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In New Jersey, No Age limit for Activism

Retired and Active New Jersey Educators Ace a Lesson on Multigenerational Political and Social Activism

By Janet Mednik

 

Their hair may be a little grayer and their gait a bit slower, but when it comes to flexing political muscle and pumping up member mobilization, the 25,000 members of the New Jersey Retirees’ Education Association (NJREA) are stronger than ever. That hasn’t always been the case.

Before adopting an advocacy model 11 years ago, NJREA—like many retiree education Associations nationwide—focused on events that were packed with fun, but somewhat void of substance. When it became impossible to ignore the barrage of attacks hurled upon school employees and on public schools, the NJREA, led by previous presidents Fred Aug and Roe Jankowski, took the organization in a bold, new direction. Over time, members received fewer invitations to social luncheons and more requests for political action and social activism.

Today, NJREA is proof that a membership representing lifetimes of experience and a collective dedication to New Jersey public schools—along with unprecedented support from New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)—has breathed new life into campaigns that aim to significantly improve the lives of today’s teachers, education support professionals, and students.

But such a coordinated effort takes resources, respect, and rigor.

A Winning Partnership

When it comes to resources, few active Associations can match those that have been dedicated to NJREA by its parent organization. NJREA not only enjoys office space at the NJEA headquarters in Trenton, it also has access to all of NJEA’s divisions, including technology support and administrative assistance, and help producing its award-winning newsletter. Moreover, NJEA has called on Steven Swetsky, assistant executive director of NJEA, and Sean Spiller, secretary-treasurer of NJEA, to serve as liaisons with NJREA staff and officers, respectively. Spiller says it is essential for the Association to have its mission and day-to-day operations intertwined with NJREA.

“We have a culture of working together on issues and advocacy that works. We share the same core values and the same passions, so it feels natural to work so closely together,” explains Spiller. “It’s hard for me to imagine not having the wisdom, experience, and hard work of our retirees. Their help and leadership
are invaluable.”

In addition to the direct benefits that come through close contact with an army of retirees who have a lifetime of experience in getting things done, the NJEA also gains something that is truly priceless: Inspiration. As Spiller sees it, “These men and women navigated similar challenges when they [were] working, so we know firsthand that, working together, we can fight the fight. There is no question that any investment we make in our retirees pays off ten-fold. They have the skills and experience required to be successful.”

The 'Daytime Face' of the NJEA

One advantage for success that retired school employees have over their “active” counterparts is that they no longer need to be in the school for eight hours, or more, a day. The NJREA members aren’t sitting idly though, and they are still making good use of the school day hours.

 
Kristy Canaby (foreground) is one the NJEA
staff members who works hand in hand with
NJREA leaders Pat Provnick (left) and Judy
Perkins (right).

“We have become the daytime face of the New Jersey Education Association,” explains NJREA President Pat Provnick. “We’re ready, willing, and available to lobby our lawmakers, to turn out for a rally, or to phone bank for an NJEA-endorsed candidate. Basically, we work hand-in-hand with our ‘parent’ organization to advocate for the causes that are important to the members, everything from teacher assessments to school employee pensions.”

Getting the NJREA to the vaunted position of one of the most active NEA retiree organizations in the country has not been easy. It has required the steely resolve of NJREA leadership, the members’ trust and willingness, and the substantial support and resources of the “active” Association.

Tapping into the pool of the newly retired and members who left the classroom long ago has been a steady challenge. Many retirees leave the state to enjoy a warmer climate or to be closer to grandchildren. And many retirees who remain in the Garden State want to shed all remnants of their working life. Fortunately, says Provnick, a large number of retired school employees are committed to staying in the fight for their profession and the state’s elementary and secondary schools.

“Our members stepped up to the challenge of being put to work. We still socialize and have fun, but now you’re sure to find us in the thick of Association activities, whether that’s at a rally, a State Board of Education meeting, a blood drive, or in the State Legislature in Trenton,” says Provnick, who took the helm of the NJREA a little more than a year ago. “Staying committed to our profession is inherent in us. Our members tend to want to contribute. Our unique partnership with NJEA allows us to not only be ‘foot soldiers,’ but to be part of the planning and strategy process.”

