NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia: Keynote Address – 94th NEA Representative Assembly

Orange County Convention Center – Orlando, Florida
Friday, July 3, 2015


Twenty-eight years ago, I was sitting right here as a first-time delegate when I was 12. I had on my official Utah T-shirt with our state motto, “Stack ’em deep, teach ’em cheap.” I had been elected AR of Orchard Elementary that year because I went to the bathroom during the faculty meeting. That was how we got our AR, then when you came back, you’ve been unanimously elected. We had an AR system based on weak bladders. And I had my local president, Alan Rasmussen at Orchard Elementary, second grade teacher, and he said, you know, we’ve got some at-large seats for our local. You should run for something. You have so many opinions about things.

And so I ran. And I lost. And they put me on this list because then you could be an alternate. I was the alternate, alternate, alternate. And two people, like, I think got the flu, or somebody’s mother-in-law died, and I got to go. It was my second plane ride in my life. And they handed me this packet of like 3 million pieces of paper as I was getting on the plane: resolutions, policy statements, new business items. I read every single word. That was the last time I read every single word. Don’t tell anybody.

But I walked into this room, and it took my breath away. Do you remember the first time you walked into this room? Do you remember? And you thought, how in the world are they going to do this? We’ll probably just listen to speeches. And then I found out, oh, my gosh, they’re debating things. We’re going to decide things, and here I was this little sixth grade teacher from Utah, and I was really powerful in my classroom. I could make those kids stand on their heads. But I sometimes felt really powerless when I left that room.

All of a sudden I walked into this room and I said, “I’m a part of something big. I’m a part of something that is powerful enough that they might do something good for my kids back in Utah.” My 39 kids in my classroom. Mary Hatwood Futrell was up here–Mary Hatwood Futrell, the voice of the goddess. I mean, we worshipped her. She would call somebody out of order and they’d just go, “Yes, ma’am.” It was amazing.

How many of you have been to at least 10 or more RAs? How many of you are first-time delegates? Stand up so we can clap for you. Wow. Okay. First-timers, two things might happen to you–one of two things. After four days of this, you will either go screaming from the room saying, “Make it stop,” or you will be so fired up, you will feel so remarkably powerful that you will never want it to end. You will know that in this room, something is going to happen, because you said so.

Now, I remember I was so fired up, I thought it was my job to speak on every issue. I did not have an unexpressed thought for four days. It was like, where is the microphone? I have something to say. That makes you so popular. Because we love that. I had this sense of urgency. I had this sense: we’re going to do something. We’re going to do something important. The people in this room are going to come together and something will be better for someone else’s child. I’ve never been disappointed in that.

You know, a lot of things have changed. I’ve changed a lot in 28 years. When I started doing this, right out of high school, I was the lunch lady. That’s padding my resume. I was the salad girl. Not up to hot foods yet, really cool hair net. And then there was an opening and I got hired to be the teacher’s assistant in a head start program. And then I was a university student and then I was an elementary teacher, and now I’m President of the National Education Association.

But, you know, some things haven’t changed. I’ve never lost that feeling that we are powerful and that we use that power in the service of our students. I know so many of you in this room. I can’t walk ten feet without wanting to just hug people. And I know from a thousand conversations and arguments and motions and debates that whatever journey brought you to this room, I see the same thing. I see your hearts are wrapped around your students. The ones you drive to school, the ones you feed, the ones you teach and scold and counsel and heal and save their lives and love. And from the very beginning, our mission has never changed. We wake up every day set on doing whatever it takes to make sure that our students have every opportunity to learn and to grow and to succeed. That’s why we gather here, to carry out that mission. This is mission control in this room for so many of us. For those of us who have been here ten years or more, for those of us who are first-time delegates, we will not make it stop. We won’t let the actions that we take at this RA end at the end of this RA.

You’re going to see something when you get back home. You’re going to say everything that I passed here at the RA is what I am supposed to do with my circle of influence when I get back home because I am the NEA back home. And that’s the essence of who we are. We truly, truly are the NEA. We are the rabble-rousers. We are the activists. We are those true believers, and this is how we decided to make our mark on the world, as educators who understand the fearless power of collective action.

I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you in my first speech before this RA. I was thinking about how my life has changed. I was thinking about how my life hasn’t changed. And then I thought, well, you know, that’s not different from anyone else’s life. We all change. We grow. We learn. But the essence of who we are, that remains. And then I knew what I wanted to say. Because what’s happening to us as individuals has happened over the life of our own union.

You know at the beginning we didn’t call ourselves a union. In 1857, a couple of states had started forming teacher associations to strengthen this new concept of professionally trained teachers. A teacher in New York–where is New York? A teacher in New York thought it might be a good idea if all of the state associations could maybe get together and start advocating for public schools nationally, professional teachers nationally on that national level. Around 100 teachers representing 15 states answered his call, and they voted right then and there to form the National Teachers Association which quickly became the National Education Association. Women were barred from membership. Oh, my, how things have changed.

