Tuesday, Jan 31, 2017, 1:53 pm
Interviews for Resistance: Why Teachers Unions Are the Best Bet To Transform the Labor Movement
Welcome to Interviews for Resistance. In this series, we’ll be talking with organizers, troublemakers, and thinkers who are working both to challenge the Trump administration and the circumstances that created it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequality are impossible to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sexist and xenophobic violence. But around the country, people are doing the hard work of fighting back and coming together to plan for what comes next. This series will introduce you to some of them.
Public schools have been a bipartisan battleground for years now, with teachers unions taking attacks from elected officials at all levels as part of a broader movement to “improve” education by handing control over to private companies. Donald Trump's nominee to run the education department, Betsy DeVos, is a stalwart of this privatization drive, never having met a public school she liked (and barely, as many have pointed out, having met a public school at all, since she neither taught in any nor attended them nor sent her own children to them). But teachers around the country are organizing against privatization, and gaining support from parents and students. We talk to one of those teachers, Jesse Hagopian.
Hagopian teaches high school in Seattle and is an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. He is also active in his union with the Social Equality Educators.
Sarah Jaffe: The school where you teach in Seattle, Garfield High School, has had a lot of activism from students, as well as teachers, in the past, hasn’t it?
Jesse Hagopian: It has a legacy of activism. It was the school where Martin Luther King spoke when he made his only visit to Seattle. Graduates of our school founded the first chapter of the Black Panther Party outside of California, here in Seattle. It is a legacy we are proud of and that we are seeing revived.
Earlier this year, our football team, the entire team took a knee during the national anthem in protest of police abuse. Then, it spread to the girls’ volleyball team and the girls’ soccer team and the cheerleaders, even the marching band. Everyone was taking a knee to raise awareness. Then, after Trump’s election, there were some 5,000 students across the district, or more, that walked out, including large numbers at the school. It is exciting to see a new rebellion amongst young people today.
Sarah: I have been hearing from teachers who are having a hard time figuring out how to talk to their students about Trump’s election. Can you talk a little bit about what it is like being a teacher in this moment, talking to your students about what is going on?
Jesse: The first example I want to use is from my son’s school. The day after the election a young Muslim girl came in and she hadn’t yet heard that Trump won the election, so she found out there at school. When she found out, she fell to the ground and was pounding her fists into the ground and crying. She was just terrified about what could happen to her and her family, whether they would be split apart or fears of violence. I am so proud of what my son’s teacher did. She decided right then and there to gather all of the classes at the grade level and bring them together, and all the families who were there for drop-off, and hold a discussion, allow kids to discuss their fears and their thoughts and let them know that this is going to be a safe place for them.
That is an example that I try to use, to have my classroom be a place that facilitates dialogue, that allows the kids to discuss the fears and anxieties that they have when they hear Trump’s plans for banning Muslims, for deporting immigrants, all of his atrocious sexual assault exploits, his fear-mongering and hatred and bigotry of all kinds. The students need a place to talk about it. I try to facilitate that, as well as letting them know my classroom is a safe place. On the door, all the teachers on my hallway have put up signs that say, “This is a safe place for our students and a place where we will oppose homophobia and sexism and racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia.” We want to communicate that message clearly with our students.
Then, we also have to do it in the curriculum. It is so critical that our curriculum is talking back to the textbooks, which too often just glorify American history without engaging kids in critical thinking about the real challenges and forms of structural oppression that have been perpetuated throughout U.S. history. We have to allow them to dig into the curriculum and into the history to figure out how we arrived at a moment like this. It's really crucial to helping support them right now.
Sarah: The Seattle Education Association had a strike fairly recently and I believe one of the issues at stake there was racial justice, in particular, in the schools?
Jesse: Absolutely. Last year we went on strike for five days. One of the main demands was about having racial equity teams in every school. The district opposed us and didn’t want to add any racial equity teams. We wanted them in every school building. By the end of the strike, we had negotiated 30 racial equity teams across the district, which was really critical to advancing social justice education in Seattle for a number of reasons.
