In June of 1993 I ran for office in my statewide union, New York State United Teachers, to fill an unexpired term created by a retirement. I was elected and began my service to our members in September of that year as NYSUT's executive vice president.
In the spring of 1994, I received a letter that would forever change the way I viewed diversity in our union. It was a letter that inspired me to address the fact that our union, whether due to convenience or lack of understanding, had failed in the past when it came to encouraging and respecting diversity.
Rosa, an African American teacher who taught in Nassau County, wrote to me at the suggestion of a mutual friend, Vera, a teacher who worked in Queens. She wrote about a time that her church was planning a bus trip to a hotel in the Catskills. As an experienced traveler, she knew that her suitcase would be stored in a large room with hundreds of others waiting for her to pick it up when she was given her room key. She bought a bright red suitcase so that she could spot her luggage in the large room (in those days almost every suitcase was black or dark blue).
This visual, easy to picture, is at the heart of her story. She wrote that after returning from the convention she reflected on her experience as a first time delegate sitting in a room with more than 2,000 colleagues and wrote to me about the lack of diversity present:
"Sitting in that convention hall and looking around that large room, I realized that I WAS THE RED SUITCASE IN OUR ORGANIZATION."
I had to think about it and ask why? From that day forward, my union has worked to develop a more diverse workforce and union staff.
What happens in a southern church, what happens on the streets of our cities, what can happen tomorrow again in the community or workplace you participate in should give you a reason to become more aware and more involved in the effort to manifest true equality in our nation.
The recent actions against African Americans, gathered in prayer and gunned down in a terrorist attack by a white supremacist, as well as the wanton attacks against people of color, immigrants, homosexuals, transgenders, Muslims, Jews and other minorities compelled me to speak out.
We must take the effort to see through the eyes of those that have been shut out, attacked or ignored for no valid reason. If we can do that, we can begin to accept our obligation to open the doors and welcome all of those mentioned above, and others, into our conclaves with comfort, and to protect them from those individuals in our society that use race, religion and sexual orientation as a motive for terror.
We can begin to break down the barriers that our society has built and, hopefully, mitigate and eventually dissipate the rancor and hatred.
We can show those who live by a code of hatred that they are the ones who are different; that they are the ones destroying our society and our world; that they are the ones who should line the inside walls of our prisons.
Take a look around and decide whether or not your surroundings require more attention to the simple concept of diversity. Use it, as we did, to force your union, your workplace, your business, your corporation, to see what is and is not happening in your own circles.
Then accept your role to educate those around you until your organization or business understands your message and takes appropriate action. Speak up often in support of a diverse society. We cannot rely on those that pursue acceptance and equality full-time to be the only spokespersons demanding societal change. It is a responsibility that we all must share. We should all be seeking coalitions with other groups and individuals that can then rely on each other for support.
That's what the Civil Rights movement is all about, and don't let media fairy tales or the election of an African American president fool you into complacency; as recent events have shown, there is a lot left to accomplish.
Do it for yourself, your children and your grandchildren and for future generations. Make their world better by removing any walls of ignorance and hatred that they are being exposed to. Do not be nervous or shy about speaking out publically.
Debate and action, even if uncomfortable, is the only way to unlock the safe that guards these deep and dangerous prejudices.
We have had enough! Education and new laws can change the epidemic of hatred surrounding us. I hope you'll join us in demanding and initiating the changes necessary to make it clear that racism has no place in America.
Alan Lubin is a retired NYSUT officer. His commentary first appeared in "The Labor Press."