The statewide union’s social justice priorities took center stage during a Thursday morning presentation at NYSUT’s Local Action Project. NYSUT Second Vice President Paul Pecorale introduced the session, terming social justice “an area where you can make real connections with your members” since the issues often have an impact in the local community.
“I encourage you to incorporate social justice activities into your LAP work,” Pecorale said.
Jolene DiBrango, NYSUT executive vice president and chair of the NYSUT Women’s Committee, discussed the group’s year-one goals and agenda for the months ahead as it prepares for its second committee meeting in November. “We hosted a committee booth at the 2018 NYSUT RA and highlighted the stories of inspiring NYSUT women using our “HERstory” article template,” said DiBrango.
A mentoring toolkit for younger members and sexual harassment resources for women and men are also in the works, she said.
“We plan to add up to four more priorities for year two,” said DiBrango. “One will be a resolution workshop to help us develop future RA resolutions focused on women’s issues.”
DiBrango also detailed NYSUT efforts to combat the growing teacher shortage, particularly with regard to teachers of color. “All students benefit from having culturally diverse teachers,” said DiBrango, who noted NYSUT has forged connections among higher education and K-12 members to work toward solutions to the issue.
Current state assessments exacerbate the problem by labeling students as failures as early as 8 years old due to flawed benchmarks. “If you’re a student of color who is continually labeled a failure, why would you ever consider a career in education,” she asked. “Why would you want to return to a place that continually tells you you’re not good enough?”
DiBrango detailed NYSUT’s advocacy on behalf of assessment reform, including reaching out to State Education Department officials and the Regents, convening three student committees to discuss the importance of educator diversity in the classroom and creating local “grow-your-own” programs to nurture students and school-related professionals interested in the teaching field.
After airing a video about the well-heeled, conservative billionaires behind the Janus decision — ranging from the Koch brothers to the Heritage Foundation — Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, declared: “We stand between those billionaires and the working people.”
“Some say that unions should focus only on our bread-and-butter issues, but there is a bigger world out there,” he continued. “We must also do the work that unions have always done — fight for those who are less powerful.”
For the NYSUT Civil and Human Rights Committee, which Abraham chairs, those issues include combatting poverty; fighting for equality, racial justice and LBGTQ rights; defending the union movement; speaking out against unfair immigration policies; and raising awareness about important environmental issues, such as the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Abraham noted that the current national climate stacks the deck in favor of the powerful, whose aim is to increase their wealth at the expense of those who can’t fight back. “But just like we did with the constitutional convention (in November), we will fight back,” he said. “Because when we do, we win.”
A centerpiece of that work is forging coalitions with like-minded groups, including the Poor People’s Campaign and the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition. Rebecca Garrard, president of the Webutuck Teachers Association and a member of the NYSUT Civil and Human Rights Committee, discussed her experiences as a protester with the Poor People’s Campaign during the group’s six weeks of nationwide activism that began in late May.
“I was arrested four times for civil disobedience in six weeks,” Garrard said, explaining that the work is important because, without it, she sees no path to upward and social mobility for many of her students. “It’s the beginning of the fight to ensure that everyone has the right to live.”
Abraham also discussed his committee’s work on behalf of hurricane recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, noting that NYSUT has raised $140,000 in relief support through the union’s Disaster Relief Fund.
Abraham was part of an AFT delegation that traveled to Puerto Rico to visit local schools, speak with teachers about the challenges they still face and help assemble care closets filled with basic hygiene products. Other committee members staged local fundraisers, ranging from penny drops to community-wide happy hours.
Abraham encouraged members to start a social justice committee in their locals. “Start small and set achievable goals — such as providing mentoring for students of color,” he said. “You just need a coalition of the willing.”
NYSUT’s LAP is a three-year program that teaches union members proven strategies to increase member participation and build community support.