At the 2016 Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women Thursday in Washington, while Donald Trump waxes belligerent on the campaign trail about deporting immigrants, banning Muslims from entering the U.S., and building a wall along the Mexican border, the daughter of Mexican immigrant farm workers, María Elena Durazo, made a pledge in her keynote address: “I will not let Donald Trump become president of the United States of America!”
The 1,000-plus educators affiliated with the National Education Association (NEA) jumped to their feet in thunderous applause and shouts of support.
“Disobey Trump,” she urged attendees gathered at the Washington Hilton Hotel for the two-day conference. “What happens to Muslims happens to America.”
Durazo is a longtime union organizer and former president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), which represents employees located at hotels nationwide, including many owned by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
“Immigrants came to America for their children,” said Durazo, currently the international union vice president for civil rights, diversity and immigration with UNITE HERE. “They came so you could teach them.”
This year’s conference theme is Unite. Inspire. Lead: Harnessing the Power of Our Diversity. Workshops organized by NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Department (HCR) cover institutional racism, attacks on LGBT students, transgender student rights, demographic shifts affecting school and community cultures across the country, and other topics.
On exhibit near the registration area is “chalk board art,” an intricate on-going work comprised of three tall separate blackboards. Attendees are asked to use multi-colored chalk markers to fill in the blank spots, simulated as a flowing river with multiple bends and breaks. Several social justice themes are listed on each board to serve as inspirational guideposts for would-be storytellers, artists, and philosophers.
“It’s a space to be reflective,” says Tamara Wilkerson, who designed the exhibit. “We want educators to think about their work with students and each other in a different way.”
The exhibit is part HCR’s launch of NEA Edjustice.org, which also encourages visitors to share their stories about social justice activism. During his presentation, NEA Executive Director John Stocks urged attendees to sign up for the site.
“It’s vitally important that you share your stories with us,” Stocks said. “Whether it is a personal story or story advocating for others. Talk to us!”
In addition to Durazo, attendees heard from the young and gifted social activist Dahkota Franklin Kicking Bear Brown, 17.
He punctuated his luncheon presentation with dozens of historical and personal slides and a keen wit as he urged conferees to inspire their students to create social change from the bottom up.
“When you get back home, encourage your students to speak up and speak out, and set goals,” said Brown, an American Indian who describes himself as a “proud Miwok.” The recent high school graduate is set to start Stanford University in the fall.
Already, Brown has left an indelible mark in California public policy. In 2015, Brown, along with a state legislator, the California Teachers Association and National Congress of American Indians, was instrumental in passing the California Racial Mascots Act that banned the use of the term “Redskins” as a sports team name, logo, or mascot in California public schools.
“My ancestors did not fight and die to be mocked,” said Brown, who has met with President Barack Obama several times while serving on the Center for Native American Youth’s Executive Advisory Board, and National Congress of American Indians Youth Cabinet. Brown has been growing into his role as a community organizer and activist since grade school.
In eighth grade, Brown said he learned that a cousin was failing in school. After helping him regain his academic footing, Brown was inspired to help other American Indian youth by establishing an organization to provide peer-to-peer mentoring and tutoring. After four years, Native Education Raising Dedicated Students (NERDS) now has a dozen chapters serving hundreds of students.
“I’ve been educating others that we are still alive,” he said in reference to racial discrimination and inequality. “There is still a lot of work to be done in this country.”
At the conference, the 2016 Social Justice Activist of the Year Award was presented to the California-based Union City Educators, which were represented by Ivan Viray Santos, Joe Ku’e Angeles, and Tina Bobadilla. Inspired by Filipino culture and traditions, the group was acknowledged for their community activism, particularly involving a decade-long struggle to rename a middle school after two Filipino farm labor union leaders, Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the merger of the National Education Association (NEA) and American Teacher’s Association (ATA). A Merger Exhibit is on display near the conference registration area featuring a 30-minute documentary on the struggle for civil rights, a model of a one-room schoolhouse, and eight photographic exhibit panels.
The joint conference is part of NEA’s 154th Annual Meeting and 95th Representative Assembly (RA) taking place through July 7 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington. More than 7,500 educators from every state will address issues facing schools, students and the teaching profession. The RA is the top decision-making body for the nearly 3 million NEA members.