Summer Conference Builds Connections, Knowledge, Solidarity

Last summer, amid a global pandemic, racial unrest and a divisive national election, MEA member Travis Neller wanted to give young people a chance to join the dialogue surrounding tough issues facing the country – so he took action.

A prevention specialist at the regional educational services agency in Eaton County – Eaton RESA –  Neller founded a platform to give students a voice, called Youth Speak. The organization ran or helped to run four virtual events and a planning session during its first year in operation.

Last week, Neller hosted a SCECH-eligible session at the MEA Summer Conference to share his experience and invite others to join in. His presentation on “Why Youth Voices Matter” was one of many inspiring sessions on professional practice, union organizing, bargaining strategies, mentoring, LGBTQ students’ rights, lobbying and more at the Summer Conference, held virtually for the second year in a row.

“Research indicates that students who believe they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not,” he told attendees.

Students from a dozen Michigan school districts attended Youth Speak forums last school year to discuss systemic racism, the election, and the inauguration, he said. Participants at the 90-minute events discuss norms before talking together in small groups and reporting out about conversations.  (Anyone interested in Youth Speak can contact Neller at tneller@eatonresa.org.)

The goal is to improve social and emotional health, communication and public speaking skills, self-confidence, and engagement. Promoting diversity, equity and inclusion is a key focus. Participants reported greater comfort in discussing challenging topics, and they also had fun, Neller said.

“It gives them a chance to communicate with students outside of their own school, and they spoke up a lot,” Neller said. “Our students care about our nation. They have a lot to say.”

Wayne RESA literacy consultant Rosalyn Shahid shared brain research that undergirds approaches for supporting high school readers through culturally relevant texts, making connections to lived experiences, introducing movement and self-awareness activities, and engaging in authentic issue-based discussions.

As always but even more important this year, developing relationships and cultivating students’ sense of belonging is key, Shahid said. Participants left the session with practical strategies to put to use this year.

“There is no doubt when we re-enter school in the fall, those kids will have trauma. They will have had some loss, whether personal loss or just the feeling of loss because they hadn’t been with their friends like in the past, so they will be grieving for all of those things.

“We have to think about it very intentionally. I’m asking myself – and I’m inviting you to pose the question to yourselves, as well – how will you come to know your students more so, given these circumstances?”

Herbart on opportunities from new state budget

MEA President Paula Herbart kicked off the conference with remarks that pointed out the boost in resources coming available to Michigan schools to address students’ needs amid the uncertainties and upheaval of the pandemic – $4 billion of federal COVID-relief money and a historic $17 billion state education budget.

“Make sure, union sisters and brothers, that you’re at the table talking about how to best leverage those monies – understanding what your students and communities need and what educators need,” she said.

No higher education budget has been passed yet, however, Herbart noted, and our colleges and universities are just as deserving and in need of added funding. In addition to emotional and mental health issues, safety remains a critical priority at every level of the education system.

Meanwhile, voting rights are under threat in Michigan and 19 other states across the country and will require the attention and advocacy of everyone who cares about democracy, she concluded.

Strategies for local advocacy

Conference attendees also learned about strategies and work that can be done at the local level to build membership and strengthen solidarity, which translates into power to make change from the ground up.

In a session titled “Organizing Around the Bargain,” MEA Organizational Development Specialist Mary Aldecoa told the story of a unit of education support professionals that had lost members in the years following a contract change that created a two-tier pay structure. The new system incentivized temporary hires, she said.

When the contract was set to expire, work began to rebuild the unit around a unified desire to fix issues that were creating dissatisfaction and turnover. Through one-on-one conversations and priority-setting meetings, new members joined the unit and several volunteered to help with bargaining.

Suddenly, district administrators were facing a diverse new bargaining team, instead of sitting down with only the local president and a MEA UniServ director. “That set the administration back on their heels,” she said. “They really got that these people were fired up about these issues, and that led to a big win in that contract.”

The session was exactly what MEA member Erin Brinks needed, she said. The fifth-grade math teacher, who will be starting her 17th year at McBain Elementary School this fall, said she will be leading a negotiating team with several new members.

“I wanted to have some of the background knowledge of school finance and structure to lead the team and also some of the basics on how to strengthen our local,” Brinks said.

MEA member Brittany Nicely-Gott found much to like in the session as well. An early career educator who stepped up to a new union leadership role in her fourth year teaching last year, Nicely-Gott said she is a building rep and negotiator looking to keep her local strong.

“Our current leadership is excellent, and they will all be retiring within the next five years,” she said. “I want to learn absolutely anything and everything I can about the union in general and specifically how to get others to join me in leading so that we can remain strong.”

MEA holds several conferences throughout the year, including the Higher Education Conference in October, and the ESP Conference and the Conference for Aspiring and Early Career Educators in March. MEA’s biggest event of the year is the Winter Conference in February. For information on upcoming MEA conferences, stay tuned to www.mea.org/conferences.

Go to mea.org/professional-development for more information about SCECH- and certificate-eligible conferences, trainings, webinars and book studies.

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