Giving Back to the Association

 

 Irma Lorenz is one of the teachers who still want to contribute. She could easily spend her days as a retired teacher reading classic books, best-selling novels, and literary works as a member of two book clubs, singing hymns in her church choir, or spending even more time with her grandchildren. But as busy as she is, Lorenz would still feel that something was missing from her life. No doubt, she is driven by the need to contribute and, as she says, to “pay back.”

“I like the feeling that I am contributing to a larger effort. NJREA retirees get a great deal of satisfaction from knowing that when things need to get done, we are the ones who can do it,” says Lorenz, who held a number of leadership posts, including building representative and member of the negotiations team when she was a second-grade teacher in Burlington Township. “My Association successfully fought for me when I had a tenure issue and I feel the need to give back.”

“Give back,” she does. These days, Lorenz can be spotted at NJEA-backed rallies, on lobbying visits in Trenton, at NJREA editorial and PAC committee meetings, and, as a member of the NJREA Speakers Bureau, talking directly to active members about the union’s past challenges and victories. The organization is stronger due to her efforts, but she is fortified as well. “I feel for today’s teachers. They have so many issues confronting them: teacher evaluation, standardized testing, and other challenges that rob them of valuable time that could be better devoted to ‘teachable moments.’ Today’s teachers and school employees have little time to be on the frontlines to fight back. I’m glad I can be a strong voice on their behalf,” says Lorenz.

Lorenz is being heard—by fellow members; state and local lawmakers; and the community at large. But when a solitary voice is joined by a chorus of others, the message being voiced reverberates and becomes difficult, if not impossible, to ignore.
Thanks to NJREA’s collaboration with NJEA, a multigenerational cadre of former and current school employees do speak with one voice on a myriad of education issues aimed at keeping New Jersey’s schools strong.

Political Might Grows Stronger with Age

Perhaps there is nowhere in which the effectiveness of the partnership between retirees and active members is more fully evident than in the corridors of power in the historic State House in Trenton. There, you will see retirees, like Lorenz, visiting with state lawmakers with the ease and professionalism of the most polished, established lobbyists.

Thanks to the NJEA-NJREA lobbying effort, nothing is left to chance when it comes to advocating on behalf of NJEA and education issues. Provnick explains: “We want our members to feel as comfortable as possible when it comes to lobbying, so we work closely with NJEA to make sure that they are prepared to be as effective as possible.” Indeed, NJEA staff work with retirees on everything from the logistics of where to park their vehicles to legislative maneuvering.

The focus, says NJEA Government Relations Director Ginger Gold-Schnitzer, is on comprehensive training sessions. Specifically, a newly unveiled strategy calls for each of NJREA’s 21 counties to select up to 10 members for special lobbying training. Three county teams at a time visit Trenton to learn from NJEA staff everything from the likely places in the State House to encounter key legislators, and the best way to communicate in a meeting, to the nuts-and-bolts of key legislation. Armed with an NJEA-produced lobbying handbook, familiarity with the State House, and plenty of role-playing behind them, NJREA members are transformed into prized lobbyists.

“Our training program has been a huge hit,” says Gold-Schnitzer. “Our retired members are excellent advocates who speak from experience. These men and women do such an amazing job conveying our organization’s issues to legislators. They deserve to be treated like the kings and queens that they are. They built this organization and they continue to fight for it.”

With success like this, it is a mystery to Gold-Schnitzer why other active state Associations would not fully mobilize their retiree members. “The retirees are the best untapped resource. I would urge organizations across the country to start the conversation with their retiree leadership. I guarantee it would be a shot in the arm to the advocacy effort,” she says.

Statistics support Gold-Schnitzer’s claim. When it comes to political action, retirees speak with their votes, their wallets, and their feet. Active NEA members vote at a 20 percent higher rate than the general population, and NEA retirees go to the polls in even larger numbers. Furthermore, NEA retirees donate to the NEA PAC at numbers greater than that of the active membership. In fact, NJREA members last year contributed just shy of $90,000 to the NJEA PAC. In addition to electing pro-education candidates and supporting the political cause financially, retirees also “come out in droves,” according to Gold-Schnitzer, to raise their voices for education-related causes at rallies and other public events.