One, it brought us together with the community. Some of the key leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement signed onto a letter supporting our strike because of our desire to fight for racial justice in our schools. Then, this past fall, this October, we were able to build on that victory. We actually built a monumental action. It was called Black Lives Matter at School Day. It started with a few teachers, but it mushroomed into an action that some 2,000 out of 5,000 teachers in Seattle wore Black Lives Matter shirts to school. Many hundreds of teachers taught lessons about structural racism and the Black Lives Matter movement that day.
It really helped to expose the fact that there are a majority of us in the school district that see a much bigger purpose for education than just preparing our students for a low-wage job or shipping them through the school-to-prison pipeline, that we want education to be about empowering our students to create a better future.
Sarah: The Seattle strike was one of several teachers strikes in recent years. Can you talk about what has been going on among teachers unions nationally and the challenge to the attacks that public schools have been facing?
Jesse: The assault has been brutal on teachers unions across the country. It has been bipartisan. It happened with an increased strength against our unions under George W. Bush with the No Child Left Behind act. It only accelerated under Obama and his Race to the Top scheme that would further link teacher evaluations and pay to test scores, destabilizing the work force.
Now, we just see the attack unabated with Donald Trump’s new proposed education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and we know that everything she has in store for our schools is absolutely wrong and we have to build a vigorous opposition to her.
I think that this attack is so strong because the richest 1% in this country know that teachers unions are the biggest unions left in America. They are one of the most concentrated sources of organized labor. They have the ability to really transform the labor movement and our communities, to make ties with parents, students, and teachers, and because of that source of strength they have also become a target.
Sarah: When Betsy DeVos was nominated I was struck by the fact that she is a figure that is very associated with school vouchers, which in recent years had kind of fallen by the wayside in favor of this really big bipartisan push for charter schools. Can you talk a little bit about those two things and these waves of privatization?
Jesse: I think privatization is the central aim of the corporate education reformers. The Democrats, over the last eight years under Obama had worked very hard to give charter schools a liberal gloss and make them seem as if they were part of a civil rights movement to rescue inner city kids, black and brown children, from a failing school system, when in reality these charter schools often underperformed the public schools. They function to siphon off money from the public school system to privately-run schools.
They often have some of the most draconian discipline policies. We have seen that black and brown students are suspended at much higher rates in charter schools, from recent studies. These schools were just the opposite of what the Democrats had promised, but they were able to cobble together a coalition for a while of people across the political spectrum who were advocating for these schools as an alternative to what they called “failing public schools.”
I think that action really laid the groundwork for what we are seeing now, with the revivals of vouchers, which are just another strategy for privatizing public education, giving kids a limited amount of funds to use to go to any school they want rather than actually investing in the public schools and making every public school a quality one with the resources it needs to succeed.
We live in a country that can find trillions of dollars to bomb people all across the world and can find trillions of dollars to bail out the banks who sabotaged the global economy, but when it comes to our kids’ education, they want to try to do it on the cheap. They want to actually try to make money off of it rather than fully invest in the schools that we would need to help our kids succeed.
Sarah: When Trump announced Betsy DeVos, I said, “She has no idea what is coming her way,” because the movement around public education has gotten so big and so strong in the last couple of years. I wonder if you can talk about the way that students and parents and teachers are really coming together to fight for community public schools.
Jesse: Absolutely. That is really what we need. The advantage that people like Trump and the rest of the 1% have is their immense wealth. The advantage we have is our numbers. Those numbers are really visible around education, because it draws in so many diverse groups together in one place. It brings together labor with parents from all different backgrounds, and students. It has been a source of power for community organizing and social justice initiatives around the country.
In Chicago, I think they have brilliantly organized social movement unionism strategies. They have organized the power of labor to get behind community issues. Then, community groups have come and supported them when they are on strike. And with our recent action here in Seattle with the Black Lives Matter at School Day, it just took us all by surprise. When we passed the resolution in our union to wear these shirts to school we thought maybe a few dozen social justice teachers would wear these shirts and teach lessons. Then, the orders went through the roof and families began setting up tables at schools with materials out front to pass out to other parents about how to talk to your kid about race. We had a wonderful evening forum that was packed out and displayed the talents of our youth. I think that action is one that can be replicated around the country and already has been.
