiber apart from the hundreds of nominees and seven finalists for the 2017 Social Justice Activist of the Year is his devotion to the Gay-Straight Alliance at his school, which provides a safe environment for LGBTQ students and their allies to be seen, heard and completely themselves—though it is typically a high school club.
Seda-Schreiber helped found the first-ever New Jersey middle school GSA at Kreps Middle School five years ago and has since helped bring them to other secondary schools.
“There are now multiple GSAs in middle schools in this state and across the nation, many of which I’ve helped to start,” he says. “Even before I got this award, teachers, advisors, parents and counselors from numerous schools have asked me how I did it and how they can do it.”
“I’ll go to their schools to help get them started, and I am proud to have been to so many first meetings of so many GSAs,” he adds. “Seeing kids come together is one of the best things in the world.”
Seda-Schreiber is careful about differentiating between optimism and naivety. He is heartened by how his school’s GSA burst out of the gate with rainbows, celebratory fanfare and a refusal to “ease into” its arrival on the Kreps Middle School extracurricular scene, all of which ensured its decidedly rapid but still hard-won acceptance as “just another school club.”
But he is keenly aware that growing tolerance of the LGBTQ community is not tantamount to universal acceptance. He acknowledges that there is still work to be done—and that middle school can be a monumentally difficult time for any child who feels irreconcilably unlike and apart from their peers.
“A GSA’s real objective in the end is to make itself obsolete,” Seda-Schreiber says. “Ultimately, there’s no need for a GSA when every kid walks the hallways feeling safe and sound, whatever their identity is and regardless of who they love. They’re not feeling ostracized or bullied.”
That’s still a long way away, although he has seen things in recent years that give him hope.
“The acceptance, love and understanding that people can demonstrate, the fear and hate and oppositional feelings that people can overcome—it’s inspiring,” he says. “But there are tremendous hardships and difficulties still out there, too.”
Seda-Schreiber recognizes that he is fortunate to find himself in a position where he has the opportunity to initiate real change in people’s lives.
But being an impassioned advocate for social justice is a journey fraught with resistance. Fortunately, his parents’ examples and his own experiences have taught him to meet naysayers and opposition with a proportional degree of love and respect.
Whether it’s combating the notion that being gay is all about sexuality, or explaining the justification in donating the proceeds from an original play heralding the importance of immigrants to the ACLU, Seda-Schreiber says he has to remember that the parents who question his decisions are acting in what they feel is their children’s best interest.
He says it’s a motivation that resonates with him as a parent himself, having spent the past 17 years watching out for his own son Jack, who is currently a student at High School South.
“I truly believe love is contagious,” he says. “You can’t let people who don’t believe in what you’re doing change what you do—that gives them a partial victory,” he says. “You keep doing what you do, and you stay positive and strong. We don’t fight against something, we fight for something. You don’t tell someone why they’re wrong, you show them what’s right. You lead by example.”
Respect is a key tenet of Seda-Schreiber’s approach to the people he encounters, both inside and beyond the walls of Kreps Middle School.
‘I hope they [students] seek out their own beliefs and ideals to find their voices and make a difference.’
He says he takes special care to respect his adolescent students’ intelligence, individuality and interests, refusing to compare them to each other or diminishing their understanding of the world at large just because they’re still coming into their own.
“I’m going to give them my respect, and I want to earn theirs,” he says. “I want to talk with them, not at them. I want to create a community in our class, not a dictatorship. As long as they’re doing the best they can do, that’s all I can ask of them.”
And he feels that common courtesy is a big reason why his former students flock back to his classroom, why his current ones talk openly with him, and why his online Rate My Teacher page is flooded with high praise from notoriously harsh critics.
“It means the world to me to get that kind of feedback, and I am deeply touched and honored by it,” Seda-Schreiber says. “A lot of it comes from basics, just talking to kids like they’re people and hearing what they’re saying, not what you think they’re saying or how they’re saying it.”
And he hopes they take his lessons into consideration once his time as their teacher is over.
“Not every student will leave my classroom changed for the better,” he concedes. “But I hope they leave with a sense of self, a sense of character, and an understanding of their own power and how that can change things for better or for worse—and that’s a choice they have to make in life.
“I hope I can open their horizons, make them think about things they might not have thought about before, and make them more loving. I hope they seek out their own beliefs and ideals to find their voices and make a difference.”
To Seda-Schreiber, every interaction is a give-and-take scenario. For 180 days a year, he is keenly aware that while he might be teaching his students, each one is teaching him something, too.
And while he has his ardent wishes for the impact he has on the children he sees every day, knowing that he helped them find a way to change the world is the best kind of reciprocity.
“In middle school, you don’t always see those epiphanies and the impact you had,” Seda-Schreiber says. “But I’m lucky: I have had so many kids come back to me and say ‘I’m an artist, I’m a member of this organization, I look out for these folks, I have done this thing that scared me because of your example.’ They’re becoming leaders and they’re changing the world.
“And that’s such an important part of building a safe community: It’s this wonderful microcosm of reaching out on an individual basis, then in a group, then a school, then their community, their state, their country. It’s exponential, and it’s contagious.”