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Rising Stars

A new NEA program nurtures the next generation of leaders.

By John Rosales

Bacteriology is not a topic Donna Johnson is expert in. As bookkeeper for the English Department at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and a member of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) budget committee, she's more comfortable talking budgets than bacteria.

But she is also president of the University Staff Association. "I represent bacteriologists, whose work I know nothing about," says Johnson.

Mary Bryant, Donna Johnson, Cathy Beaty, and Lydia Scheiber are among 20 participants in the innaugural class of NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow. They were chosen from almost 100 candidates from across the nation.
Photo: Charles Votaw

So when the university's medical and research bacteriologists—many of them loyal MTA members—began leaving for more lucrative jobs with hospitals, Johnson decided to stop the hemorrhaging.

"We ended up bargaining a wage agreement just for them," she says proudly.

The agreement was one in a long line of smart and bold actions that has marked Johnson as someone to reckon with. As such, she was nominated by MTA President Anne Wass for NEA ESP Leaders for Tomorrow, a prestigious new program designed to train local leaders.

"When I was picked, I went, 'Wow, why me?'" says Johnson, who has served as president of the 1,000-member University Staff Association since 2001.

The 17 women and three men chosen for the program's inaugural class were selected from almost 100 nominees who were endorsed by state presidents and executive directors. Members of Class I met for five days of training in Boston and three days in Washington, D.C., at NEA headquarters last year. Their final session will be next month in Baltimore where they will meet, then attend the Emerging Leaders program and the National NEA ESP Conference (March 5-9).

"We want to groom folks who want to be local leaders," says Lisa Connor, program facilitator and an organizational specialist in NEA Education Support Professional Quality. "NEA needs stellar local leaders as well as national."

Marylander Steve Brooks will tell you that his participation in the program has sharpened his public speaking skills, and taught him how to build community coalitions and conduct more efficient meetings as president of the Calvert Association of Educational Support Staff. Program participants and instructors also have broadened his personal as well as professional horizons.

"I'm really eager now to move up to the state level," says Brooks, a high school custodian. "I've learned that you can get involved in so many ways with NEA."

The workshops encourage participants to examine their leadership style, then to mobilize members and rally the community, especially during negotiations and elections. The program also addresses stress management, organizing, recruitment, and ESP issues involving health care, privatization, earning a living wage, and understanding trade unionism.

Participants represent NEA's six regions and most of the nine ESP job categories.

"It's amazing to learn that they all have the same problems as we do in Shenandoah," says program attendee Toni Graham from the 48-member Shenandoah Support Association in Iowa. "We're seeing the possibilities of how to advance ESP issues, improve public schools, and help states understand that ESPs are as important as teachers."

In Washington, the group heard presentations from NEA Vice President Dennis Van Roekel, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen, and various directors of NEA departments. Paula Monroe, an ESP who sits on the NEA Executive Committee, made a presentation with Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council for Education Support Professionals, the 50,000-member group that represents ESP issues to NEA.

At about 480,000 ESPs are the fastest-growing NEA membership. Reaching 500,000 may happen "in the next year or year-and a-half," says Montgomery.

"One of our goals was to establish a national leadership program," says Montgomery, who is based in Little Rock, Arkansas. "Here it is. It's a mark that we are still on the move, making a difference in the organization."

For more information about Leaders for Tomorrow, call (202) 822-7931.

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