A sense of urgency crackled in the air at this year’s MEA Bargaining, Public Affairs & Professional Development Conference.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters made an unscheduled stop at Cobo Hall in Detroit to meet with educators and share updates with conference goers on the possible confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. Education Secretary – a nominee the Michigan senator vowed to oppose as unqualified, unprepared, and unsupportive of public schools.
With the Senate split 50-50 on DeVos, Peters said opposition was flooding the Senate at unprecedented levels – activism that “gives me hope,” he added – as citizens of all stripes have come together to fight for public education and other human rights issues.
That intense public pressure has since led to a 24-hour filibuster by Senate Democrats that began midday Monday and will continue through the night as a protest against the confirmation vote set for Tuesday.
Peters said the American people understand that public education is the foundation of democracy and society, and educators should be supported in doing such important work.
“Our goal that we should never, ever stray from is that we have a quality school with teachers that get support in every single neighborhood in this country—not just a few, not private schools—public education needs to be the foundation. It has been, and it will be going forward.”
Hundreds of MEA members and leaders attended training sessions at the two-day conference Thursday and Friday on topics ranging from preparing to bargain, school violence protections, teacher evaluations, member benefits, workplace wellness, crisis prevention, grievance processing, and more.
Brian Chinavare, a librarian in Livonia Public Schools, said attending the conference with his bargaining team seemed more important than ever, given the past decade of declining work conditions, pay, and benefits for school employees.
“We need things like this to see what’s happening around the state, to be able to compare notes with other people and learn strategies from the experts, and take that back home with us,” Chinavare said.
MEA President Steven B. Cook hoped attendees would also carry home the message that vigilance and hard work pays off. During last December’s lame duck legislative session, member and retiree activists were successful in fighting off various proposed anti-union measures, including attacks on school budgets and school employee pensions, he said.
Meanwhile, MEA has continued building partnerships with school groups, community organizations, and labor groups interested in joining forces on public education issues. Efforts included a recent retreat for new legislators aimed at forging relationships across the state Legislature’s political divide.
“The vigilance continues, the work continues,” he said.
That solidarity – the sense that no one is in this fight alone – is one of the powerful takeaways of attending MEA’s largest annual conference, said Wendy Epple, a Mt. Pleasant high school math teacher.
“When I go back to my own little world, I have friends across the state that I can continue to share my frustrations and my celebrations with,” Epple said.
The conference highlights a spirit of activism and strength of union bonds which is invigorating, added Liz Ratashak, a Vicksburg science teacher. “What we’re going through now as a society, this is what breeds unionism,” she said.
Keynote speaker David J. Johns used the opportunity to thank educators for “doing God’s work” while calling attention to the need to support and advance the interests of children who are often ignored – especially poor, minority children.
Johns, former executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, played a video of an 11-year-old boy from Ferguson, Mo., testifying before a commission investigating the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
The youngster discussed discrimination and lack of opportunity in personal and sophisticated terms, urging panelists to think about the causes of community anger and outrage that led to looting and violence in the streets. “There’s a reason why people are out there,” the boy said.
Johns said it’s vital for educators to ask the question raised by young Marquis Govan: Why?
“Think for a second how many times we as educators ask, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ rather than simply asking, ‘What’s wrong?’ and then sitting in the discomfort of helping young people reconcile those issues.”
The White House initiative headed by Johns under President Barack Obama looked to young people for help in identifying what they needed and wanted in their educations – including what worked and what didn’t work.
Children identify “love” as what they need most from educators, he said. It’s also what those students said they received the least. Statistics show for every white boy suspended from school in the U.S., three African-American boys are suspended. For girls the white-to-black suspension ratio is 1:6.
“So much of our work was centered around students saying we have more to do to make sure they all feel safe, that they’re engaged and feel supported, in particular students whose experiences are least likely to be centered or celebrated,” Johns said. “Related to this they ask us as adults not to say to them how we want for them to be, but to support them as they are and how they show up.”
Education should disrupt stereotypes and uproot discrimination, he said. “Thank you for taking care of yourselves to continue doing the work of showing up for our children, our communities, and our country,” he concluded.
Trisha Fires, a middle school special education teacher from Battle Creek, said she wrapped up her first MEA conference armed with new information and inspiration. “I think now I’m going to have more of a voice,” she said.