NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice Kicks Off!

As NEA’s two-day Conference on Racial and Social Justice (CRSJ) kicked off in Minneapolis on Thursday, Austin educator Karen Reyes Lozano had the sounds of Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” stuck in her head.

“You know how the words go: ‘They’re talkin’ ‘bout a revolution, it sounds like a whisper,’” said Reyes. “We are beyond whispering. We are going to be shouting out about injustice!”

2018 Representative Assembly Conference on Racial and Social Justice
Conference on Racial and Social Justice attendees gather to kick off the 2018 conference in Minneapolis, MN

This year’s CRSJ takes place in the midst of unusual tumult. This spring, hundreds of thousands of red-shirted educators—from West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, North Carolina, and Arizona—walked out and rallied in state capitols across the nation, demanding more equitable funding for public education. Meanwhile, NEA members also are at the forefront in calling for humanity at the nation’s borders.

Just this week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the White House’s refugee ban, against the rights of women to access information about constitutionally guaranteed services, and against public-employee labor unions. Last week, it ruled in favor of a baker who doesn’t want to bake wedding cakes for gay couples, and in favor of states that restrict voting rights, even as those policies make it harder for people of color to vote.

“’What fresh hell will we experience today?’ If you think that each morning, then you’re like me,” said Rinku Sen, a senior strategist at Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, who spoke to conference attendees Thursday. “Each morning, through it all, you have to come up with the resilience and will to get through another day.”

But resiliency and will—and the tools to fight for racial and social justice—are in no short supply at NEA’s CRSJ. The roughly 700 attendees didn’t arrive there “by accident,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García. “You didn’t wander in here off the street. You are here intentionally. You are the heart and soul of this union.”

On Thursday, attendees attended educator-led workshops and sessions that covered everything from immigration rights to ethnic studies to the #MeToo movement. They learned how to organize for power, how to combat racism in their own schools and communities, and how to access grant money to fund their work. They shared their experiences in how to build powerful movements that lead change in their communities.

“You can win this fight in your own district, and we can push back this rising tide of hatred that we’re seeing across the country,” said Seattle Education Association leader Jesse Hagopian, who helped lead a session on ethnic studies and Black Lives Matter in schools.

Conference attendees, like Mario Pina, a middle-school English and language arts teacher from Austin, came to the CSRJ with high expectations: “I need tools that can really help me advocate for my students of color,” said Pina.

They got that, and also a large dose of inspiration. “Here we are!” said NEA Vice President Becky Pringle during the opening session. Even in the midst of racist, sexist, homophobic and biased court rulings, even as our government institutionalizes heartlessness on our borders, and even as anti-union forces think they’ve silenced our collective voice — “NEA! Here we are!” said Pringle.

“At a time when they think we are weakened, educators, women, LGBTQ activists, communities of color, and our bold beautiful students are rising up and saying ‘enough is enough’,” said Pringle. “We are priming our voice and realizing our power.

“We are not backing down. We will march. We will rally. And we will shift this paradigm until our students get what they need.”