AFT President Randi Weingarten traveled to southern Florida on Sept. 27-28 to visit members, schools and union affiliates who are proving that union building and community engagement are two sides of the same coin.
In Homestead, Weingarten joined United Teachers of Dade members at Gateway Environmental K-8 Learning Center to distribute essentials to families and neighbors still recovering from the historic hit Hurricane Irma delivered this month. The AFT president also toured Martin Luther King Elementary and helped hand out fresh vegetables and produce to local residents standing in long lines at the Fort Lauderdale school, located in one of the community's "food deserts," where there is little access to nutritious, affordable fare.
Weingarten also visited magnet programs at Fort Lauderdale High School, a public school widely acclaimed for career and technical education offerings that include EMT/firefighting, forensic science and culinary arts, where students helped prepare lunch for the AFT national officer. Fort Lauderdale High also boasts a public affairs and pre-law program—including an actual courtroom and jury room for students to use in studies and exercises—and Weingarten, who is an attorney, talked to students about what it means to be a lawyer in the 21st century.
Also showcased on the tour was Parkway Middle School, a neighborhood public school with two magnet components in performing arts and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). The school also houses a special program for gifted students in grades 3-5, and a challenging program that exposes students to college-level music composition.
Throughout the visits, Weingarten spoke with officers and members of the Broward Teachers Union and the United Teachers of Dade, thanking these activists for boldly stepping up for their union family and their communities in the days following Irma. It was the local public schools that provided much of the food and shelter Floridians needed in desperate hours, Weingarten stressed, and it was school staff who took charge and made sure everything at the shelters—from transportation to meals and safe, comfortable accommodations—was in place. (She's shown below with UTD President Karla Hernandez-Mats.)
During a telephone town hall the day before the tour, BTU President Anna Fusco told AFT leaders about one sterling example of members' service in the wake of Irma. Upon learning that roughly 25,000 residents of Century Village (a community in Pembroke Pines whose residents are age 55 and over) were without power, more than 600 BTU members showed up to knock on doors, check on residents, and hand out ice and deliver meals.
"The message got out: If you need help, call the Broward Teachers Union and we will show up," Fusco said. Some union members showed up at BTU operations to eat, Fusco added, "but they saw that there were others who were in dire straits, so they took care of them before they took care of themselves."
It's a healing response, one that binds unions and community partners closer together, Weingarten told one group of union members she visited during the tour. Today, not only is the Sunshine State rebounding, but Floridians also are reaching out to help desperate, displaced fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. "It is to the collective credit of you all" that this is taking place, she told members.
[Staff and affiliate reports]