And the years rolled by, and NEA changed again and again and again. Leadership from the beginning of our organization was pretty consistent–mostly men, mostly white, mostly administrators or deans of colleges of education. We didn’t even have a place at the table for our education support professionals. We thought it was unprofessional to bargain a contract. There was this great debate on whether or not we should be a union or whether or not we should be a professional association. It took us a while until we discovered that that was a false choice, that we needed to be both, because a school is more than our place of employment. That school was our cause, and from the very beginning, it was a cause to love someone else’s child.

One of the first actions of that new NEA was to stand beside women like Mother Jones and fight against child labor. We were educators and we saw the effects of poverty on families. We saw it through the educators’ eyes. We saw what happened to a child that was plucked out of a desk at school to work in a factory or in a mine so that their families might not starve. Did you know Mother Jones was a teacher in her early life? She saw through that teacher’s eyes. She saw that when you destroy the future of a child, you destroy the future of everything. And we fought, and we won child labor protections in state after state.

One hundred years ago, because we were here, something good happened to protect children who are alive today. Ninety years ago, our country faced a great depression. Many schools were forced to close for lack of funds and NEA worked with president Roosevelt for federal aid as part of the new deal so states and locals would have the money to reopen their schools. Sixty-five years ago the NEA lobbied for this thing called the G.I. bill. The G.I. bill was a game changer for the U.S. Before that, universities were mostly for kids from mostly well-off families. After that, it was for anybody’s kid. Men and women who didn’t come from wealthy families but who served their countries had a decent shot at higher education. We helped make that happen. Let’s hear it for the G.I. bill.

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court finally ruled that separate was inherently and intolerably and immorally unequal. I’m old enough to remember being a little girl in Warner Robins, Georgia, when my dad was stationed there. I remember whites-only water fountains. This is not ancient history. This is current events. The vestiges of racism live on and it takes on many forms. You see it in which children are bullied at school. You see it in which children have the services and supports that nurture the whole blessed child, and which don’t even get recess. We see it in voter suppression. We see it today in the churches that are burning.

The ’60s were a time of decision for this association. It was a time that called on us to demand justice in our own NEA house. NEA decided to merge with the black teachers union, the American Teachers Association, and we required our affiliates to integrate. Some refused, and we disaffiliated those affiliates and we lost a lot of members, but we organized, and we came back. And today, the NEA is one of the largest, most powerful, deliberately diverse organizations on the planet. Fifty years ago, it was clear that even after Brown versus the Board, states were still shortchanging students who lived in poverty and the face of poverty was still primarily the face of black and brown children. NEA fought for a new education priority within the federal government.

In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act as part of the civil rights movement, part of the war on poverty, a law that would give schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, some extra funding to make up for the lack of resources being provided by their own state legislatures. And NEA was part of the team that won that victory. That same 50 years ago, President Johnson was on a roll and we charged up Capitol Hill again, and we helped put another pen in his hand when he signed a law authorizing head start, a program that I’m proud to say hired me as the lunch lady. And as of today, a program that served over 30 million preschoolers with education, nutrition, health, and social services. Give it up for Head Start and preschool.

Forty-seven years ago, the NEA led the charge and won the passage of the Bilingual Education Act, the first federal funding to establish innovative programs for English language learners and that includes Latino students, Asian Pacific Islander students, American Indian, Alaska native students. Forty-four years ago, we fought for passage of the school breakfast program. We argued that researchers and any school lunch lady could tell you that kids who are hungry can’t learn. Forty-three years ago, NEA cheered as President Richard Nixon–what? Yes, we cheered as President Richard Nixon signed the federal law Title IX, outlawing discrimination against girls and women in school sports.

Forty years ago, NEA fought for the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and for the first time, there were federal protections for the rights of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate education. Three years ago, with NEA doing a full-court press, President Obama approved an immigration policy to defer action on childhood arrivals. With DACA, children with young and young people who had been brought to America without the right papers could apply for a temporary Visa that would allow them to stay in the country they loved, work, go to college. This is because NEA believes in our Dreamers.

One week ago, after considering the arguments, including an NEA amicus brief written by our own Alice O’Brien, arguing that state discrimination against same-sex marriage couples deprives them and their children of the fundamental dignity, the benefits and rights and other couples-–that other couples and their children enjoy, that the Supreme Court decided on our side and on the right side of history. And my little boy, Jeremy, called me and said, “Ma! Mike and I are no longer living in sin!” And my son, and Mike, as well as my son Jeremy and his wife Tana, my son Jared and his wife Tana–their names begin with J, moms can do that–both of my sons are legally married in the great state of Utah.

There is so much I’m proud of, and I know that some of you are going to be so mad at me that I didn’t include something really important on retirement security and affordable college and health care and a living wage and so many things that we’re fighting for, and I could go on and on because I love the sound of my own voice, but we’re supposed to end in three and a half days, and if I took up all the rest of that three and a half days, I still wouldn’t be at the end of our list of victories that we won for someone else’s child and someone else’s family.

