Instilling hope through the pandemic and into the future

It’s been a year like no other, full of direct loss due to COVID-19 as well as the relentless beat of systemic racism amplified by the pandemic. The Many Threads, One Fabric series, sponsored by the New York State United Teachers and the AFT, tackled some of the thorniest topics with town hall sessions throughout the year. And on June 16, AFT and NYSUT leaders and members acknowledged the many challenges ahead but ended on a note of hope at one last session before a summer break.

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They all joined special guests—music legends Paul Anthony and Doug E. Fresh—to create what AFT President Randi Weingarten described as an event “celebrating the resilience, strength and determination displayed by our union family over the last 18 months as we move forward to fully return to our workplaces.”

If anyone inspires hope, it would be Grammy Award winner Paul Anthony, a musician widely recognized for his work with the R&B group Full Force and icons like James Brown, Rihanna and Patti LaBelle, as well as in movies like House Party. More recently, Anthony is a “cancer champion” who has overcome three different types of cancer and had a successful bone marrow transplant from his brother, Lucien “Bow-Legged Lou” George Jr., who was also on the call.

“The word hope means so much to me on a personal and professional level,” said Anthony. He was a social worker before his “musical ship came in,” he told listeners, and he described how he tried to “keep hope alive” for the many single mothers he counseled, so they could meet whatever challenges they faced. “The toughest cancer is cancer of the spirit,” he said. “The way we cure that is a transfusion of love and hope.” Anthony raises awareness, funding and support to fight and cure cancer and promote health, fitness and wellness through the Paul Anthony Foundation.

Reflecting on the pandemic, Doug E. Fresh recognized that “We’re coming out of something that has been life-changing for everybody.” The popular rapper, record producer and pioneer beatboxer once known as the “Human Beat Box” finds hope in many people doing their part to make it through, just as he has contributed rap videos of people washing their hands and wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. “My concept is that if everybody does a little, nobody has to do a lot,” he said. Fresh also works with New York City public schools using rap to engage students, and he is involved with Hip Hop Public Health, amplifying messages about health and wellness.

Even students have contributed to the feeling of hope, said NYSUT President Andy Pallotta, describing a student in Rome, N.Y., who helped start a food pantry in his community when the pandemic created job loss and poverty. From there, the community school expanded to provide clothing, arrange medical care and meet other basic needs. “This is happening all over the state,” said Pallotta. “That gives me hope.”

Teachers have certainly played their part, as Weingarten pointed out. “Kids have hope because of you,” she told the teachers listening. “They have it because of all the ways you’ve figured out how to interact with them this year. From the [school] lawn. From your kitchen table. In a hybrid mode, some in school, some on a computer.” Despite these challenges, NYSUT partnered with the AFT to produce the Many Threads series, she pointed out. “Through all of this, we’ve kept thinking about a world where we can thrive, where we can envision the future.”

NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, who founded and directed the series, reviewed the rich content and impressive guests from earlier sessions: Ibram X. Kendi, Juana Bordas, Peggy McIntosh, Lezli Baskerville and others discussing anti-racism and exploring privilege, multiculturalism in leadership, post-election ideas to fight for equity, anti-Asian racism and courageous conversations about racism in the workplace. These sessions can be viewed on NYSUT’s website, along with the June 16 session.

On this call, two members, healthcare practitioner Angela Maloney and teacher Preya Krishna-Kennedy, along with student Jordan Purrington, joined the group. AFT supporter and former Major League Baseball player Gerald Williams also participated. And in an unusual move, Abraham invited AFT staff members who helped run the series to join the discussion as participants—they included César Moreno Pérez, Viri Pettersen, Delisa Saunders, Cheryl Teare and Leven “Chuck” Wilson. Each spoke of hope and moving forward.

“My hope is that we come together as one, to offer a better future than what we had before,” said Purrington.

[Virginia Myers]