I will protect your pensions. Nothing about your pension is going to change when I am governor. - Chris Christie, "An Open Letter to the Teachers of NJ" October, 2009

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Hidden Voices of New Jersey's Teachers of Color

I was going to write about the meeting I and other New Jersey teacher-bloggers had with Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the new president of the National Education Association, last weekend. But Marie Corfield -- see here and here -- and Ani McHugh have done such a good job documenting the event that I really don't think I can add much of value.

Instead, let me address something about this meeting that's come up through social media -- something I think is very important:

Here's a photo we took at the end of the event. Do you see a problem?

I must confess: I didn't, until I got home and discussed the event with my wife. I know some of the people in this picture very well; others I met for the first time. So I won't claim to know how everyone here identifies themselves, but I do think it's fair to say that there aren't enough people of color in this picture.

Now, I want to be completely fair. There were, in fact, people of color at this event: Sean Spiller, Secretary-Treasurer of NJEA, was present for the entire thing (even if he let us do all the talking). Eskelsen Garcia herself identifies as a Hispanic. But let's be honest: this group needed some more diversity.

I suppose one could argue that this was a blogger event, but the truth is not everyone here is strictly a blogger. I suppose one could argue that this was for NJEA members, but the truth here is not everyone here is a member (even if all are sympathetic to the causes of public education and labor organization).

So there should have been some more people of color here, and I should have been able to see past my privilege to recognize the problem immediately. That's on me, and no one else. Part of "unpacking your privilege" is admitting you're a human being and sometimes you screw up, even if you think your intentions are good. So I appreciate people bringing this up; I will do better in the future.

I don't always agree with NJEA on everything, but I have found them to be a good group of people who genuinely care about their members, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation, or creed. But they still have some work to do (as do we all), and part of that work is making a more concerted effort to bring teachers of color to the table for events like this.

I'll confess: I would love to see some more New Jersey teachers of color take up blogging. Facebook and Twitter are great as tools for organizing and disseminating information, but I don't think they match blogging as a forum for fully exploring important issues. If we want to get the "voice" of teachers into the conversation, blogging is hard to beat.

And we desperately need that voice of teachers of color right now. As much as I've written about how teachers in Newark and Paterson and Camden are taking in on the chin, I don't live it. I can't give the full story because I'm not there. I can do my graphs and charts and whatever, but I can't tell you what it's like to be working in these classrooms. 

This is a place where I believe the NEA and other teachers unions can help: we have to start creating safe spaces for teachers to express themselves without fear of reprisal on their jobs

Given the toxic atmospheres that have been created in state-run districts, it's completely understandable that some teachers who might want to try blogging would be reluctant to do so. Members of teachers unions should be told that their right to free expression will be protected by their associations (and yes, we're all professionals -- we know how to protect our students and their families and still make meaningful commentary on education issues).

But no one is going to speak out if they don't think they will be heard. And you can't be heard if you're not present. So let's amplify the voices of teachers of color, whether they blog or not. And let's make sure their voices are heard first on issues of race and urban education.

Because right now, those are the voices we need to hear the most.

Edited for clarity. Triple negatives are really bad business...


Unknown said...

Thank you JJ for once again addressing a real issue.

ed notes online said...

JJ - you make a point that I've been hearing here in NYC in all the various white dominated activist groups. It always seems to come down to something we're doing wrong - we're not sensitive enough. People of color feel uncomfortable in a room full of white people. Our message needs to be targeted at people of color - and this is a divide even amongst the left - that tailoring the message will make a difference. That somehow people of color want a tailored message rather than addressing broader issues that affect all teachers. So where are they? Somehow that is not being explored. In NYC over 40% of the teachers are not white. They work side by side with the activists. Has anyone bothered to actually ask them? Do they bear any responsibility for their non-activism in ed circles? Are they active on other areas?

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Regardless of where you teach, it is very difficult to come out in public and be critical of your own school district. If you say the wrong thing about your administration or your students, you can and will be fired, tenure or not.

How many times has JJ taken his own district to task in these posts? Even though we may want to have more bloggers and voices from Newark, Camden, Patterson,..., I think it is dangerous to ask teachers to criticize their own districts in public. Just my two cents.