NEA Racial and Social Justice Conference: It’s about ACTION

In the face of racism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and legislation, Islamophobia, trans-phobia, and a host of other phobias and –isms that affect millions of U.S. students and educators, NEA educators committed to racial and social justice are meeting in Boston this week during NEA’s annual Conference on Racial and Social Justice.

“Every year at this conference, I’ve seen you choose to be in the room…You want to be the best human beings you can be. I’m telling you now—it’s not enough,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García Wednesday morning. “It’s not about you being a better person, it’s not about me being a better person…This conference is bigger than any one of us: This conference is about taking on institutional racism, homophobia, and discrimination in all its forms.”

About 700 NEA educators accepted that mission, sharing their challenges and their effective strategies on Wednesday during an energetic series of collaborative workshops, trainings, and other exercises and activities at the Boston Exhibition and Convention Center.

From Austin, Texas, where a series of raids by federal immigration agents have paralyzed students and families in fear, Education Austin Vice President Monserrat Garibay shared her union’s template for “Know Your Rights” community workshops that have helped undocumented parents prepare for possible deportation.

“Parents are like, ‘we don’t want our children to end up in foster care,’ and we’re telling them, ‘okay, here is what you have to do, this is an emergency plan, this is how to fill out a power-of-attorney letter to designate caregivers for your children,” she said.

From San Francisco, where her Muslim students face rising levels of anti-Islam hatred, high school teacher Fakhra Shah described how, with her support, her students have embraced the work of educating and advocating for each other—and their communities. “Activism is not just one lesson, it’s about how you approach your students,” Shah said.

The Racial and Social Justice conference, previously known as NEA’s Joint Conference on the Concerns of Minorities and Women, was renamed and reconceived this year to reflect NEA’s longtime orientation to racial and social justice and the commitment made by the NEA Representative Assembly in 2015 to eradicating institutional racism. From stamping buttons to writing strategies, from mapping power to making poetry, educators at the new Racial and Social Justice conference are actually taking action.

From Durham, North Carolina, Durham Association of Educators President Bryan Proffitt described the social justice unionism that his members have embraced—from marching with Black Lives Matters protesters to demanding the expansion of Medicare to protesting the kidnapping of a Durham student by immigration agents. “We stopped the deportation, brought him home, and he graduated a few weeks ago,” Proffitt said, to applause.

Their approach: Embrace common sense. “It’s about what’s good for us, and what’s good for kids,” he said.

Other issues tackled by conference-goers include the creation of safe spaces for LGBTQ students, the need for more diverse curriculum, and ways to identify and stop the disproportionate school punishments and consequences suffered by girls of color, in particular.

“You’re here knowing we have to do something. You’re here knowing something is wrong and needs to be righted,” Eskelsen García said.

“Go. Fight. Win!”