07/10/2015

Task force off to a great start toward racial equity

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More than 30 diverse AFT member leaders gathered in June for the first meeting of the union's Racial Equity Task Force.

They met in Baltimore, where, less than two months earlier, six police officers were arrested on charges related to the mysterious injuries that killed 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was severed while in police custody. Unarmed and black, Gray joins Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many others on the long list of black men whose violent deaths helped motivate the AFT executive council to create the task force in October 2014.

AFT's Racial Justice Task ForceThe task force is an all-volunteer group of member leaders representing locals throughout the nation. Across their differences in race, ethnicity and gender identities, members brought their experience, expertise and commitment to solution-focused discussions in Baltimore. Their common goal was to develop recommendations to address the particularly devastating impact of structural racism on the lives of black men and boys in three key areas: our educational, economic and criminal justice systems.

Work groups developed many thoughtful recommendations during the meeting. They range from intervention steps focused on male students of color, to addressing internal AFT diversity issues, to working with police organizations to create anti-racism workshops.

AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, who chairs the task force, expressed her pride in the way members have begun to tackle a difficult mission. "Structural racism is the 400-year-old foundation that props up today's barriers to equitable opportunities for black men and boys," she said. "I am so proud of the way AFT members brought their sledgehammers to Baltimore and started swinging away to dismantle it. Human beings constructed racism. Human beings can tear it down. Many hands make shorter work. Our goal must be to put a sledgehammer of awareness, commitment and action into every hand that wants to swing one."

Shelvy AbramsTask force member Shelvy Y. Abrams, an AFT vice president from the United Federation of Teachers in New York, said she was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of the members who volunteered for the task force, and by the ways they were "opening up" to talk with one another about what they often endured growing up. "You can sit in a room and you can hear each story," Abrams said, "and they all intertwine with each other. If everybody would do that, I think we'll be on our way to closing the gap between the haves and the have-nots."

Steve RooneySteve Rooney, an AFT vice president from the National Federation of Nurses, agrees with Abrams and described the importance of white people participating with people of color in racial equity work. "By sharing our stories, we understand each other better and also understand the reason we're here is to create something better for the future," Rooney said. "People in my community have to help create the change as well. ... Guys who look like me rule this world, and those of us in the white community have to be part of the solution."

Richard FranklinRichard Franklin, president of the Birmingham (Ala.) AFT, talked about the importance of staying connected to our communities and serving as role models and sources of encouragement for young black males. He described witnessing many community residents being left out of the revitalization of city centers. "People that live in the communities—whether in Baltimore, Birmingham or anywhere else—they have to feel that it's their community, that it's home. I think there's a huge disconnect, and that's why, when these things happen, you see kids riot. Because there's a huge disconnect, they don't feel like it's their community."

Franklin added, "Poverty is a huge issue. It's not just school. You can't have perfect schools and have a bad community. It goes hand in hand together. People don't really want to have that conversation. We want perfect schools, but we don't want perfect communities. If we straighten up the communities, the school situation will begin to turn around."

Katie ZamanKatie Zaman, a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association in Madison, Wis., said she joined the task force because she believes "anti-racism work is some of the most important work that unions should be doing today." Zaman said she had to confront her own racism when she moved to the city from the rural, predominantly white town where she had been raised. "The more I did so, the more I learned about the racist structures that exist in our society and what a big problem it is," said Zaman. "My personal belief is that it is going to take a very large social movement to overcome this problem."

Zaman added, "If we can move our unions toward a social justice frame, not only will it help make the world a better place, it will also make our union stronger."

The first meeting of the task force was informed by a stellar group of experts in the field of racial equity, including economist and educator Julianne Malveaux, Richard Gray of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, economist and educator William Spriggs, and Tory Russell of Hands Up United in Ferguson, Mo.

The task force will work on sharpening its recommendations during its next meeting, planned for August 20-23 in St. Louis. The group is working on a timetable that would enable them to present recommendations to the AFT executive council by October 2015. AFT officers and leaders have expressed their readiness to put these recommendations into action at every level of the union, once the council approves them.

[William A. Pritchett/photos by Matthew Jones]