Remarks as prepared for delivery by Lily Eskelsen García, President, National Education Association, to the 99th Representative Assembly

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in her final keynote address

Thank you, Becky and Princess and Kim, and my incredible Executive Committee and the NEA staff who work night and day for you — they moved mountains to bring us together in this historic virtual Representative Assembly and thank you especially to St. Teresa — the woman who makes my life possible. I could spend all this time on a roll call of people I adore. I love them so much; I’ll miss them so much as I head out the door.

This is my last report to you as your president.

And so, it’s also my last chance to also thank the other people I love who have no idea what it is I’ve been doing for the last 30 years. They just know I’m never home for dinner.

I want to thank my boys, Jeremy and Jared. Their spouses, Mike (you heard him singing the national anthem) and Tanna, and Lily Jo, my baby girl.

My Mom, Chillie Pace, is watching on her laptop. She turns 91 this summer and so let me repeat — she’s watching on HER laptop. She’s a tech goddess. And she loves coming to the RA and she wasn’t going to miss this one. She sends her love to all her dear friends out there.

And there is no way to properly thank Señor Jose Alberto Garcia Lozano — my husband. El amor de mis amores, for forgiving me all the times that we couldn’t be together.

Alberto got his green card this year! He’s now studying for his citizenship test — and we are studying about what democracy looks like these days in the United States of America.

I have told him for years that the NEA Representative Assembly is the largest democratic body in the world.  And he has seen us in action and shouting ‘aye’ and ‘no’ and moving to close debate and ‘division’ and he thinks we’re all nuts. And he’s right. Poco loco.

But he tells me when we get serious, ‘There is power in your people.’

And again, he’s right. The question is: What are we going to do with it? That’s why we come together. To answer that question. What are we going to do with our power?

Do you know why we chose this year’s theme: Our Democracy; Our Responsibility; Our time? Do you know how it got up there on the screen?

Because it’s all about me.  Because somebody called me unpatriotic — for telling the truth. I said in an interview, ‘America never was America for too many Americans.’ It’s from a Langston Hughes poem.

I’m a teacher in my bones. It’s my job to teach the truth.  I taught my sixth graders U.S. history that wasn’t in our textbook.

I taught them about the American Revolution. I taught them what a ‘republic’ was — that we would not have a king! ‘We’ the people would democratically VOTE for leaders who would make decisions for us so that we would have Freedom and Justice for All!

Except for you — because you’re black. In fact, if you’re born in this state, you’re not actually a real person, you know, technically. You’re property.

And except for you — because you’re a Native American and some of us would like your land — the land we agreed in treaties would be yours as long as grass grows and water runs — yeah. We didn’t really mean it.

Oh, and of course, except for you — because you’re a woman; and because you don’t speak English; and because you woke up one day and decided to be gay. (‘cause that’s how that works.)

Or you — because you have a disability; because you’re Jewish. Or Catholic, or Muslim. Or Mormon. Because YOU were born in a time that we did not include you in ‘We’ the People.

So, law and order and freedom and opportunity and happiness for Us. And for you… not so much.

I’ll say it again because it is historical truth. America never was America for too many Americans. But what some folks who know that, haven’t figured out that this wasn’t by accident. Exclusion was intentional.

We have to know our history, or we’ll never find the path forward to something better. Folks’ll just look around at the absurdity of our inequality and think, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense!’ Why do some schools have so much more than other schools? Why do some kids come to school hungry? Why does this parent have a job with health care benefits and that parent has to have a Go Fund Me page because their kid has cancer?

So, let me tell you what I think you already know. But we have to say it out loud. Inequality is by design.

From those who colonized us 400 years ago, systems were built by people in power to keep their power. And 400 years ago, it was white, male, protestant, property owners — people with money — those guys set up systems to make themselves the decisionmakers.

And the decisions they made benefited them and their families. But this is not a history lesson. It’s current events.

People who think like the Koch Brothers and the DeVos Family have been with us since the beginning.  Freedom means their ability to make more money and so, to limit their ability to exploit workers or harm consumers or dirty the environment is to limit their freedom to make more money.

In their heads, for them to have more, everyone else must have less. And there is no limit to their greed.

They have corrupted our cherished word: freedom. And they have chosen their champion: Donald Trump.

They had to change his new campaign slogan which was supposed to be: Keep America Great…because it wasn’t so great that we were in the midst of a global pandemic that has thrown us into chaos in good part due to Donald Trump’s incompetence and inability to grasp that it was real and dangerous and that people would die.

For how many months did he say it was a hoax; it was the democrats; it was fake news and he has still shown zero leadership in a national response to the greatest health crisis in our lifetime.

His weak limping leadership has the economy coming apart at the seams. His Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s has said not one word about what public schools are going to need to open safely. Her only response has been to take public dollars to help bail out what she calls the Education Industry of privatized edu-businesses.

But imagine the slogan ‘Keep America Great’; Keep us where we are…against a time of national shock. A time when we all watched on TV a man begging for his life, slowly strangled by a calm police officer with his hand in his pocket — Keep us where we are — at a time when the country is exploding in righteous anger from the streets and shouts of justice for black lives. Keep us with a president who gassed and terrified peaceful people legally protesting in front of our White House because they were inconvenient to a photo-op.

