Awakin Calls » Laura Emiko Soltis

Laura Emiko Soltis: Human rights leader, educator, social movement builder

Jan 2, 2021: Liberatory Education for the Undocumented

Watch: Video Recording

Read: Summary By David Bonbright  

“We believe that radical, democratic change in education occurs through grassroots mobilization of teachers and students and the empowerment of those most directly impacted by injustice. … [C]onsciousness development is key to our liberatory education model.” – Freedom University Theory of Change

Dr. Laura Emiko Soltis is Executive Director of Freedom University, an award-winning, modern-day freedom school for undocumented students who are banned from equal access to public higher education in Georgia. With the aim of “ending modern segregation in higher education” – and of a future where undocumented and documented students can learn in the same classrooms – Freedom University provides tuition-free college preparation classes, college and scholarship application assistance for students seeking higher education opportunities in private universities or outside Georgia, and social movement leadership development for undocumented students.

A human rights educator originally from a rural Minnesota town of 1100 people, Emiko was raised in a blue-collar, biracial household as the child of a Japanese immigrant mother and a Vietnam war-vet father who was a second-generation Czech immigrant. She developed passions for working-class politics, immigrant rights, and classical music in equal measure. Emiko's work experience in low-wage industries alongside diverse immigrants in restaurant work, janitorial services, and farm labor inspired her to study interracial labor movements and international human rights.

A proud public school kid, Emiko was honored to receive the Foundation Fellowship scholarship at the University of Georgia, where she graduated summa cum laude in 2006. She went on to receive her Ph.D. from Emory University in 2012, where she wrote her dissertation on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ movement for farmworker justice in South Florida.

She joined Freedom University as a volunteer faculty member in 2013. Following the departure of the founding faculty and the closure of Freedom University in June 2014, Emiko re-established Freedom University in Atlanta in September 2014, introducing a human rights framework to its mission and pedagogy, and connecting undocumented youth to Black student movement veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Atlanta Student Movement. She also founded Freedom University’s social movement leadership training program and expanded the curriculum to include a creative arts program, STEM classes, and mental health workshops in a year-long academic program.

As an experienced social movement strategist, Emiko works to advance the undocumented student movement by building bridges between undocumented and documented student groups, and advocating for fair admissions policies in higher education across the U.S. Emiko co-founded the Freedom at Emory Initiative, which led to Emory’s decision in 2015 to admit and offer and offer financial support to undocumented students. Through strategic direct actions of nonviolent civil disobedience, policy and legal campaigns, and local, national, and international partnerships, she and Freedom University seek to change college admissions policies and transform the public debate on immigrant justice and undocumented student access to higher education.

As an active Professor of Human Rights and public scholar, she writes and lectures frequently on topics like human rights advocacy, immigration and higher education, and workers’ rights and economic justice.  She’s the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Telemundo Heroe Luchadora Award, an Ashoka Fellowship, and the Ford Foundation’s Public Voices Fellowship. 

Her artistic side finds expression as an accomplished photographer, violinist, and vocalist who has performed in Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus.  She's a polyglot who speaks a "messy combination" of English, Spanish, Japanese, and French, and enjoys dancing bachata, practicing kung fu, and "loving on her three rescue dogs."  

Join David Bonbright and Rahul Brown in conversation with this impassioned educator, artist, and champion of human rights.

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