Last week, the teachers in Philadelphia have launched Black Lives Matter at School Week. The whole week, they had a different theme every day, within the Black Lives Matter movement, to highlight the different intersectional identities within the black community and teach lessons and hold dialogues around those actions. That has already been a powerful example of bringing together families and labor in a common struggle.
I could see this type of movement flowering across the country, especially as police brutality continues unabated. The next time we see a horrific murder of a black or brown body, I think it will further convince educators in other cities that we need to transform our schools into sites of resistance to everything that Trump stands for. I really hope that is where our movement can go, because Trump emblazons his name on everything he owns. He has the Trump Towers, the Trump golf courses, the Trump Hotels. I would like to see our schools become public sites of resistance to all the bigotry that he stands for. The school reader boards here in Seattle said “Black Lives Matter” at many of the schools on our day. I think if we keep at it, we can help to transform our schools to become these sites of resistance.
Sarah: Do you have specific tips from the work you have been doing in Seattle for educators in other places who want to start talking to people in their community, their students and their students’ parents particularly around issues of racism, but in general around the issues that their communities are facing?
Jesse: One is, for fellow educators, it is really critical to form a caucus inside the union to gather together like-minded social justice advocates in the union and begin to present your ideas to the broader union, to help make your union strong enough to fight back against the privatization attacks and to help raise social issues like the Black Lives Matter movement inside the union. Oftentimes beginning with a study group is a good way to go, getting a book to read. In Chicago, the social justice caucus there that won the election and took over the union began by reading Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. It was just a small study group and now they have quite a bit of influence in that city.
Right here, we recently held a study group on Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. Finding a book that can bring people together to discuss their ideas and then talk about how we want to implement them in the union is critical.
Then, I think picking a couple of key issues that you can organize around that will bring in parents, students, and teachers. Here in Seattle, one of the main issues that we are rallying around right now is the fight for ethnic studies. I would add gender studies, as well. I think in this time where our president disparages Black Lives Matter, where our president is an open sexist, and is a proud sexual assaulter, I think we need to teach our kids the truth about the contributions to this country of people of color and of women and the struggles that they have been through. We are launching an initiative with the NAACP here in Seattle to demand that every school include ethnic studies. A recent study out of Stanford showed huge benefits academically, for ethnic studies programs, in raising graduation rates. I really think that is something that needs to take off across the country.
Sarah: Betsy DeVos has not been confirmed yet. Even some of the Democrats within Congress who have rubber-stamped most of Trump’s other nominees are saying that they are going to fight on hers. People who are following that, what can they do?
Jesse: We need to fight as vigorously as possible against her confirmation because she has absolutely no idea what she is doing with public education. She never went to public schools, her kids didn’t go to public schools, her only association with the schools is her attempts to privatize them with her foundation. During her confirmation hearing they asked her questions about her family foundation because her family foundation has given millions to the Republican Party, but even more despicably, has funded things like gay conversion therapy, which is a pseudo-science that is an absolute atrocity in the way it psychologically abuses LGBTQ youth. She has no business being anywhere near a public institution that is meant to nurture all of the kids in the United States.
I think that we have to raise public protests. We have to agitate in our unions to make sure our unions are vocally opposing this and letting the politicians know there will be consequences if they vote to confirm her. Joining local rallies and demonstrations against her confirmation is really important.
Sarah: Lastly, how can people keep up with you?
Jesse: My website is IAmAnEducator.com. They can follow the work I do there or on social media. Most importantly, I think getting a subscription to Rethinking Schools and bringing social justice lessons into your classroom is the best way to stay connected to the movement.
Interviews for Resistance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assistance from Laura Feuillebois and support from the Nation Institute. It is also available as a podcast.
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Sarah Jaffe is a staff writer at In These Times and the co-host of Dissent magazine's Belabored podcast. Her writings on labor, social movements, gender, media, and student debt have been published in The Atlantic, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and many other publications, and she is a regular commentator for radio and television. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.
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