July 16, 2014

LAP 2014: Poverty expert Edelman says unionists must be 'agents of change'

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
peter edelman
Caption: Peter Edelman addresses NYSUT members participating in the union's Local Action Project conference, where activists from 20 local unions are spending an intensive week learning how to increase member participation and build community support. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.
A great educator can have an enormous impact on a student who comes from a struggling family, says Peter Edelman, but with poverty - "you have one hand tied behind your back."

Yes, education is a way out of poverty - but poverty is also a roadblock to education.

"You're on the front lines every day, seeing how poverty damages your students' chance for success," said national poverty expert Peter Edelman, urging unionists to do everything they can to be "agents of change."

A great educator can have an enormous impact on a student who comes from a struggling family, Edelman said, but with poverty - "you have one hand tied behind your back."

Edelman was the opening keynote speaker at NYSUT's Local Action Project conference, where activists from 20 local unions are spending an intensive week in Saratoga Springs learning how to increase member participation and build community support.

Edelman, a professor at Georgetown University who traveled the state and the nation with President Robert F. Kennedy, said the disparity between the rich and the poor is widening, especially with the tidal wave of low-wage jobs.

"Low-wage work is at the heart of today's poverty," Edelman said. "Well over one-third of the population (is) just a paycheck away from poverty."

With such a divide, "it's no wonder people are angry, no wonder we're seeing anger in politics," Edelman said. "All the growth is going to the people at the top … Poverty is becoming a moral issue, not just an economic concern."

so rich so poor peter edelmanEdelman, author of So Rich, So Poor: Why It's So Hard to End Poverty in America, suggested a wide range of common-sense ways to address the growing inequities: investing in pre-kindergarten; lowering the cost of a college education; and raising the minimum wage. His "pie-in-the-sky" idea is to create publicly financed jobs for work that needs to be done, such as renovating dilapidated infrastructure, providing quality child care and building affordable housing.

"Of course the best way to get out of poverty is through education," Edelman said. "We have to do better at preparing young people for careers in health care and technology - expanding the pathways for low-income youth." He cited community colleges, career academics and programs like BOCES as promising routes to good-paying jobs.

"We're not solving the problems. We're treating symptoms," said East Syracuse Minoa United Teachers' John Nichols, when participants were asked what they took away from Edelman's address. "The real way to solve this problem is to get people out to vote."

After his keynote, Edelman met with members of four LAP locals who work with a student body that is at least 50 percent eligible for free and reduced lunch programs: Malone, Mexico, Pine Valley and Plattsburgh.

Edelman was heartened by what he heard in the roundtable discussion, as members of the predominantly rural areas talked about ongoing and future projects to improve literacy, involve parents and break the cycle of generational poverty.

Malone members explained how a community meal project this past year grew from about 60 people to more than 600 by the end of the year.

"It has brought together our membership and built bridges with the entire community," said Malone Federation of Teachers' Brianne Iby. "We're building trust."

"It's a long process, and you're certainly taking on work that is different from the traditional role of teachers," Edelman said. "You're breaking ground."

Social justice is an important part of the union's mission and one of many initiatives LAP locals may embrace to broaden their work in local communities, said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Martin Messner. He opened the conference by explaining how he went through the program himself as a leader of the Schoharie Teachers Association.

"This will give you the skills to teach your members how important the union is to their daily lives and their students," Messner said. "LAP changed everything for us."