September/October 2013 Issue
September 17, 2013

Changing the narrative - How we build on our momentum

Source: NYSUT United
Members of the Yorktown Congress of Teachers display their solidarity. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.
Caption: Members of the Yorktown Congress of Teachers display their solidarity. Photo by Maria R. Bastone.
Through long-term strategic partnerships and advocacy, NYSUT is changing the public narrative on critical issues that affect our work and our communities.

"We are building momentum in support of our issues through active engagement with the community," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi. "We are reclaiming our professions by offering common-sense solutions and forging lasting partnerships."

It's not easy to transform public conversation and it doesn't happen overnight. Working tirelessly over the course of years to connect and unite with parents and community activists, NYSUT is building broad-based solidarity on important issues. The most recent PDK/Gallup poll measuring sentiment regarding public education shows a groundswell of parent support for many of the union's positions.

Labor leaders nationwide are increasingly following NYSUT's lead to actively change the "negative image they and their unions are constantly running up against — from administrations, from parents, from elected officials, from the media," said David Mann of the Grassroots Policy Project, who works with unions and community groups. That's important, he said, because the narrative needs to change before policy changes will follow.

"When you control a narrative, it determines what is possible and not possible," he said.

Coalition building, he said, creates momentum that can alter the dominant narrative.

For example, when NYSUT and its not-for-profit locals partner with community members to advocate for safety issues affecting people with disabilities, the message is strengthened and amplified. Similarly, NYSUT's nurses are building support and density by partnering with patients and their families around the issue of safe patient handling.

And, NYSUT and its higher education locals campaigning for access and funding partner with students, whose individual stories put a human face on statistics.

Those personal stories make a big difference. After NYSUT United spotlighted NYSUT retiree Thalia Cassuto and her husband, Ike, in a story about a Medicare loophole that cost the couple thousands of dollars, U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, took up their cause in Washington.

NYSUT and other unions were out front pushing for a "living wage" for School-Related Professionals and other workers so they can earn the compensation they deserve. The union's "SRPs Make a Difference" campaign highlights, through personal stories, the critical professional services SRPs provide.

NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said these are just a few examples that illustrate "how we are reclaiming our professions and using our professional voice, in partnership with the community, to demand that policymakers 'get it right.'"

From health 'cost' to value

NYSUT's ongoing campaign to save SUNY Downstate Medical Center illustrates how partnering with community coalitions, including faith-based groups, can produce positive change. In a series of press events that brought together clergy, doctors and community activists, the coalition made the case that Downstate is a vital community resource. NYSUT and United University Professions, the statewide union's affiliate at SUNY, shared facts about the center's critical patient care to thousands of Brooklyn residents and its unique role in providing affordable medical education.

"With facts on our side, we have shifted the public narrative from focusing only on cost to a much more important story about the value of SUNY Downstate to the community and to future generations of medical professionals," said UUP President Fred Kowal. The ongoing fight to save SUNY Downstate continues full force, even after coalition efforts won a reprieve from attempts to close it earlier this year.

Partnering on social justice

NYSUT also collaborated with the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights to highlight bullying as the serious threat it is. The message was advanced through conferences, op eds, social media and an alliance with the arts community, which produced poignant films and documentaries.

The groundswell of support resonated. The NYSUT-backed Dignity for All Students Act became law in New York state in 2010, a significant development of a long-term campaign to change the narrative from "bullying as an inevitable part of childhood" to "zero tolerance" for bullying.

Kerry Kennedy, president of the RFK Center, pointed to the multi-year campaign to gain labor protections for farm workers — a campaign that with union leadership is building support.

"With NYSUT's expertise, the RFK Center was able to introduce lessons on farm workers' rights into the classrooms of New York state. Our partnership is an incredible tool for getting New York's students engaged in their local government and in a global labor issue at the same time," Kennedy said.

Sharing factual information in many forums lays the foundation for ongoing advocacy, she said, as activists gear up for the next legislative session.

Shift in testing narrative

In the face of a national obsession with standardized testing, NYSUT and its partners have moved the conversation away from an overreliance on testing as a panacea toward growing support for sane policies and greater focus on what students really need.

This was the result of a sustained, years-long strategy by NYSUT and its affiliates. Members sent thousands of letters to State Education Commissioner John King and the Board of Regents and shared concerns in online and print media. A NYSUT parent petition garnered thousands of signatures. Locals collaborated with school boards to pass testing resolutions. Neira, who oversees the union's Research and Educational Services department, worked closely with NYSUT Board members who advocated to the Regents about regional concerns. NYSUT built on its longstanding partnerships with parents to educate, inform and mobilize.

These efforts were amplified by the union's engagement in every platform of communications. Iannuzzi highlighted problems — and solutions — through mainstream and social media ( and his commentaries on testing appeared regularly on radio, TV and Internet and in print. NYSUT's pro-active messaging was strengthened by leaders and members across the state.

NYSUT's sustained campaign for the state to "get it right!" sparked massive participation for the One Voice United rally last June in Albany. The media took notice and a growing number raised questions about the state's rollout of the new standardized tests. Most notable was the July 13 New York Times editorial — "The Trouble with Testing Mania."

As the narrative changed, policies began to change. The Regents and SED reversed a problematic policy on lab requirements, postponed increasing the weight of standardized tests in teacher evaluations, and agreed to rethink initial research paper requirements.
"Changing the narrative takes time and persistence, but the voices of practitioners and parents are being heard loudly and clearly," Neira said.

Media commentator and Albany Times Union columnist Fred LeBrun credits NYSUT for helping to change the narrative on testing and on attempts to demonize teachers.

Editorial boards and the mainstream media ran with the "blame game" narrative, LeBrun said, "until the unions, NYSUT particularly, spent time teasing apart the argument in a calm way. And that was really very, very good.

"Now parents are getting it," he said.

Practitioners and parents this fall continue to fuel the momentum on testing. On Long Island, more than 2,000 educators, students, parents and community members rallied at Comsewogue High School, resulting in editorials that blasted over-testing and the state's rush to test on the Common Core Learning Standards.

Retirees and inservice members from the Yonkers Federation of Teachers are helping the local advance union messaging through letters to the editor and social media. In the Rochester area, educators and parents are demonstrating solidarity by wearing school colors.

"Moving the needle on public opinion takes time, commitment and sustained long-term strategy," Neira said. "Together with our locals, in partnership with parents and community groups, we will continue our fight in reclaiming the promise of public education."