Working for the Next Generation

“Our members believe in the American Dream. They care about their kids and their grandchildren. That’s why they give of themselves so fully,” says Provnick, who also serves on the NJEA Executive Committee.

Indeed, whether she’s marching on behalf of today’s workers or phone banking for NEA-endorsed candidates, Arnetta Johnson, a recent retiree, holds her children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren near to her heart. “I’ve always been active in my union because I believe that each person can make a difference,” says Johnson, who currently holds leadership posts in NJEA and in the Gloucester County Employee Association. She is also part of the NJREA Planning Committee. “I care deeply about the challenges facing today’s teachers and pupils. I am happy that I now have more time to advocate on their behalf,” she says.

 

Spare time is something that Michael Kruczek, of Warren County, N.J., rarely seems to have these days. For more than three decades, he has spent his weekdays teaching the intricacies of math to high school teens, while his evening and weekends have been devoted to the business of his county Association. As president of Warren County Education Association (WCEA), Kruczek has personally witnessed the power of the retiree arm of the NJEA. Most recently, a group of retirees joined Kruczek and WCEA political activists in urging registered voters to support a congressional candidate in New Jersey’s District 5.

“We’re like a family. The student members are the kids. We’re the parents. And the retirees are like grandparents. We are always there for each other. Whether it’s making phone calls on behalf of a pro-public education candidate or attending a superintendent’s meeting on teacher assessments, we know we can count on our retirees to support our efforts. I’ve had the privilege of working closely with our retirees and I cannot express my gratitude for their dedication. Without question, I know I will follow their lead of activism when I retire and become a member of NJREA,” says Kruczek.

Surely speaking for many NJREA members, Johnson says, “Being retired doesn’t mean you stop caring. I’m busier than ever. I can’t imagine not being involved in my Association.” She credits the NJREA’s communication efforts for helping to foster participation in all facets of the organization. Johnson, who worked in education for 40 years, says that fellow retired teachers are sure to discover an activity, issue, or cause that is important to them by checking out all that NJREA has to offer.

Staying Connected

 

An up-to-date website, an acclaimed quarterly newsletter, and postings on social media sites like Flickr and Facebook keep the retired members informed on issues and events. As Miriam Reichenbach, NJREA editorial committee chair, explains, “We don’t do ‘fluff and stuff.’” Rather, Reichenbach and the 12-member committee, focus on pensions, health care, and other issues of importance.

“Based on the feedback we receive from our members, our communications efforts are on the right track. Our membership feels informed and appreciated. Communication goes a long way to mobilizing retirees. We’ve seen that firsthand,” says Reichenbach. “Members feel connected to seeing members of their local doing legislative, political, and advocacy work, and by using the communication tools available to us, we can get the word out fast and efficiently.”

Being connected, both personally and digitally, has resulted in an NJREA that is a partner, not an adjunct of NJEA. However, Provnick says that as closely as the retiree organization works with the active union, NJREA still maintains its own identity.

“Retirees are unique individuals. We now have time to be active in the daytime hours, and we have a wealth of experience that active members can draw from. We want to contribute—and we are, in the Association, in our communities, and in our social lives,” Provnick says. “I’m proud of all we do.”

Provnick and other leaders in NJREA are keenly aware that retirees have different interests and goals, which is why the NJREA president is fond of saying that within NJREA “there is a lid for every pot.” She knows that some retirees may be driven to elect education-supportive candidates. Others like nothing more than being deeply involved in a heated legislative battle. Many just want to help their communities in blood drives, canned food collections, or environmental clean-up. And, yes, retirees enjoy luncheons and travel getaways. The days of retirement are precious, but NJREA’s mission is to see that the “golden years” are just as rewarding as those that were spent with America’s public school students.

Published in:

Published In

1-Feb-15

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