School and college support staff: This is how they do it

They were quiet at first. But by the end of this year’s PSRP conference, the 139 first-time attendees had made themselves known as the future of AFT PSRP. With a new emphasis on job classifications and a sharper focus on higher education, the AFT’s paraprofessionals and school-related personnel met in Baltimore April 14-16 and declared, “This Is How We Do It.”

PSRP Conference attendees standing in solidarity
First-timers made up a big percentage of attendees.

PSRP co-chair Shelvy Young Abrams of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City opened the first general session along with co-chair Carl Williams, president of the Lawndale (Calif.) Federation of Classified Employees.

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Abrams said, the nation’s support staff proved that schools and colleges could keep going. “You held it down,” she told them. “And when it came to the kids, you did a fantastic job.”

In fact, PSRPs showed the world so well how to keep lessons flowing and children fed that they received a video shout-out from Montell Jordan, the R&B singer-songwriter best known for his single, “This Is How We Do It.”

“Listen—our public institutions don’t run without y’all,” Jordan told the hundreds of PSRPs gathered, name-checking everyone he could, from bus drivers to office staff, maintenance crews and food service workers. “And it’s not just what you do—it’s who you are.”

Next, attendees showed their spirit in a brand-new way: doing the Wave with posters spelling out P-S-R-P.

AFT President Randi Weingarten greeted the crowd by video. She thanked support staff for maintaining their professionalism in tumultuous times. “On top of that, you may be too short-staffed to take a sick day when you need to,” she told them. “Here’s the truth: You’re the infrastructure. You’re the glue. Without you, communities lose out big time. You make schools better.”

The legacy of Al Shanker

The highest PSRP honor is the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award. This year’s winner is Christel Williams, PSRP leader of the Chicago Teachers Union, who champions the slogan “PSRP for Life.” Notably, she helped Chicago fire its mayor and elect a new one―former teacher Brandon Johnson―who shares our values.

Chicago's Christel Williams, "PSRP for Life," wins the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award.
Chicago's Christel Williams, "PSRP for Life," wins the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award.

CTU President Stacy Davis Gates congratulated Williams and “every single person in this room” for their loving, caring work. Gates recounted how Williams and the community saved a school from being closed. And how, in 2019, PSRPs anchored the union’s contract fight—even when some folks expected them to be invisible at the bargaining table—so that wages were lifted 40 percent and programs were established for gender equity and racial justice.

In accepting the award, Williams expressed gratitude for Gates, for the late CTU President Karen Lewis, and for retired council member June Davis. “I am forever grateful,” she said. “Union work is a legacy of my life.”

The legacy of Ruby Newbold

AFT PSRP then unveiled a new award in the name of Ruby Newbold, a retired council member and president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees, who died recently. Newbold was “a fierce unionist,” in the words of her colleague and friend Kathy Chavez of New Mexico.

Newbold built labor coalitions and demanded that education support employees be treated as professionals. “Now she’s organizing the hell out of heaven,” Chavez said. “And she will win.”

Chavez presented the first Newbold Award to Donna Jackson, president of the Detroit Federation of Paraprofessionals. Jackson called to the stage DAEOE President Stephanie Carreker to share the award.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram (standing right) and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson (front left).
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick Ingram (standing right) and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson (front left).

For decades, ultra-conservative forces in Michigan had been stripping away unions’ organizing rights. But AFT Michigan stayed in the fight. “It was everybody getting together,” Jackson said. And on March 24, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a bill restoring workers’ rights, which will improve job safety and empower Michigan workers to advocate for better working conditions and wages. It is the first repeal of a state’s so-called right-to-work law in nearly 60 years.

Abrams next introduced AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram, who declared how impressed he was with the PSRPs.

“You all have some great, great energy in here,” he said. “I thought it was a trip with the Singing Sensations,” a chorus of children who sang oldies. “Then you did one better. Montell Jordan brought me back to my young adulthood.” Last but not least, he praised CTU’s key role in electing the new mayor of Chicago. “That’s a big change!” Ingram exclaimed. “That’s a sea change!”

Ingram commended AFT Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus Lorretta Johnson and Abrams for working with Al Shanker on bringing PSRPs into the union. “Before you leave here today,” he told members, “you get out your phone and you take your picture with an icon.”

Ingram recounted the ways PSRPs had touched his life. It was a paraprofessional who kept telling his teacher that, despite his stutter, “There’s nothing wrong with this boy. This boy is smart.” Ms. Jones saved my life, he said. “You all saved my son’s life, too; he’s on the autism spectrum. They told me to medicate him and hope for the best. It was the paras who cried with me and worked with me. Thanks to you, he is a community college graduate. You saved his life.”

PSRP Conference attendees showing a poster that they made.
Poster-making that captures the spirit of support staff is popular every year.

One of Ingram’s daughters graduated from Howard University and attends medical school at Emory University in Atlanta. At every higher education institution, he said, PSRPs keep the engines running.

Having a 17-year-old at home is not easy, Ingram said. “But at 5 in the morning, I give her to a school bus driver. I expect that bus driver to get up at 3 a.m.,” have some coffee and check the tires. “In Florida, our governor wants to pay them $8.45 an hour. He’s on a collision course with stupidity.”

When he was little, Ingram remembers, the lunch lady gave him a snack and said: “Eat that. You’re going to do a little better in school today.”

