The first-ever NEA Representative Assembly to be held online kicked off today with messages of courage and conviction delivered directly to delegates’ homes with the same energy and emotion as if given onstage in a packed convention center before thousands of delegates.
First, there were tears after a moving video and poem dedicated to NEA President Lily Eskelsen García on her last RA, then laughter as television host and comedian Trevor Noah addressed delegates in a video thanking educators for always “doing so much with so little” and asking them to continue “being the voice for the voiceless.”
“Students are depending on you,” he said. “I urge you to keep on fighting.”
Another fighter for equity, especially for young people, is First Lady Michelle Obama, who thanked delegates for showing students the steps it takes to create a better future for themselves and their communities and empowering them to be educated on the issues important to our democracy and to visit whenweallvote.org for more tools.
And then, with the bang of her gavel, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García stood at a podium in front of a camera at NEA headquarters in Washington, D.C., and welcomed the delegates to the 99th Representative Assembly and 158th Annual Meeting of the National Education Association.
“We are now in session for the most unique ever Representative Assembly, our first Virtual RA,” she said. “Because nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a global pandemic, is going to stop the National Education Association from doing its work. And so, delegates, we will begin.”
Although no new business items were introduced at this year’s RA, the 7,289 elected delegates did debate, vote on, and pass the NEA’s proposed budget for 2021 as we head into a year of federal, state, and local shortfalls as the country reels from COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn.
Stacey Abrams: “Education is Transformative”
Each year, NEA asks a leader or well-known advocate for education to deliver the RA Invocation. This year, Eskelsen García said she “could think of no one more appropriate to lift us up and inspire us with our responsibility at this dark time and especially in celebration of the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to cast a vote than Stacey Abrams, founder of Fair Fight, an organization dedicated to protecting the sacred right to vote in our democracy.”
Abrams grew up in southern Mississippi, the daughter of working-class parents, who she said taught her and her five siblings how education is transformative.
“I learned from my mom who was the first of her family to finish high school what a teacher could do for a life,” she said. Her mom dropped out of elementary school and was afraid to go back because her family didn’t have the resources. She lived in a ramshackle part of town and just didn’t believe there was anything left for her there. But when she screwed up her courage and went back, there was a note in her file from her teacher who said, “if Carolyn Hall ever comes back here, move her on to the next grade. She’s smart enough.”
“That teacher transformed my mother’s life by breathing into her a faith that would carry her not only through elementary and middle and high school, but would make my mother the valedictorian of her high school,” Abrams said. “That teacher saw my mother’s mind as more than something that came from the wrong side of the tracks and instead saw it as a jewel to be polished.”
She also spoke about her father who struggled to read. In the 1950s in segregated Mississippi, there wasn’t language to describe what her father grappled with. It was dyslexia, a learning disability that went undiagnosed until he was in his 30s.
But his educators saw beyond his challenges with reading to the brilliance of his mind, Abrams said, and they made space for him to be a part of their community. He became the first man in his family to go to college, and 20 years later he went back to school and got his Master of Divinity degree from Emory University.
“I tell their stories because as we stand in this moment of darkness, in this moment of challenge, in this moment of crisis, it is easy to forget what educators bring,” she said. “Educators, you are more than just teachers. You are people who are doers. You embody the spirit that is America.”
That’s why Abrams said she stands with NEA and public school educators.
“With you, we can build an America that we are worthy of. We can build an America that does not require documentation for the value of a child’s life, that doesn’t score the brilliance of a mind, that doesn’t underestimate those who may learn differently, but understands that learning comes in different forms because success comes in different forms,” she said. And in the midst of triple challenges we have, a public health crisis that’s keeping too many children away from your tutelage, an economic crisis that is crippling too many of our communities, and a racism crisis that continues to challenge the question of who we want to be, it is educators who will continue to lead us forward.”
Educators Fight for Racial Justice
After Abrams’ address, Eskelsen García took a moment to speak about how the world watched in horror as George Floyd’s life was taken by a Minneapolis police officer.
