Educators shifting to social justice unionism to better meet needs of marginalized groups
In the public imagination, teacher unions are sometimes envisioned as regressive forces that focus on protecting bad teachers. A closer look at the Cambridge Education Association shows a union that has been evolving for decades to become increasingly student-centered and committed to pressing issues of social justice.
Teacher unions come from the roots of the labor movement, and were founded to protect teachers from unfair labor practices and poor working conditions. But the Cambridge Education Association (Cambridge Teachers’ Association, at the time) shifted in the early 2000s to put students at the center of its work – support of students in all areas of their lives is literally in the bylaws as “at the center of everything we do” – by elevating issues such as addressing achievement gaps and promoting professional issues such as professional issues and multiple career paths.
Underlying that focus is the concept that “student learning conditions are educator working conditions.” While occasionally these are in conflict, having excellent schools for students to learn in requires that we have excellent schools for educators to work in.
Despite years of well-intentioned and skilled professionals working to fix critical opportunity gaps and inequitable student outcomes, we are still not meeting the needs of students from marginalized groups. As a result, the association has been making yet another shift: toward social justice unionism.
The association is updating its bylaws again to include social justice as a third pillar in its mission. We are committed to working with everyone in the Cambridge community – families, district leaders, School Committee members and others – to make equity the reality in every classroom across the city.
I want to share some of the work we are doing toward this end, and invite the community to join us in our efforts.
Increasing educator diversity. Seeing a district history of good intentions but little progress on diversity among teaching staff, the association has launched a number of initiatives since the summer of 2016 to support educators of color. One of the first was to form a committee specifically to “engage educators of color and allies around personal, systemic and historic issues that are unique” to them. This committee has organized a survey, several social events and two evenings of conversation, has presented findings to the superintendent and is working closely with the district’s new diversity program manager. Under my leadership the association also negotiated in the spring 2017 contract for a Diversity Committee that brings concerns and recommendations to the superintendent. We have already seen some progress on issues related to educators of color, particularly recruitment and retention, and are encouraged by current plans.
Listening to students. This fall, when the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School Black Student Union released a video documenting microaggressions and racism experienced in school, the association took action. That Friday after school, we held facilitated conversations at the high school open to all members; more than 50 came on very short notice. We started the conversations trying to understand students’ perspectives and moved into what educators need to address them. With issues so complex and important to every educator, the conversations were raw, and it was clear there was a significant amount of work to do to come together. We assembled a small, ad hoc leadership team to conduct an assessment, listening to all of our members with an eye toward making significant changes. While we want to address the urgent issues raised by the video immediately, the work needed to dismantle institutionalized racism in our schools cannot be achieved by dramatic gestures, but by slow, steady and unrelenting commitment to engaging educators in the self-reflection and learning necessary to change.
A $295,000 Building Equity Bridges Grant from Nellie Mae. One of the most exciting opportunities, this prestigious 14-month grant was identified by an association member and developed in collaboration with district staff with the superintendent’s support. It is an outstanding opportunity for us to set up structures allowing us to better understand the root causes of systemic inequities. The association will provide safe spaces for educators to share their experiences, particularly the barriers they face in achieving equitable outcomes for all. Because the association is outside the administrative structure, we can create spaces that encourage educators to take risks and be able to reflect honestly on their own practice as well as the practices at the school and district levels. This grant can put us in a position to really make a difference for students.
Dan Monahan is president of the Cambridge Education Association.