Last week’s historic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage resonated throughout the first day of the National Education Association’s 2015 Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women.
As approximately 1,000 educators entered a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in Orlando, Florida, early Monday morning, they were greeted by mile-high words projected over the dais: VICTORY!! Marriage Equality. At several of the conference’s 20 workshops, makeshift drawings and posters were decorated in the signature rainbow colors of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
“It’s important that we build on this victory,” said Dr. Kevin Kumashiro, who gave the luncheon keynote speech. A professor and dean at the University of San Francisco, Kumashiro is the author or editor of ten books, including several policy reports he worked on during his tenure in the mid-2000s with NEA.
In his speech, Kumashiro alluded to the conference theme, “Organize, Educate, Lead: Empowering Our Diversity Through Action,” by stressing the need for public educators to work in solidarity with people from all walks of life.
“We must be champions of those who are most on the margin,” he said, alluding to poor, disabled, immigrant, LGBT and other students. “We need a stronger movement in education to advocate more for those on the margin.”
Kumashiro said it was often dysfunctional institutional systems and not individuals that are most to blame for society’s ills, such as a biased criminal justice system, unfair school funding practices, prejudicial law enforcement officers, and the war on drugs. “The war on drugs is less about drugs and more about criminalizing certain individuals,” he said. “It’s one way our system is failing students.”
The link between racism and men of color who are incarcerated in disproportionally high numbers, and the connection between poverty and the ever-expanding student achievement gap among students are examples of cruel and unjust system failures, he said.
“Connect the dots between the different systems in our country,” Kumashiro said. “It’s as if these problems are all about the individual.”
During her keynote speech at the opening plenary session, Marisa Franco, a community organizer with the #Not1 More Deportation Campaign, said historic attacks on workers, women, and educators through state-sanctioned bias — via budget cuts and the court system — can only be defeated by organizing and advocating.
“Our movement needs you,” said Franco, who is based in Phoenix. “You are powerful and it is our duty to fight for our freedoms.”
Franco started her talk by getting the audience to repeat several times the chant: “Education Not Deportation!”
Franco said community activists must commit to taking action immediately and over the long haul by “behaving badly for a righteous purpose.”
“How do we become long distance runners,” she asked. “How do we sustain ourselves?”
After mentioning that oppressors depend on educators “being too weary from doing their jobs” to get politically active, she asked audience members if the oppressors were correct. A loud, collective “no” was their response. “It is our duty to fight for a righteous purpose,” she said. “That’s what sustains us.” Her interaction with the audience continued when she got them to do the “unity clap,” which starts slow and builds to a rapid-fire crescendo. “That’s what happens when we unite,” she added.
In the evening, a screening of the documentary, “Inocente,” was held. The film delves into the life of a 15-year-old undocumented, homeless student who is a burgeoning painter. About 300 attended the screening, which included a short presentation by the subject of the documentary: Inocente Izucar, now age 21.
“It was a long day for the delegates, yet 300 people showed up,” said David Sheridan, a writer/editor with NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department. “They not only watched the film, but they were engaged.”
Inocente spoke about how homeless students are “invisible” and that educators could likely have two or three in their classroom and not know it.
“She struck a chord,” says Sheridan. “She stayed for 45 minutes after the screening and spoke with people.”
The two-day conference concludes today with an interactive discussion: Rising to the Challenge of Racial Inequality in our Schools, Communities, and Nation. Georgia State Assembly Rep. Stacey Abrams is the luncheon keynote speaker.