Activists unite for racial justice at AFT conference

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Activists from different human rights movements came out of their silos to combine and strengthen the struggle for racial justice at the AFT's Civil, Human and Women's Rights Conference Oct. 2-4. Knitting together educational justice, criminal justice, economic justice and immigration reform, they worked together toward common action over the two-day conference in New Orleans.

The event started with a bang as a New Orleans-style brass band led participants marching and chanting for a living wage, nearly shutting down traffic on the way to New Orleans' City Hall. "What do we want? $15! When do we want it? Now!" they called, insisting on a $15 an hour wage and a union for fast-food workers and others shut out of economic stability.

The Fight for $15 rallyThe march crystallized the inclusive nature of the event and reflected another joint conference with the Schott Foundation for Public Education in 2013. That conference evolved into the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, which now represents more than 100 grass-roots groups and more than 7 million people. Both the 2013 and the 2015 events were intentionally designed to connect labor and community organizations in the shared goal of advancing racial justice.

During the kickoff, AFT President Randi Weingarten told the crowd the "Fight for $15" is not just about money. "It is a fight for survival. It is a fight for dignity." It reaches beyond fast-food workers, touching paraprofessionals who are underpaid, adjunct professors working multiple jobs to "cobble together a life" and the many others whose pay fails to reflect the value of their work. And because it affects so many minorities, who are the majority of those living in poverty, it connects closely with the civil, human and women's rights focus of this conference.

The weekend brought together AFT members, unionists, educators, parents, students and activists from the Black Lives Matter movement, immigration reform and women's rights to determine how to move forward together to advance racial justice. "We are the ones we've been waiting for," said Jennifer Epps-Addison, of Wisconsin Jobs Now. "This cannot be a top-down movement," said Ash-Lee Henderson, of Project South. "This is a moment to be fearless," said Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director for the Alliance for Quality Education.

During the opening plenary, Weingarten called for participants to get beyond championing their own "piece of the justice equation" and to work together with others. She lifted up black lives in particular because the discrimination against black people in this country is most profound.

Weingarten with racial task force document"People of color make up about 30 percent of the United States' population, but they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned," she said. "African-American youth are more likely to be incarcerated and to be sentenced to adult prison. Black households have less than one-tenth the wealth of white households, on average. Not since Reconstruction have there been as many attempts to restrict the right to vote." Addressing the white people in the room, she continued, "We must do more than say that we marched in the 1963 March on Washington, or that we helped fight for civil rights laws, or that we fund causes. It's not enough. That's what Black Lives Matter teaches us."

Another conference panel examined the post-Katrina struggle for New Orleans' public schools that have been taken over by charters and the threat of privatization, and how that intersects with poverty and disenfranchised communities.

Particularly challenging was a "real talk" plenary about the school-to-prison pipeline. The phrase describes children of color who are disproportionately suspended from school—a safe and often nurturing space—only to become more vulnerable to criminal influence and overzealous policing in the streets. Teachers were challenged to reflect carefully before disciplining their students, especially if that disciplinary action could lead to suspension. "Teachers have to be real attuned to [their] power," said Rob McGowan, associate director of organizing at CADRE (Community Asset Development Re-defining Education) and Dignity in Schools Campaign. "You have a role to play in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline."

The AFT's policy on discipline has already shifted from a "zero tolerance" approach to the more nuanced "restorative justice," which addresses the root cause of disruptive behavior. But the social services needed to address disciplinary issues at their source are often unavailable.

Asked to provide answers, Weingarten announced the release of the AFT's Racial Justice Task Force report in early October. It includes concrete steps to address racial bias on a local level. And because she recognized that a report does not necessarily lead to action, she said she is committed to lifting this one off the page and carrying it into schools and workplaces, telling every AFT local leader that racial justice is an important part of union work.

At multiple workshops, conference participants from different segments of the fight for justice collectively set a course, learning from one another and borrowing and shifting ideas around numerous issues. Among them: how to speak beyond the choir and reach people who are on "the other side"; how to boost the number of teachers of color in our schools; how to integrate community need with union demands; and how black and brown people are threatened by flawed law enforcement in different but equally terrifying ways, when an arrest can mean deportation to one family and an entry into the prison system for another.

Crossing the many lines of distinction among the different activists was not always easy, and "uncomfortability" became a touchstone in many speeches. But participants pressed on, connecting in personal as well as professional ways. After an arts program that included nationally recognized slam poets and a tear-inducing presentation by Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin's mother, two mothers, one white and one black, sat on a bus back to their hotel and shared their experiences raising children in and out of privilege.

Participants were still talking about the conference in airport terminals and buses as they made their way home; one planned a walk-in day like the one she heard described by other organizers, in which parents demonstrated their solidarity by walking en masse into schools with their children at the beginning of the school day. Another will use the statistics she learned about the small percentage of teachers of color in the American school system to strengthen her work on a committee that steers administrators toward hiring more African-American candidates.

The conference hashtags, posted online and on a screen behind the conference stage, summarized it all: #BlackLivesMatter. #Dreamers. #ForwardTogether. #RealTalk. #AFTUnion. #TimeIsNow.

[Virginia Myers/photos by Nijme Rinaldi Nun]