From the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, to the recent shootings in Baltimore and Charleston, racially charged events were the focus of approximately 1,000 attendees of the NEA 2015 Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women. In brutally frank discussions, audience members broke into small groups and shared their experiences and concerns about the state of race and racial inequality in our nation’s schools and communities.
“This is the most important and painful thing we could be talking about,” said Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association (NEA), in her welcoming remarks. “It is the original sin of our country and it has not been dealt with.”
While acknowledging the civil rights gains of the 20th century, a panel of four scholars and moderator Dr. Kevin Kumashiro urged attendees to “connect the dots” between, for example, shootings by law enforcement officials and stereotypes of Black males, the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage and homophobia, and the public display of the Confederate flag and slavery.
“How do we tie what’s happening in our streets to what is happening in our classrooms,” asked panelist Bettina Love, professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia. “Our job as educators is to explore and imagine how things could be different. I see our nation’s young people bringing us hope.”
Erica Meiners, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, said educators must discover ways to continue their daily work while helping to build good communities.
“How do we re-frame the story of violence,” she asked. “Our work is to imagine building something different.”
It starts with acknowledging our feelings about race, said Isabel Nuñez, a professor of teacher education at the University of San Francisco.
“The feelings we’re proud of and the ones we’re not,” she said.
DePaul University law Professor Sumi Cho said racial denial and separation is manifested, for example, by the gap between wealthy and poor schools, school vouchers, and charter schools.
“We are mired in racial denial,” she said.
As part of the interactive discussion, Kumashiro asked participants to answer questions and discuss responses at their respective tables. Some of the topics and questions were also addressed by panelists. For example, one question posed was: “What are the stories and rhetoric you are hearing about race and racism and what are those you are not?”
“We want to compare the most visible from the hidden ones,” he said.
While racism in general is being visibly discussed, the panelists said, a topic area such as “white supremacy” was more hidden.
“What is white supremacy doing to create racism,” asked Love. “What are the grassroots things we can do every day to deny white supremacy and racism, because racism is going nowhere. But resistance is a part of our struggle every day.”
Meiners chimed in: “How do we work with people who hate us? There’s no one right pathway to make this work. There are multiple entry points to dismantle these systems.”
Teachers are on the front lines of creating a new logic to confront institutional systems of racism, said Cho.
“Our survival as teachers is linked to the survival of those students most oppressed and disadvantaged,” she said. “We have to be open to approaching that uncomfortable place we are now talking about (racism).”
Thinking differently about race is key, said Nuñez.
Earlier, NEA Vice President Becky Pringle had introduced Eskelsen García and the panelists. She returned to make closing remarks that brought the audience to its feet. After sharing feelings of concern for her son, “who could be accused of driving while Black” and pay the consequences, Pringle said she was “done worrying.”
“Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed,” she said. “You must own your individual responsibility, stand up for what is right, and be willing to behave badly for righteous reasons.”
While honoring heroes of the past, Pringle said it is “our time” to confront racial injustice.
“It is our turn to fight for what is right,” she said. “Our work is fundamental to this nation. And we accept the profound trust that has been placed in us. We can’t feel tired. Our babies and our children are depending on us. We won’t get weary.”
Amid thunderous applause and a standing ovation, Pringle urged members to “go forth and cause some good trouble.”
On this, the final day of the conference, Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams gave the luncheon keynote address. Abrams is the House Minority Leader for the Georgia Assembly.
“I credit education with saving my life,” she said. “Education also saved my family,”
Abrams explained that both her parents came “from the wrong side of the tracks” yet were able to attain bachelor’s degrees. Her five siblings also completed their university studies.
Abrams thanked the audience of educators for helping her family as well for building the nation’s economy.
“You are the job creators,” she said. “You are the ones who see their (students’) promise and potential.”
Holding herself and other legislators accountable, Abrams implored audience members to “speak up, stand up and show up” at school board meetings, statehouses and Capitol Hill on behalf of themselves and their students.
“You have to educate (legislators) and stand up to us,” she said. “You also have to tell us what we’re doing right.”