AFT supports educators at the Congressional Black Caucus legislative conference

Black educators are crucial to the success of students across the nation, and the AFT is committed to ensuring they are able to thrive—by advocating for more accessible pathways to teaching and through professional development series like the one we organized during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11 and 12. The series, connected to one of the most influential progressive Washington events of the year, served more than 200 AFT members and associates eager to develop skills and gather information specific to working in communities of color.

Black legislators gather each year at the Black Caucus ALC to hear from constituents, influencers and each other about issues central to equity and justice—including education, healthcare, voting rights, criminal justice, environmental justice and more. AFT leaders, members and staff were on hand to interact with members of Congress—including at a legislative luncheon Sept. 12, where AFT leaders and congressional representatives shared the podium. This interaction ensures that the issues most important to working families, educators, healthcare workers and other public employees remain a priority in the halls of Congress.

Setting a professional development series here—as the AFT has done for five years now, in partnership with the Delta Research and Educational Foundation and CBCF—opens up that interaction to more members and underscores the importance of both policy and practice, and centers service to communities that are currently under-resourced, misunderstood and marginalized.

six people, five of whom are african american, discuss something at a table.

One workshop covered multilingual learning, with presentations on the importance of preparing students for a global environment, and practical tools to involve all families in student learning—by holding English classes for parents, for example, or sponsoring a health fair with free vaccinations and physical exams. Another workshop explored how social-emotional learning intersects with literary acquisition, with examples of how to weave the two together, incorporating students’ favorite pop stars’ lyrics into lessons, for example. In a third session, participants shared their experiences of overwhelming working conditions and offered practical ways to practice self-care, even when schedules are already overbooked.

A luncheon panel explored the power educators have to move a more inclusive agenda forward in our public schools. “Right now, our colleagues are creating magic with 50 million children all over this country,” Florida Education Association President and AFT Vice President Fedrick Ingram told the room full of educators. “You ought to feel good that you are part of the forward movement in this country.” Panelists described how they use that power—by pressing legislators to vote for pro-public school policy, promoting culturally responsive and anti-bias training, working to reduce suspensions of students of color and coming up with creative ways to involve parents at school.

At Thursday’s legislative lunch, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson called the members of the Congressional Black Caucus “our frontline fighters in Congress who are helping beat back this administration’s many attacks on the American people,” and she stressed the importance of the 2020 elections. “We care, we fight, we show up and we vote,” she said. “We’re going to do all that—and more—all the way to Nov. 3, 2020. Our futures, literally, depend on it.”

A black woman, Ayanna Pressley, speaks at a podium while an older black woman, Lorretta Johnsom, looks at her.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) lavished praise on the educators for being nation builders. “You build up people who go on to build up our world,” she said. “Not only are you nation builders, you are soldiers wrestling the inequities plaguing communities across our country.” Pressley said she visited students and educators as the school year started in Massachusetts, and carries their hopes and dreams into her work in Washington, D.C. “I carry with me the talented and dedicated educators who pour into these young students every day. But with all that excitement and enthusiasm, I’m also carrying the heaviness that too many of our educators are facing, with housing insecurity, food insecurity, educators struggling to shake free of the grip of student loan debt,” she said.

“Congress must keep our promise to our children, and it must keep our promises to our educators. We must fund our future.”

Boston Teachers Union President and AFT Vice President Jessica Tang agreed, saying that educators are “fed up and outraged” over the lack of funding for public schools. “We’re fed up because we know that education should be a right. It is not a privilege. We don’t have air conditioning when it’s hot, and when it’s cold we don’t have heat,” she said. “You cannot drink from the water fountains. We don’t have books, we don’t have the facilities our students need. We don’t have a nurse in every school, we don’t have librarians. That’s institutional racism right there. It is a racial justice issue.”

Tang said it’s time “for the 1 percent to pay their fair share,” referring to the movement to change tax law so that it no longer protects the wealth of the very rich. “We need Congress to act,” she said, urging AFT members to talk to their representatives.

Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) dropped by the luncheon as well and offered impromptu remarks that echoed Pressley’s praise. “All of society’s ills, you all meet them every day,” he told the educators in the room. “Thank you for being our first line on making this a better country. We will be there with you in the trenches.”

[Virginia Myers]