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Getting Past the Rhetoric to Support Labor and the Middle Class

Panel Discusses Why America’s Workers Are Under Attack and What Educators Can Do About It


Lillian Sparks J.D, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes executive director of the National Indian Education Association, speaks during Stopping the Rhetoric and Working Together session, Friday, July 1, 2011 at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago Illinois.

July 01, 2010
By Cindy Long

In a forum sponsored by NEA’s Office of Minority Community Outreach at NEA's first annual Day of Learning, leaders from diverse, ethnic minority communities discussed the labor and education issues facing our schools and offered strategies to help everyone understand the alliance between communities and organized labor.

The session, “Legislators, Labor and Leaders:  Stopping the Rhetoric and Working Together,” was moderated by Ed Gordon, host of “Weekly with Ed Gordon” on BET. Panelists included Rep. Danny K. Davis of the 7th Congressional District of Illinois, Luis Vicente Gutiérrez of the 4th Congressional District of Illinois, Maria Teresa Kumar, founding executive director of Voto Latino, and Lillian Sparks J.D, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes executive director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

They tackled the issue of why America’s workers are under attack and what educators can do about it. 

“The struggle for labor rights is the struggle for the middle class,” said panelist Gregory Cendana, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO. “It’s a common struggle, and we need to build partnerships, and genuine relationships to win the fight – it’s not about wheeling and dealing, but about building genuine relationships grounded in community and love.”

Rep. Davis said that we haven’t done a good enough job teaching young people about the full impact of what organized labor has done for this country.

“When you combine education and labor, it’s done more to reduce poverty and increase economic prosperity than anything else,” he said.

When asked about strategies to end the era of teacher bashing, panelists agreed that we need to offer a different perspective.

“You’ve got to beat the drum,” said Davis. “If you’re doing a good job, say you’re doing a good job. Let reporters know. Let legislators know. Let everyone know.”

Maria Teresa Kumar told the story of a group of retired teachers in North Carolina who volunteered in public schools and saved the state five million dollars. “Where are those stories?” she asks. “Why aren’t those stories being told?”

Another way to stand up for educators is to hold elected politicians to their word.

“We show up at the polls and think that’s it,” said Gutiérrez. “But we have to show the same level of tenacity in asking our elected officials to live up to their promises as we did in getting them elected.”

If you can’t effect change by forcing political feet to the fire, you should consider running for office yourself, Cendana said.

“It’s time for us to take the fight on for ourselves,” he said. “We need to be our own leaders.”

Davis agreed that we need to be more actively involved and that our greatest responsibility as educators and citizens is to be engaged in the policymaking process.

“As Dante said, the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who did not get involved in the greatest issues of their day,” Davis said. “And even though I may not be the best Christian, I believe there’s an up, and there’s a down. I want to go up, and I want all of you to go up, so please, get involved.”

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