PSRP members explore the AFT's 5 core values

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Paraprofessionals and school-related personnel gathered in Detroit earlier this month to share strategies on improving their effectiveness at work in schools and colleges, as well as how to mobilize their communities for public education.

AFT PSRP, realizing "we've got a fight on our hands" from a national government that wants to defund education, turned its Jump Start pre-conference into a series of trainings on the basics of mobilization. Highlights included how to develop strategies, organize rallies, make posters and lead chants, including: "We won't fall for their voucher schemes," "We're union and we're proud!" and "Just call on me and I'll help you out/That's what PSRPs are all about." The training ended with a massive rally outdoors on the shore of the Detroit River.

Group rally at the PSRP conference

Participants also discussed what the AFT's five core values mean to them—specifically, what it means to be champions of great schools and colleges that fulfill the promise of public education, good jobs that support a middle-class life, affordable healthcare, the fight against discrimination and bigotry, and the defense of democracy and pluralism.

On public education, members discussed what makes a great public school or college. Christy Wood of Texas named a few: high-quality, wraparound services; teaching to students, not to the test; full resources and funding; enrichment and the arts; and a strong union presence. Sandy Thompson of Alaska added a few more: staff stability, professional development, well-rounded curricula, community involvement, a nurse in every school and inclusiveness for all. Scott Proctor of Montana rounded out the list with visible administration, a culture of innovation and a sense of campus safety and security. Specifically on the higher education side, Annette Esposito of Connecticut cited the need for free community college, low-cost state college tuition, reasonable student loans, and affordable books and housing.

On the economy, members talked about how Americans should not have to work three jobs to make ends meet, noting that PSRPs are some of the lowest-paid workers in education. They explored what a good job looks like: a livable, family-sustaining wage, full benefits, reasonable hours and working conditions that allow employees to enjoy work-life balance and a decent life. They also touched on the benefits of union apprenticeships and affordable healthcare.

On the fight against discrimination, hate and bigotry, members discussed ways that racial bias can deprofessionalize their jobs—and how to begin reversing that bias by inserting professionalism into the union contract, including the authority to make decisions on the job and the development of career paths.

Members talked about countering hate with love. They spoke about working with blind children, starving children, and families living in cars: "It's because of people like every single person in this room," one member said, "that these kids survive."

Ruby Newbold

And on the defense of democracy, members spoke about voting and immigration rights. "We are constantly divided by those in power according to our ethnicities, gender, status and economic conditions," said Deborah Hall of Oregon. "When this happens, I feel we become vulnerable and this allows us to be divided." A restoration of voting rights, she said, will enable everyone to be heard. Rachel Martinez of Texas spoke of ICE raids on undocumented families in Austin and San Antonio. Our job, she said, is protecting students who are afraid they'll go home from school to find their parents deported.

The conference also featured annual highlights such as Solidarity Night, Workers Memorial Day awards, and the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award, which this year went to Tim Stoelb, president of the Oregon School Employees Association. Stoelb was honored for his outsized sense of responsibility and public service, said AFT PSRP program and policy council chair Ruby Newbold in presenting the honor.

"Strong people do not put others down, they lift them up," said Newbold (pictured above), president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president. "I want to tell you about one of the strongest people I know."

Newbold described the Oregon leader's two careers in public service: first, a full career in the military and then, as a retiree, a second career in education. Stoelb started as a union steward and moved up to become a state OSEA officer and an AFT vice president, focusing his talents on organizing, political action and, most recently, workplace safety and health. "Tim serves," Newbold said, "because he loves his family, his union and his country."

[Annette Licitra/photos by Mike Campbell]