Grief, anger and action were laid bare in a virtual vigil put together by NYSUT against the racial injustice that has emboldened the world into ongoing rallies since the murder of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer.
“It broke my spirit,” said Wayne White, a high school social studies teacher, NYSUT Board member, and president of the Bellport Teachers Association.
On Monday night, educators from around New York spoke about their pain and their plans to make change a reality for their communities, for their students and for the country. The vigil featured several emotional performances by students and educators. United Federation of Teachers member Sean Banks sang the Sam Cooke classic, “A Change is Gonna Come.” In another moving performance, Sarah and Ron Gross Jr., the children of NYSUT Second Vice President Ron Gross, sang “A Bridge Over Troubled Water.”
The troubles are many.
When the Maasai greet you, they don’t say “How are you?” explained Anthony Harmon, NYSUT Board member and president of a New York branch of the NAACP. “They say ‘How are the children?’”
“Our children are hurting,” Harmon said. He called on listeners to create spaces for young people to thrive, and to pursue legislation to provide economic equality and justice.
NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, who hosted the vigil, urged listeners to vote; to stand up and be counted by completing the U.S. Census; to support police reform and to volunteer to be part of planning local actions toward racial justice along with other NYSUT members.
“Now is the time to double down on our commitment to civil engagement,” said Abraham, who oversees social justice outreach for NYSUT. “We are in desperate need of real leadership in our nation."
Abraham shared that NYSUT will be hosting a series of trainings on implicit bias, racial injustice and structural racism. These and other concrete actions that NYSUT members can take can be found at nysut.org/vigilaction.
“We are outraged by the injustices that are perpetrated in our country every day against people of color, and of the reality that our nation is, in many ways, still a work in progress,” said Andy Pallotta, NYSUT president.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the UFT, said he hopes teachers never again have to stand in front of their classes and try to explain how another person has died senselessly from racial violence, referring sadly to “the original sin that still stains the soul of our country.”
Rochester TA member Rakia Hardaway, a history teacher, urged educators across the state to learn more about this country’s past and present oppression of black and brown people.
“We tend to think it was long ago,” she said, referring to slavery, when in fact, Hardaway’s grandmother’s grandmother was a slave.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it out plain: black people are murdered for driving, jogging, sleeping.
“I ask you: Don’t be silent,” Weingarten said.
Instead, use this time to examine what is happening, to listen to podcasts, to read, said Nikita Robinson, a member of United University Professions from SUNY Binghamton. Black history needs to be discussed in class, ranging from the horrors of the Tuskegee experiment, to the gifts of the roots of music from Africa.
“It starts with our schools,” said Samantha Rosado-Ciriello, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers. She called for funding so that all students have access to technology, art, music, psychologists and social workers. In Yonkers, they do not.
At CUNY, decades of disinvestment have meant lost opportunities especially for black and brown people, said Nivedita Majumbar, secretary of the Professional Staff Congress representing City University of New York professionals and staff.
Read, educate and listen, implored many of the speakers, who also called for remedies to the scant number of black and brown teachers.
And like Chantel Jackson, a school social worker and UFT member in the Bronx, remember the names of those lost while continuing the fight for systemic change.
“The list is long and I will stand, march, protest and scream out until my brothers and sisters can just breathe.”