Our structure at NEA has changed. The people who sit in these seats have changed. But our hearts are the constant. And if that has ever changed, it’s only to grow stronger, more determined, more in awe of the power that’s in our hands, the hands of someone who knows the names of their students from preschool, to graduate school. In our hands is the future of everything.

The NEA is not our beautiful building. It’s not the furniture. It’s not even our meetings. You are the NEA. You are the future of everything. And the future is about to call on you to act again the day you go home from this Representative Assembly. I wish I could give you the day off, but life doesn’t work that way. We will adjourn when business is over on July the 6th. And we now know that on July the 7th, the bill that passed out of the Senate committee to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA),or No Child Left Untested, will be brought to the floor of the Senate for debate. And because of your actions, your state and local leaders, everyone that signed up on we flooded senators with our stories of what the insidious, obsessive, obscene focus on standardized test bubble sheet has done to shortchange our most vulnerable students. We demanded an end to the toxic testing produced by AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) that limits what it means to teach and what it means to learn to what fits on a standardized test.

We told our senators: “Replace that failed one-size-fits-all bubble sheet with a dashboard of better indicators, multiple indicators of success.” You know, I’ve got a dashboard in my car. I have a lot of indicators that tell me if the tank is full, tell me how fast I’m going. With no child left untested, I’ve got a check engine light blinking and it tells me to put air in the tires. We want a dashboard of indicators that gives us information that will tell us if we’re driving in the right direction.

We want better information put in the hands of caring, competent educators so we can maximize the opportunity to learn for every blessed student. And we told that Senate committee that we wanted something that’s never been in ESEA, although it was the essence of civil rights. We want on that school report card, on that dashboard, indicators of resource equity for students. What kind of programs and services to the kids have when they live in this ZIP code compared to the kids that live in this ZIP code? Shouldn’t the public know which kids have access to a school librarian, to AP classes, to health services, to counselors, to reading tutors, to recess? And a minor miracle occurred because of you. One hundred percent of the Democrats and 100 percent of the Republicans on that Senate committee voted to end AYP, include a dashboard of multiple indicators of success beyond the standardized test and require states to report resource equity and they passed that bill out to the floor.

The full Senate, when you get home, will take up debate and will begin voting on that committee bill. Again, three million members are being called on to act, to improve the lives of someone else’s child. A generation of students has already suffered 13 years of test-and-punish. We have the opportunity to end the federal nightmare of toxic testing.

Parents are with us. Researchers are with us. Enlightened business leaders are with us. Common sense is with us. But we are being called on to lead, as we’ve led for 150 years. Now is our moment. You have a circle of influence waiting to hear you.

Did you know that one in every 100 Americans is a member of the National Education Association? Mother Jones did what she did without a Facebook page. She didn’t have a Twitter account. What are you going to use to reach 100 people with the truth? You can speak that truth in a way no one else can, in a way no one can silence you. The people who know you, they trust you. They are going to listen to you. That’s the power you already have in your hands. Imagine three million NEA members simply telling the truth to people who will listen to them, people who will trust them.

I was sitting right there 28 years ago. I was a new delegate. Twenty-eight years from today, it might be one of our first-time delegates sitting in this room right now who can stand up here. Twenty-eight years ago, no one would have picked me. I was so annoying to my delegation. Now I’m annoying to the Koch brothers.

You—you—you are what democracy looks like. You are what power looks like. I am an empowered sixth grade teacher from Utah, and it wasn’t my superintendent who empowered me. It wasn’t the governor. It wasn’t the Secretary of Education. It was my union. My union saw me as a leader, and it was this Representative Assembly that put me up on this stage, as it will do for the next generation of leaders after me–and the next–and the next, for another 150 years. We are the circulating blood and the beating heart of the cause of public education. And, yes, we believe in ourselves, but not out of a sense of arrogance. If you don’t believe in yourself, you have not earned the right to ask anyone else to believe in you.

After 28 years, I still believe in you as much as I did the first time I walked into this room. I am still electrified by the power waiting to be unleashed. I still get that feeling that nothing can stop us. Nothing can stop the mission that’s written in our hearts the way it’s written in my favorite poem:

Give me your hungry children,

Your sick children.

Your homeless and abused children.

Give me your children who need love as badly as they need learning.

Give me your children who have talents and gifts and skills.

And give me those who have none.

Give them all to me, in whatever form they come,

Whatever color their skin,

Whatever language they speak,

Wherever they find God.

And the people in this public school will give you.

The doctors and the engineers,

and the carpenters.

We’ll give you the lawyers and ministers

And the teachers of tomorrow.

We’ll give you the mothers and the fathers,

The thinkers and the builders,

The artists and the dreamers.

We will give you the American Dream

We will give you the future.

Will you unite our members and the nation? Will you inspire them to see that we are being called on to end toxic testing that has poisoned what it means to teach and what it means to learn? Will you lead to a future that respects that whole child and the whole community and respects the men and women who know the names of the students and who know what they’re talking about?

Órale pues. Adelante! NEA, we have work to do. Go, fight, win. Mil gracias de mi corazon.