PSRPs truly never know the impact they have on a child’s life.

“Keep rolling,” Ingram told them. “Keep fighting. Keep doing. The world needs you.”

His remarks were followed by a poster-making activity in which PSRPs expressed their work in words and pictures. For instance, Alabama members used these phrases: “It takes everybody: a village, you, me, us, everybody.” “There is a trust between all of us.” “Bring us anyone; we will take everyone.” And “When in doubt, just be kind.”

PSRPs from Connecticut said: “We complete the world. We complete the school.”

From Rhode Island and Massachusetts: “The face of poverty isn’t what you think.”

And from Dallas: “We are planters. We grow our students from the bottom up.”

Fighting the good fight

Maybe because of the pandemic, the awards AFT PSRP gave this year seemed harder-won and stood in sharper relief than those of years past.

The Lorretta Johnson Solidarity Award went to AFT Kentucky 120 United. Nema Brewer sat in shock before bursting into tears and going up to accept the award.

AFT Kentucky 120 United won the Lorretta Johnson Solidarity Award. From left: Donna Jackson, Shelvy Abrams, Nema Brewer, Evelyn DeJesus and Carl Williams.
AFT Kentucky 120 United won the Lorretta Johnson Solidarity Award. From left: Donna Jackson, Shelvy Abrams, Nema Brewer, Evelyn DeJesus and Carl Williams.

“You guys have been in the trenches a long, long time, and we are just now in the fight,” she said. “We’re not stopping. We won’t be stopped.”

Beginning in 2018, Brewer said, she and other members grew tired of hearing that they should trust Kentucky legislators. When they noticed their pensions were about to be attacked, they formed a private social media group and, within weeks, shut down 30 school districts statewide. In 2019, they did it again.

“It is hard,” Brewer said. “It is hard to tackle Goliath as a David. It is heartbreaking, it is tough and it is hard. But we’re doing this for the union.”

Several other affiliates were recognized.

The Member Engagement and Professional Development Award went to the West Genesee Paraprofessionals Association, an affiliate of New York State United Teachers just west of Syracuse, for their paraprofessionals academy.

The PSRP Advocacy Award went to the New Hartford (N.Y.) Employees Union, whose members converted budget cuts into substantial raises.

The PSRP Achievement Award went to the Oregon School Employees Association for making significant gains, including knocking on thousands of doors to get Tina Kotek elected governor, and winning 20 percent raises with COLAs and longevity pay, plus two steps and a guaranteed living wage.

The Organizing Award went to the Buffalo (N.Y.) Educational Support Team for hanging tough through almost 10 years without a contract and continuing to organize even after repeated attempts to break the union.

The cherry on top

In introducing AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, Abrams recalled that DeJesus had begun her union life as a paraprofessional.

DeJesus then announced that she was shaking up the schedule.

“We have a treat for you,” she said, calling the occasion a rare privilege. “You’re in the presence of two PSRP legends today: Lorretta Johnson and Shelvy Young Abrams. They thought they were here to honor each other, but they’re here so we can honor them both.”

PSRP co-chair Shelvy Abrams (right) came down from the podium to sit with Lorretta Johnson as the two were honored.
PSRP co-chair Shelvy Abrams (right) came down from the podium to sit with Lorretta Johnson as the two were honored.

Growing up in the union, DeJesus said she was always in awe of Johnson as someone who fought for women, for civil rights and for labor. Likewise, she tried to imagine the indignities that Abrams, “mi hermana,” had to face as a para in the 1970s. Nevertheless, for more than five decades, Abrams “kept on keeping on.”

Longtime AFT organizing director Phil Kugler recognized these two giants with more than 100 years of experience between them. “We had 66,000 PSRP members in 1981,” he said. “We now represent over 370,000.”

“There is no way we can come all the way to Baltimore without honoring Lorretta Johnson in her own town,” added PSRP co-chair Carl Williams. “She shows us that anything is possible.”

Chavez, also a PSRP council member and an AFT vice president, admitted that at first, Johnson “scared me―and nothing much scares me.” But Johnson welcomed her to the fight.

Chavez pointed to two famous quotes from Johnson: (1) “If you come to our meetings, I’ll do what you want. If you don’t come, I’ll do what I want,” and (2) “If you see me fighting a bear, help the bear.”

Members were treated to an AFT documentary featuring Johnson and Abrams. After watching the history video, Alicia Barton, a school transportation monitor from Austin, Texas, shared that this was the first time she had ever attended a conference. Her leader and her mentor at Education Austin had pushed her to go.

“I didn’t want to get out of my comfort zone,” she said. “Now I’m here, and this is my comfort zone.”

Two former PSRP directors, Tish Olshefski and Tom Moran, closed the session with union songs.

‘It’s your time’

On the last day, a first-timer from Baltimore said she came to the conference feeling alone. By the end, she knew that “I have a lot of people here.”

“The support here is crazy,” another newcomer agreed. “And when I go back to my school, I don’t have to be quiet. I know I have you all behind me.”

Photo of attendees working at tables
Hundreds of PSRPs turned out for the 2023 conference in Baltimore, back to pre-pandemic levels.

“Without the union, we would be nowhere,” added a third.

PSRP co-chair Abrams told millennial and Gen Z members what she has told so many others: “It’s your time.”

Next year, she wants to see more of them as local presidents, saying: “If I can do it, you can do it.”

[Annette Licitra]