Teacher Rebecca Garrard, president of the Webutuck Teachers Association, was arrested four times during the six weeks of the recent nonviolent, 40-state Poor People’s Campaign.
Garrard said she joined others in disrupting business as usual at the Capitol, on a silent march, and at a high-end club in Albany where decisions are made based on donors’ dollars because “people are benefitting from the marginalization of the masses. I felt the need to do something more.”
A member of NYSUT’s Civil and Human Rights Committee, Garrard spoke to teens at the annual Capital Region Institute for Human Rights symposium. It kicked off Monday at NYSUT headquarters with 75 students committed to spending the next three days learning about human rights from activists, artists, leaders of non-profits, humanitarians and teachers from around the state.
NYSUT, a house of labor, is a fitting place for sessions on youth activism, women’s rights, civil rights, global outreach, policy, teamwork and environmental action. Unions were created after marches and strikes against unsafe working conditions, child labor and grueling hours. Marches have been on the rise again in the face of attacks on unions, women’s rights, racism, harm to immigrants and their young children, and poverty.
Saskia Dolan, a history teacher and member of the North Colonie Teachers Association; Garrard, speech and language therapist, Webutuck Teachers Association; and Jim Rodewald, a science teacher and member of the North Colonie TA worked with students in rotation today on environmental issues, news literacy, civil disobedience, women’s rights and the March for Our Lives. They were joined by Institute directors teacher Thea MacFawn and librarian Kelly Wetherbee, both of the North Colonie TA.
“More people are living in poverty today than 50 years ago, by every metric,” said Joseph Paparone, a lead organizer for the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition and one of the leaders in the Poor People’s Campaign in the Capital Region. Paparone told students how it is named after Martin Luther King’s failed campaign 50 years ago, which was stymied after his assassination.
Poverty now is worse than when King started the campaign and the narrative says, “If you’re stuck in poverty, you’ve done something wrong.’” Paparone said. “But it’s systematic.”
“The system creates all of these problems. They don’t exist in isolation,” said Garrard. She told students she has been “marching, marching, marching” for a long time for many different causes, particularly in support of her two adopted children, black and biracial. She stands up for immigrants and had provided housing with her family for an immigrant who is now being jailed. Garrard also told students she is bisexual.
“I try to be a face for my students in a world which marginalizes LGBTQ,” she said.
The loss of voting rights due to limited hours at some polls, access with identification and other changes is another cause for concern.
“There are fewer voting rights now with rollbacks,” Paparone said.
He engaged students in discussions about the pros and cons of nonviolent, disruptive action, along with other forms of action that can be taken to evoke change.
“Where does our power really lie?” Paparone asked students.
At the symposium, students will work in teams and consider ways to make change, join existing non-profit organizations, start a school or community project and learn about collective action.
The Poor People’s Campaign takes on racism, poverty, militarism and ecological destruction.
“We have undeclared wars in seven or eight countries,” Paparone told students. The cost comes in lost lives, shattered families and communities, and the financial burden of staging wars. Poor people are far more likely to serve than rich people, he said.