Lorretta Johnson: 'The AFT is all about community'

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AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson put an exclamation point on TEACH proceedings with closing-session remarks that shined a bright light on one of the AFT's four pillars of strong, purposeful public education: work that fosters cultures of collaboration among educators, administrators, families and communities.

These efforts are deeply personal, said Johnson, a national union leader whose career journey started as a paraprofessional in a Baltimore elementary school. Decades later, still fresh in her mind are the children in those classrooms who struggled with hunger, poverty and a lack of care, she told the crowd. And those challenges have shaped and distinguished the institution of public education: "In our public schools, we serve every child—and sometimes that child doesn't have a parent around to help them wash up."

Lorretta Johnson at closing session

Rather than dismiss these wide-ranging needs as someone else's problem, AFT members and affiliates have stepped up through programs like First Book, which provides free books to low-income families; leading-edge support for the growing community schools movement; and innovations like Baltimore's own Care Closet.

The union is also making strides in healing the community at large, the AFT leader told the audience, by "drawing together people to address racial justice." The union has been elevating this issue through its Racial Equity Task Force, which recently facilitated a daylong conference that joined the union's Civil and Human Rights Committee and its Criminal Justice/Public Safety Task Force in a dialogue about criminal justice and police violence. "In Baltimore, we were there after Freddie Gray was killed, when the city was angry and mournful at the same time," Johnson added. "We went out and helped clean up the streets after the riots had passed. When the schools were closed, we helped set up temporary 'freedom schools' to care for the children in our local churches."

Through these efforts, the union and its members are helping to bind neighborhoods together and carve out "places where children and their families can get the services they need, from counseling to food banks to tutoring," and it is helping deliver a powerful public message: "The AFT is all about community."

[Mike Rose]