Social justice is hardly a new concept at the New York State United Teachers, the union for educators in New York. But since George Floyd’s murder and the racial reckoning that’s followed, NYSUT’s commitment to the cause has amped up.
The union already had a social justice agenda, which included training sessions with some of its leaders; now a new social justice webpage offers a plethora of other resources, including “Many Threads, One Fabric,” a series of virtual conversations with notable antiracist leaders like Ibram X. Kendi (author of the best-selling How to Be an Antiracist) and Peggy McIntosh (who wrote the widely known paper “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”). The series will run for a year, ending in a retreat for NYSUT leaders who want to dive more deeply into antiracist work.
“I knew that our union had to take action and respond to the disparities exposed by COVID-19,” says NYSUT President Andy Pallotta. “But after seeing what was done to Mr. Floyd in particular, I knew it was time for us as a union to do more.” And so NYSUT has partnered with AFT President Randi Weingarten to take the lead and start a new chapter of antiracist education and activism.
The need is urgent, says NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, who is also an AFT vice president. He oversees the union’s social justice efforts and is helping direct the work. For Black men like Abraham, it is impossible to ignore the threat of racism when the news continues to be “in your face,” reporting death after death of people who look like him.
So the project started with a vigil for Floyd. But the union didn’t want to stop there, with “just a drive-by,” says Abraham. “We want to do something that’s long-lasting, that will yield results.”
Now NYSUT is planning to create a new, cabinet-level staff position: director of social justice. It’s offering a rich collection of tools to fight injustice, from videos and curriculum resources to lists of social justice organizations and media updates on social justice issues. And it will continue the Many Threads educational series because, as Abraham says, “The first thing about solving an issue is being aware that it exists.”
At the first session, Weingarten led a conversation with Ibram X. Kendi, a leader in the antiracist movement and a former member of United University Professions, the faculty union at the State University of New York.
“To be raised in the United States is to be raised to be racist,” said Kendi. “Once we come to grips with our upbringing, we can move forward and begin the process of transforming ourselves.” Kendi stressed how important educators are in that transformation. “It took a pandemic for many Americans to realize how important teachers are,” he said. “Teachers need to know how to be antiracist.”
“It is our obligation to try to confront racism and, frankly, as educators and nurses and others, to no longer be silent—not just confront it, but try to create a community that is antiracist,” said Weingarten.
At the most recent session, Peggy McIntosh talked with AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus about unearned privilege and described her own “aha!” moment: Just as, when she was a young female academic, she discovered that academia assumed “knowledge is male”—since men published and taught more, and ran the best-known research universities and university presses—academia also assumes knowledge is white, with white people at its most powerful intersections.
As a white woman, McIntosh realized she had an advantage over her Black colleagues, because the network of those hiring, distributing grant money and judging academic work is largely white. What other unearned “white privilege” did she enjoy? Her list—including things like the ability to shop without being suspected of theft, and the ability to choose a safe neighborhood with neighbors who will treat her with respect—has since become a touchstone in the antiracist movement.
McIntosh described how white people can share their privilege: For example, when she is asked to present at a conference, she insists on sharing the stage, and the speaker fees, with people of color. She urged listeners to seek out voices from people they might otherwise pass over. And she framed unions as organizations that work toward justice by fighting for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”
“Social justice is basically the union value I think we should all be striving for,” said Cordelia Anthony, president of the Farmingdale Federation of Teachers, after attending the virtual McIntosh event. As the only Black science teacher in her Long Island district, she is especially concerned about diversifying the teacher workforce so that children of color can see themselves reflected in their teachers.
That task will take some time; meanwhile, having an online bank of Many Threads sessions available to educators will help pass these teachings on to students. “We want to teach them that there is a system out there that may not benefit all of us,” she says. “That there is an underlying issue that we face in this country that we haven’t necessarily fixed.”
Matt Haynes, a middle and high school English teacher and vice president of the Tri-Valley Teachers’ Association, says he’s proud of NYSUT and the AFT for taking up this cause, and as a white person attending the Many Threads sessions and reading antiracist books, he has already learned more than he realized he could. “The whole [union] motto is an injury to one is an injury to all,” he says. “When there is obvious bias and racism out there, we should be the ones taking the lead.”
“As a mom and as an educator, it’s my responsibility to move this forward,” says Kara McCormick-Lyons, a high school teacher and president of the White Plains Teachers Association, who has also attended Many Threads events. “The alternative is the status quo. The status quo isn’t acceptable.”