Scores of NYSUT members took part in the union’s first ever Social Justice Academy in late July. The two-part program educates members about social justice issues and teaches them how to raise awareness and advocate for change in their communities. The goal is for participants to form either a local social justice or a civil and human rights committee and leave with a concrete plan to increase awareness and activism within their community.
“The locals participating this year were hand-picked, but we plan to have an application process to select 10 locals to continue the program next year,” explained J. Philippe Abraham, NYSUT secretary-treasurer, whose office coordinates social justice initiatives. Piloting the program are the Brentwood Teachers Association, Syracuse TA, Tri Valley TA, Solvay TA and the United Federation of Teachers. “The locals’ growth from March to now is incredible, they’re on fire, really energized and engaged in the work.”
Abraham noted that the pilot locals run the gamut from urban to rural and stretch across the state. “It’s amazing to see them gel and learn about their different colleagues and communities.”
The academy started in March with a weekend-long session to introduce the program and set goals and a budget. During the four-day July intensive iteration, members fine-tuned their plans, developed implementation strategies and learned about different aspects of social justice work, including community engagement, recruitment and team building, racial justice, and the intersection between poverty, LGBTQ and gender issues.
Noting the need for better support for diverse students and their families in small, rural, majority-white districts like his, Tri Valley TA president Matt Haynes, a NYSUT Board member, shared a classroom experience he’d had. After instructing his class to start an assignment, he noticed one new student wasn’t working. “I told her to get to work but she still didn’t begin,” he said. “I didn’t realize that she only spoke Spanish.”
Throughout the session, locals worked with a mentor who had received NYSUT Implicit Bias program training and is part of the NYSUT Civil and Human Rights Committee Steering Committee. “The trainers created the curriculum and agenda, and our job is to provide support and resources for the groups,” said NYSUT Board member Dora Leland, Horseheads TA. She mentored the Syracuse TA. “In 2021, members identified social justice as a top priority for the union; NYSUT listened to the concerns of members and provided this space for them to work on these issues.”
“They’ve put in so much work, really lived and breathed this over the past month,” said NYSUT Board member Melissa Tierney, Wallkill TA, who mentored the Tri Valley TA.
Malcolm Gilbert, Massapequa Federation of Teachers, a “floater mentor,” noted the work of the Brentwood TA which, inspired by the March session, participated in the Long Island Pride March in June. “They raised money for the student Gay Straight Alliance by selling T-shirts, marched as a group and got news coverage that identified them as union members.”
Dante Morelli, Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College; Preya Krishna-Kennedy, Bethlehem Central TA; Sandie Carner-Shafran, RC 10; Sonja Hill, UFT; Jacqualine Berger, UUP-retiree; and Karen Arthmann, Rush-Henrietta Employees Association also served as mentors.
Each local presented their future plans on the final day of the July session culminating in a graduation ceremony. Plans include a UFT Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Community Service, a Solvay TA initiative to provide wearables for educators that feature inclusive messages such as “All in for All Students,” and the Syracuse TA’s plan to partner with a local organization that feeds nearly 500 residents every Saturday and another that provides a range of services for seniors and children.
“I can’t thank you enough for committing to be here for a week,” said Abraham. “Let us know how and what you’re doing and remember that NYSUT’s Social Justice Department and team are here to assist you.”
The Social Justice Academy was part of a week-plus-long series of social justice programming held in mid-July and developed by Abraham and the statewide union’s Social Justice Department. Also held was NYSUT’s Sticks and Stones 2.0 Continuing the Conversation workshop, which explores how to actively address microaggressions and stereotypes, and a session of the union’s first-ever Safe Zone Training. Presented jointly by the union’s Civil and Human Rights and LGBTQ committees, Safe Zone Trainings teach about LGBTQ+ identities, gender and sexuality, and examine prejudice, assumptions and privilege.
For information about the NYSUT Social Justice Academy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the statewide union’s social justice work, visit nysut.org/ManyThreads.