Black Caucus conference empowers educators

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference is a lot of things: It features influential Black members of Congress, celebrity thought leaders, community organizers and activists. It is one of the nation’s leading policy conferences, a center for Black culture and political power and the setting for one of the hottest dinner tickets in Washington, D.C. And, for the eighth year in a row, it is home to the AFT’s professional development series for educators, organized in partnership with the CBCF and Delta Research and Educational Foundation.

Congressional Black Caucus panel

The series, held Sept. 28, is a leading source of professional learning and civic engagement for educators from across the country, and a reminder of how crucial education is to equity and justice.

“Public education got me where I am today,” said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram. From Miami’s Title I schools, he became the first in his family to attend college; he was a teacher, then president of the Florida Education Association and, in 2020, became AFT secretary-treasurer. “The school has always been the hope and pinnacle for every community—especially African American communities,” he said.

Grounding in truth

The series kicked off with the film Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, a sobering account of anti-Black racism and white supremacy. From close-ups of the shackles worn by enslaved children and footage of the civil rights era, to clips of today’s police brutality and samples of racial bias tests that reveal anti-Black bias even in Jeffery Robinson, the Black founder of the Who We Are Project, the film provided a troubling but honest foundation for the rest of the series.

“Is it uncomfortable?” asked AFT President Randi Weingarten, referring to the film she introduced. “Yes. But we get more comfortable when we start in an uncomfortable space.”

“Our job as educators is to see that discomfort, to help kids get through that discomfort, and to form a more perfect union with opportunity, equity and freedom for everyone,” she said. “You need to know struggle to strive for success.”

Diversifying the educator workforce

Teachers are leaving the classroom in exponential numbers, Ingram said. His own daughter made a conscious decision to avoid teaching, even though both of her parents are teachers. “I see how tired you are,” she told him. “I see what you have to do. I see all these rallies and marches.” The loss of Black teachers is even more consequential, since children who have teachers who look like them, from families similar to their own, have more academic success in school. 

Besides the low pay and lack of respect on the job, a larger reason for the exodus among teachers of color is “four centuries of institutional, systemic exclusion,” said Lezli Baskerville, president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. We have to unravel all of the “intractable gaps” in education, employment, health, wealth, housing and more, she said, and demand more funding for chronically neglected communities. And we have to fund institutions that are graduating Black educators—historically Black colleges and universities, which graduate more than half of the Black educators in the United States.

Lamont Repollet, president of Kean University in New Jersey, blames the education exodus on lack of access to higher education—the cost of college and predatory loans that disadvantage those who cannot afford to pay full price. “The idea of becoming an educator isn’t attractive because look at what educators make as a starting salary,” he said. “If there’s not a pipeline for these emerging educators, then guess what? We have a shortage.” He suggests leaning into programs like TRIO Upward Bound and dual enrollment.

Michael Smith, chief executive officer for AmeriCorps, didn’t have a Black teacher until 11th grade. “If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it,” he said—so young Black people do not imagine themselves becoming teachers. And those who make it into the classroom are leaving because they’re asked to do too much.

But considering what the late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis would have said, Smith suggested we don’t get lost in sorrow. “He would say the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice, and we are responsible for bending it.”

Tools for every day

In addition to these broad conversations, CBCF series participants also had four sessions that addressed their day-to-day lives as educators (and that provided CTE credit). In one, they learned strategies for students and themselves to cope with the stress and disruption of the pandemic, using affirmations, nonjudgement and modeling healthy behaviors. “Continue to encourage yourself or your teammates,” AFT health specialist Chuck Wilson advised. “Encourage, encourage, encourage.”

A session on community engagement explored different ways to involve families and other community members in education. “It takes that whole village model,” said Anna King, National PTA president. “In order for a child to be successful, we have to work together.”

Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, has seen community engagement at its best. When Chicago was targeting majority-Black neighborhood schools for closure, students, parents and communities fought back together. “We stopped the first plan to close 20 of 22 schools in our neighborhood,” said Brown. A hunger strike at Dyett High School eventually led to a $16 million investment in the now-premiere neighborhood school. “Our job is to use community organizing to win equity in public education,” said Brown.

In Texas, the fight is against privatizing education and censoring educators for teaching true history. There, Deyadira “Dee” Arellano, a public school parent and community organizer with the People’s Collective for Environmental Justice, is organizing with families, educators, students and community members. “We’re not just saying go out and vote. What you’re doing here today, that’s part of it,” she told participants. “I know you’ll go back to your communities and you’re going to continue to organize.”

In a fourth session, Reimagining Leadership and Building Equity in Schools, speakers Denise Harrington, director of advocacy for the League of Women Voters of Virginia; Danielle Miles, student support coordinator for the District of Columbia Public Schools; and Kandis Boyd Wyatt, an American Public University professor; with moderator Kenya C. Ramey, national program director for the Delta Teachers Efficacy Campaign—Teachers Advocating to Lead Great Change, explored strategies to support student-centered learning for Black and brown students returning after pandemic upheaval. They considered how technology and coalition and stakeholder building can advance education, and looked at the roles that whole-child, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), social-emotional learning and other approaches play in strengthening teacher efficacy.

[Virginia Myers]