AFT civil rights conference underscores building community as the way forward

It was a rousing event for the hundreds of AFT members and allies who attended the biennial AFT Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference, “I Can’t Breathe: An Urgent Cry for Justice,” Oct. 21-23, in Washington, D.C. Participants—in person and virtual—cheered, cried, danced and shared their own moving experiences through workshops, plenaries and gatherings that inspired them not only to embrace the fight for justice in those moments, but also to take that passion home and apply it in their own communities.

Fed Ingram at Civil Rights Conference

“We got this,” AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram (pictured above) told participants. “You are the game changers, the equalizers. Whether it is litigation, legislation, demonstration, agitation or sometimes sheer damn aggravation, we got this.”

From speakers like Juana Bordas, founder and president of Mestiza Leadership International; the Rev. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign; and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond, to leadership from Ingram and AFT President Randi Weingarten, to workshops that covered everything from civil rights history to the intersectionality of the LGBTQIA+ community and how to increase power by building community-union coalitions, the conference was jam-packed with rich and relevant content.

And there were plenty of moving moments: participants dancing while Bordas reminded us that we were all once tribal people; standing in a “circle of hope” at Freedom Plaza for nine minutes and 29 seconds to remember why we do this work; and, for one participant, confessing through tears that he had been changed when speakers showed him the unexpected strength of women and made him question his own macho tradition. Participation also included a book giveaway of Stamped, a young adult examination of systemic racism and how it affects our lives today, by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, as well as a display of multicultural books from First Book.

Circle of Hope at Freedom Plaza
At the Circle of Hope, participants reflected for nine minutes and 29 seconds to remember the murder of George Floyd last year.

Throughout the conference, common themes arose—community partnerships, voting rights, the power of determination and the bedrock of knowing our own history.

Together, we are stronger

Weingarten opened by urging participants to build coalitions as the path to justice. “It is true that an injury to one is an injury to all,” she said. “That’s why part of union work is civil rights work and community work.” She underscored the importance of applying this to our advocacy for voting rights, public education, working families, and the fight against policies that prohibit teaching the honest history of discrimination.“We are united in our resolve to strengthen our coalitions, to engage the younger generations, to form a common agenda with people of color, immigrants, our white allies, our LGBTQIA+ allies,” said Juana Bordas. “We are the architects and weavers of our multicultural future.”

The workshop, “Is This Education Justice? Lessons from Educator-Community Coalition Building,” showed exactly how unions are doing this work, with AFT members from Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles describing major wins toward equity and inclusion in their communities. While some pushed to open schools even as others, in low-income communities, were dying and getting sick in the depth of the pandemic, “United Teachers Los Angeles held the line and said we’re not going to go back until it’s safer for our communities,” said UTLA Vice President Juan Ramirez. “It wasn’t just the teachers. … We had the community fighting with us.”

Education justice panel at civil rights conference

During its fight for safe schools, the Chicago Teachers Union connected with members who were also parents, said Christel Williams-Hayes, CTU recording secretary and a member of the AFT Civil and Human Rights Committee, noting that administrators often listen to parents before they listen to the union. “Community is the new density,” said Jackie White Anderson, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, quoting one of Weingarten’s oft-cited principles. When the state misrepresented what was actually going on in schools, she said, “We had to go to the streets to make everyone aware.”

These unions have worked in coalition to gain more counselors, teaching assistants and community schools; to fight for affordable housing; win elected school boards; and, for the Houston Federation of Teachers, win exclusive consultation, the closest its right-to-work state comes to collective bargaining.

Together, we must vote

Voting rights surfaced a crucial key to moving an urgent civil rights agenda. It is “the most important issue that we face,” said Weingarten.

“I’m going to go anywhere and everywhere to be in conversation about how we can  … make sure every person who is eligible to vote has the access to vote,” she said, describing her work to promote the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2021 and the Freedom to Vote Act. Both bills push back on voter suppression laws that are being passed in dozens of states across the nation.

Randi Weingarten at civil rights conference

Voting rights are essential to saving our democracy, said Weingarten (above), and fighting for them is a battle for all Americans.

“It’s not enough to stand up for Black people to be altruistic, they’re coming after you too,” said  Barber. “If you look at what they are trying to pass in these state houses, … it’s an attempt to undermine democracy.”

“This is about disenfranchisement,” said Derryn Moten, co-president of the AFT Faculty-Staff Alliance at Alabama State University and co-chair of the AFT’s higher education program and policy council, as he presented a video interview with civil rights hero and attorney Fred D. Gray Sr. Gray represented the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the brutal attacks on protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. The activists were fighting against Gov. George Wallace’s decree that they could not march—and the governor’s broader and violent resistance to the civil rights movement generally.

“The reasons people went to such lengths to make it difficult if not impossible to vote in [Selma] are no different from the reasons today that the governor of Georgia wants to make it more difficult for Blacks to vote in Georgia … or wherever else these voter suppression laws are either working their way through the legislature or being signed into law,” said Moten.

In the video, Gray (who is now 90 years old) recalled getting a phone call from the civil rights leaders who had been “beaten back,” during their first attempt to march from Selma to Montgomery. “You may have seen on the media about what happened,” Gray recounts them saying as they asked him to win a federal court order to allow the march. “We don’t want to be beaten back again. Do you think you can help us?”

This was his invitation to become involved in a process that eventually paved the way for the successful march from Selma, said Gray, who at various times defended Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and other civil rights icons.

The breadth of a movement, riled up and ready for action

Conference workshops reflected the intersectionality of the AFT’s involvement in the civil, human and women’s rights issues of our day. Immigration was top of mind, with sessions including allies from United We Dream, We Are Home campaign, UndocuBlack Network and others exposing the struggles of undocumented workers on the frontlines, sharing strategies for a pathway to citizenship, and exploring how educators can create immigrant-inclusive policies and communities in their schools. There was a workshop on combating anti-Asian hate; one on patriarchy and power with leading activist Peggy McIntosh; a session on race, gender, class and LGBTQIA+ intersectionality; and another on the “pink tax” that makes products for women more expensive than equivalent products for men.

From history lessons to fortify resolve to practical steps for community building, the conference inspired many participants to action. Luz Villarroel was so impressed with Juana Bordas, she is going to start a leadership program of her own at the DREAMers Resource Center where she works with immigrant college students in Portland, Ore. “You’ve given me the fire to go back to my community and truly understand what activism is about,” said Amber Hayward, who came up from Dade County, Fla. “This gave me a passion and gave me a direction to aim it,” said Octavio Hernandez, Hispanic Caucus co-chair and Polk Education Association board member, also from Florida.

“Going home, we can speak before our local school boards; we can guide our state textbook selections; we can talk about it to our kids,” said Ingram.

“It’s time to intensify our agitation,” exhorted Barber.

[Virginia Myers]