Keep America Great — we’re doing just great — was a sick joke; an insult to reality; and Trump changed it pretty fast. He went back to the old one. But I think that one was worse. Make American Great…you know if he’d put a period there, that would be one thing. But he added an evil word…Again? Make America Great Again…go back to when we were great.

When in the history of our country can you go back to when it was better for African Americans? When was it better for women? When was it better for immigrants or the poor or Native Americans or LGBTQ people or Latinos or Asians or Pacific Islanders? Any people of color?

I taught my sixth graders the history of struggle in our country. I gave them the names of heroes who weren’t in our history book. But I want you to understand this: I taught them to love our country because the founders got the poetry right.

Whether they meant to or not, they told us who we were supposed to be. The poetry is radical and powerful.

We hold these TRUTHS to be self-evident: That ALL PEOPLE are equal. (Yeah, I know they said MEN and I know they meant MEN, but I told my kids that this is a democracy and we get to decide what it should mean and we took a vote and they voted it should mean ‘all people’ so that’s what it means.)

And it should mean that governments are instituted by the people to secure and protect life, liberty and the pursuit of all our happiness — not a king. Not the powerful. That All have a right to pursue what makes them happy.

I told my kids they have to fight for this democracy to become real. That if you want to be a patriotic American, then you have to PUSH when we see we’re not who we’re supposed to be. It’s supposed to be All People Equal under our laws. It’s the principle we fight for. It’s what we must fight to become.

Whatever their intent, (a mi no me importa; doesn’t matter) the founders told us who we’re supposed to be, and when we’re not, we’re supposed to change it. And when hypocrisy is exposed and the truth is that in a land of the free the government allowed legal enslavement; that in a land based on the rule of law, the government allowed the theft of native lands; that time and again when ‘all’ does not mean ‘all’ and someone says it out loud, then it’s uncomfortable.

It sounds unpatriotic to mention uncomfortable truths about who we were and have yet to become.

But there is no pride — no patriotism — in hiding the truth.  The truth simply opens new stories of inspiration and courage; new heroes worth lifting up.

It’s our sacred principles and those who fight and sacrifice and even die to bring those principles to life who are worth putting up on a pedestal.

These heroes knew sacrifice. But here we are at an assembly to decide where we should put our voice and our power. This is interesting history, but should it be our sacrifice? Should this be our work? Yes. Yes, it should.

We are educators and public servants. We are unionists. We are activists. We’re patriots.

All of us are called on — both those who had to demand their rights and those whose rights have never been questioned — all of us have a patriotic responsibility to demand that All of us be included in this imperfect democracy.

We are called on to act. So, what will you do? What will you do for your colleagues; your students; the families you love; the communities where you live?

What will you do as we face the most dangerous threat to our democracy that we’ve ever faced?

We are threatened by a man who does not recognize any law he must obey — He believes he is above the law.  “He acts as if he is our king.

He has disgraced and corrupted his office. He has tried to manipulate us and get us to hate each other.

He knows exactly what he’s doing — surgically removing certain parts from We the People.

He separated Latino babies from mothers on the border and put desperate children in cages as if they were animals. He declared a ban on Muslims.

He dishonored the honorable service of LGBTQ soldiers and sailors.

He told four women of color — members of Congress — that they should go back where they came from; that they had no right to speak about ‘our’ government.

It is our democracy. And we, individually and collectively, have the responsibility to act — to make our principles live and breathe.

And it is especially our time because we are the educators and public servants of America. We live in every community. We love someone else’s child. Because we accept the profound trust that is placed in us and we have stepped up before.

Throughout our own union’s history, we have fought for the rights of little girls to have the same education opportunities as little boys.

We have fought for the dreams of our DREAMERS.

We’ve fought for black student lives and for our students who wear hijab or speak with an accent or live with disabilities or struggle in poverty or trans kids who just want to go to the bathroom without being humiliated.

America’s public schools look like America. We and our students live like America.

And 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.’

I am ready to vote. No, more than that: I am ready to get others to come vote with me. No, more than that: I’m ready to help a candidate; I’m ready to BE a candidate; to call people; to drive seniors to the polls on Election Day.

I’m ready to testify. To contribute. To protect a child. To debate a friend.

To say, ‘yes’ when it matters. To say, ‘no’, when it matters. I’m ready to march and risk and shout and show up.

Something is at a crossroads in the world right now. Something is going to change. I don’t know if it’s for better or worse…but something is about to change, and we are going to be part of it.

You will be leaders in defining what democracy will look like in our country. 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.

You will say: I fought on the side of who we are supposed to be — I fought for an America worthy of us all.

Que Dios te bendiga. El honor es para mi, hermanos y hermans. Gracias por todo. God bless you all.

It has been the honor of my life to have been the smallest part of us.

Gracias de mi Corazón. Go. We must Fight. Y Vamos a ganar. We will win.

Thank you.

Speakers