More than 200 AFT members and allies gathered in Houston Oct. 20-22 to share the problems their communities are experiencing and, more importantly, to actively work together and fix them. “We’re talking about real solutions for kids and communities,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus of the AFT Civil, Human and Women’s Rights Conference. “Everything we do here this weekend is laser focused on equipping us to transform the experiences of our children, the lives of our communities, and equip our members with the tools and resources to help bend the arc toward justice.”
The conference was filled with experts sharing their experiences working every day at the grassroots level in schools and communities, and with workshops where members and partners brainstormed new approaches to tackle old problems on the ground. Conference participants marched for fair schools in Houston, showing they are ready to literally walk the walk, and the announcement of $1 million of Powerful Partnerships Institute funding from the AFT to its affiliates and community partners demonstrated that the union puts its money where its mouth is.
“People want us to have solutions,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “They want us to not just feel their pain—they want us to say what do we do about it.” Supporting creative career and technical education pathways, strengthening community schools and bolstering reading with programs like Reading Universe and book giveaways, and also knitting together labor, education and activism, said Weingarten, “That’s what the union is doing.”
She went on to describe the personal threats she and other AFT leaders have endured, and attacks like the union-breaking laws making their way through the Florida Legislature right now. But being a part of the union means we are stronger together, protecting one another and fighting together. “We have a strategy that helps us get there, but we can’t get there alone,” said Weingarten. “We need our communities with us.”
Leading by example
Four of the AFT’s vice presidents offered examples of their affiliates working successfully with community. California Federation of Teachers President Jeff Freitas described legislation his union helped win for ethnic studies in all schools and increased funding for part-time community college faculty. CFT is currently pushing legislation that would increase funding for educator salaries by 50 percent by 2030.
Chicago Teachers Union President Stacy Davis Gates riled up the crowd to “fight for what you love”: access to public education, affordable housing and voting rights. “If you love those things, then it shouldn’t be hard to organize in this room for the fight you are already in,” she said. “Fight for what you deserve. And fight with the people who deserve it with you.”
Detroit Federation of Teachers President Terrence Martin described the dramatic tale of how his union rose up against a state takeover of the schools, working with passionate community members and finally winning back their elected school board. “I hope the story of Detroit—the power and the perseverance that we showed—is a testament to my brothers and sisters and siblings” in places still struggling—including Houston.
United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats underscored the importance of voting to get what communities need. Her ultimately unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, beside gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, taught her firsthand about the importance of every vote. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won by “a very narrow margin,” she said, during a year when almost 1 million fewer Democrats voted. “It’s easy to get cynical about politics, to feel like our individual votes don’t matter in the grand scheme of things,” she said. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. ... Your vote is not just a piece of paper. It’s a beacon of hope, a clarion call for change. It’s a testament to the power of democracy.”
More examples of courage and action for justice came from a second panel of speakers: Philonise Floyd has shared the very personal loss of his brother, George Floyd, in a very public way to keep that flame alive; Community Voices for Public Education co-founder Ruth Kravetz fights to amplify the voices of parents being shut out of Houston schools; Florida state Rep. Angie Nixon continues to lead “in love and unity” despite the fascism that is rendering some Floridians hopeless; Education Austin’s Karen Reyes, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, organizes know-your-rights training for undocumented communities and their allies as well as scholarships and clinics for DACA recipients; and Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center and a vice president of the California Federation of Teachers, helped launch Opportunity for All, a program he hopes will set a national precedent by removing obstacles for hiring undocumented students in the University of California system.
The Powerful Partnerships Institute is a prime example of the AFT in action. Funding announced Oct. 20, totaling $1 million, will support projects designed by and for the community to seed, scale and sustain real solutions for public schools.
The PPI program will support work at 39 separate AFT affiliates and organizations working together, using transformative, integrated strategies like community schools, experiential learning and reading instruction that bring together parents and educators around a common goal: kids doing well.
This is the second year for PPI funding; by the beginning of the 2023-24 school year, the AFT will have distributed $2.5 million for data-driven, evidence-based solutions.
Justice for Houston schools
After a full program of panels, and samples of local culture from Texas youth poet laureate Jackson “Jax” Neal, Native American dance by members of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas and contemporary ballet from the 6 o’Clock Dance Theatre of Dallas, conference participants were fired up as they rode across town to the Houston Independent School District office to join throngs of educators, school staff, students and community members protesting the state takeover of the district’s schools.
Since the Texas Education Agency snatched control from the elected school board, new policies have harmed students as well as educators. Teachers have been fired and/or required to reapply for their jobs. They’ve been required to teach from scripts. And libraries have been shut down and turned into disciplinary centers. “I’ve never heard of a district, much less a takeover target, that is doing everything possible to destroy schools, break teachers’ spirit and actually hurt students,” said Houston Federation of Teachers President Jackie Anderson. “It’s incredible, and we can’t let it continue.”
The conference also included workshops where participants could create concrete plans for their own communities. Six tracks focused on building coalitions with other community organizations; real solutions such as community schools, career and technical education and literacy; intersectionality, including the partnership between labor and civil rights; political power, democracy and getting out the vote; multigenerational organizing; and the power of storytelling and the media.
Rounding out the conference was a panel of women state legislators who described their ascent to power and how they are using it to fight for justice. Texas state Rep. Jessica González, of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators; Minnesota state Sen. Mary Kunesh, of the National Caucus of Native American State Legislators; Alabama state Rep. Laura Hall, of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators; and Washington state Rep. My-Linh Thai, of the National Asian Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators, talked in vivid terms about how they have carved out a voice at the table for underrepresented groups, working to diversify the teacher workforce, ensure educators can teach true history and elevate knowledge and respect for their people.
There was also a session with author Delia Garcia about her book, Latina Leadership Lessons: Fifty Latinas Speak, and another on mental health and well-being, exploring the power of joy as a tool for resistance. Conference participants were thrilled to meet Erika Alexander, known for her role on “Living Single” and for her political and social activism, and they wrapped up the conference Sunday with a closing service, which included Pastor Ron Lyles from Pastors For Texas Children and the Rev. Ricky Warren from Greater Ward A.M.E. Church.
The packed schedule provided many examples of how to move ideas into action and built momentum for participants to bring that energy home. “The only way we’re going to get to make these dreams into a reality is through organizing,” said Kent Wong. “What we say to each other in this room is much less important than what we do come Monday morning to organize the change that we all … aspire to.”