“The horror turned into action and action turned into a movement, a movement that must continue in order to fight an inherently broken system,” she said. “To tear down the long legacy of racism, violence, and white supremacy in our communities is what we all must do.”
A stirring video, Justice for Black Lives, followed. It was among several videos of educators in action, from racial justice protests to their overwhelming response to COVID-19. Delegates also saw video messages from guests who thanked them and gave special thanks Eskelsen García, including U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK); Lamar Alexander (R-TN); Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC); Education International General Secretary David Edwards; American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO President Lee Saunders; Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry; and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who announced that she’d given Eskelsen García an honorary membership to AFT.
Vice President Pringle: “It’s Crunch Time”
When NEA Vice President Becky Pringle took the podium, after removing her mask and carefully disinfecting the gavel, she brought the Second Business Meeting of the 2020 Representative Assembly to order.
“Delegates, it is crunch time,” she began. “In nine short weeks, the first states, North Carolina and Delaware, start sending absentee ballots to general election voters. COVID-19 and the woefully inadequate and callous federal response has changed the way we must campaign. But know this, what’s most important remains the same: Your passion, your voices and the effort that every one of us is putting into these absolutely critical elections.”
This country is being challenged to finally reckon with its legacy of institutional racism, she said. And as we struggle with the ravages of this coronavirus pandemic that has had a disparate impact on our Black and Brown and indigenous communities, she acknowledged we have a long road ahead.
The Trump/DeVos agenda to privatize everything and continue their march toward a crippled democracy of income inequality and unfettered power is on the ballot, she said. Racial, social, economic, and education justice is on the ballot. The NEA’s mission to unite not just our members but the entire nation to fulfill the promise of public education is on the ballot, too.
“That’s why this election is about having elected and appointed officials, from the schoolhouse to the state house, to the White House, who have the will and the resolve to legislate what’s right for our students,” she said.
Then Pringle turned her attention to introducing the RA keynote by a woman with unfaltering will and resolve, Lily Eskelsen García.
Lily’s Legacy: An End to Standardized Testing, a Beginning for Racial and Education Equity
“Lily was very clear from the beginning what she wanted to accomplish – an end to the No Child Left Behind law,” Becky said. “She was relentless in beating the drum about the horrors and expense of the testing craze that had swept and hoodwinked this country. And people did listen, and they joined her crusade. She literally wrote the language for what we wanted in the law—the Every Child Succeeds Act (ESSA) — that would replace No Child Left Untested.”
But she didn’t stop there, Pringle said. Eskelsen García started talking about what else must be done for students. She talked about equity, access, and opportunity, and how NEA would move the country toward the systemic, fair treatment of people of all races that ensures equitable opportunities and outcomes for everyone.
“Lily led our team in submitting the 2015 Representative Assembly historic NBI B, committing this Association to taking on institutional racism,” Pringle said. “She did it for our students; she did it for us. And now we can devote our leadership to ensuring every student, every one, has what they need when they need it; that every community is valued for the rich tapestry of assets that will help this nation be its best. We can keep plugging away until this country lives up to its highest ideals. And we will, Lily. We will.”
The theme of the 2020 RA is ‘Our Democracy; Our Responsibility; Our Time,’ and when Eskelsen García delivered her keynote, she emphasized that it will take the collective power of NEA members and their allies to deliver victory for our students at the polls in November.
Eskelsen García reminded the delegates that educators have always made their mark on history. In recent years, their voices have been louder than ever, standing up for gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and the 800,000 DREAMERS who live, study, and work in the United States.
“In the darkest times of injustice in our country, there have been brave, ordinary people who will act. Who will literally stand together and say, “No. This isn’t right. And Yes, I’m ready to do something about it.
“You will be leaders in defining what democracy will look like in our country,” Eskelsen García continued. “And someday when you are asked what you did when democracy was in peril; when your country needed you – you will have a powerful answer: I was part of the collective voice and collective power that refused to be silent.”