The protests and walkouts in Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia and other states this past year were a catalyst that has led to a historic level of educators nationwide who are running for office this election season. In fact, nearly 300 AFT members are jumping into the political arena, a sign “that we are pushing back against austerity measures, public school closings and cuts to vital public services, said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson during a Sunday session on the political activism of members.
Johanna Lopez, an educator running for the school board in Orlando, Fla., shared with AFT delegates why she decided to run: “There are clear problems that teachers face inside and outside the classroom. Across the country, educators are afraid to speak up, and our students are not being heard.”
“For the past 19 years, my students and I have grown together inside and outside the classroom,” said Lopez. “From registering more than 500 students to vote to raising funds to support the victims of 9/11 and their families, my students and I have worked to empower our community.”
Two years ago, Lopez became the first Latina Teacher of the Year in Orange County. Now she wants to be the first Latina and the only teacher on the Orange County School Board.
“From the White House to local school boards, politicians have failed to provide solutions to teachers’ concerns,” Lopez said. “I am tired of politicians telling me what to do in my classroom. I am tired of politicians failing to give us better salaries, better evaluation systems and more autonomy,” she added. “I am done begging for attention from our elected officials. Instead, I am running to take their seats, and you should too. Teachers need to run for office, to mobilize their communities, to volunteer, to help elect other teachers and to defend the dignity of our profession.”
Brandon Johnson became a teacher because he wanted his students to have more opportunities than he had, and he wanted their neighborhoods to reflect those opportunities. But the biggest challenge of teaching for Johnson was not the work itself but a political system that prevents opportunities from manifesting. “I teach in a community in Cabrini-Green USA [a North Side Chicago neighborhood] where every day my students wake to gross disinvestment all around them,” he said. “The same cranes that were destroying their public housing were the same cranes that were building expensive homes for the 1 percent.”
Johnson decided to run for Cook County (Ill.) Commissioner to fight for the expansion of public services, to protect the people who do the work and to demand that large corporations pay their share. “We have a political environment that has set up winners and losers,” said Johnson. “Political parties have chosen the interest of the rich and powerful over our neighborhoods and our students.”
The encouraging news, he says, is that “we’ve been here before. This is not the first time this union or this economy has had to face these kinds of challenges—whether it was Dred Scott or Plessy, and now Janus. And we defeated the challenges because we found our voice in these moments,” he said. The encouraging news is we can “win and defeat the political structures causing havoc and harm across the country.”
Johnson called on delegates to go home and talk to their neighbors and union members about our values and begin to organize and get them to stand up for the interests of the working class. “We have to be prepared to do the hard work and not be afraid to say out loud what our values are.”
Johnson concluded his speech with a command: “Run for political office. Run until there is an AFT member in every single level of government from the city, to the state, to the White House.”
[Adrienne Coles; photos by Elliott Cramer]