“You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world, and you have to do it all the time.”
For half a century, the writer and educator, Professor Angela Davis has called on this nation to bring its practices into full alignment with its promises; to create a society where equity and justice are the rule, not the exception. After a lifetime of struggle, this longtime activist has not abandoned hope. She continues to believe this nation will one day develop the capacity to transform boundaries into bridges. NEA, as the bridge-builders for 50 million public school students, and with the rights of so many Americans at risk, we must share that view Professor Davis holds dear: Whether it is a mind, a heart, a school, a community, or our world, transformation is always possible!
NEA, change is always possible because of you!
As almost 6000 delegates gather – in person and virtually - for this historic RA, my heart is full.
Though COVID has challenged and changed our world forever, we are more committed than ever to lifting up our incredible students, our phenomenal educators and preserving public education as the path toward America’s future. During this powerful convening, we will do the work that will guide NEA for the next year and beyond. You will learn from and lean on each other; celebrate our amazing accomplishments; face our continued cacophony of challenges; make decisions and set policy; network, and envision our future.
Thank you, delegates, for remaining grounded in the joy that flows from learning and loving. Thank you for pursuing the justice that is every student’s right. Thank you for finding your way to excellence over and over again!
“Resistance is the secret of joy.”
With those six words Alice Walker aptly describes what it means to be an educator in this moment; to give voice to the realities we face, and then compel us to courageously lead through them. Repeatedly, we have been forced to resist inequities worsened by the pandemic. We have weathered countless attacks on our professions. On us. We have become exhausted by the demands created by crippling educator shortages. We have felt our voices grow hoarse from demanding professional pay and the respect we deserve.
Despite it all, you continue to live the preamble of our mission. You’ve embraced your role as the voice of education professionals; you understand that our work is fundamental to this nation, so you have accepted the profound trust that has been placed in us. You have found a way to resist even as you hold onto joy. Courageous and creative. Prepared and persistent, you stand in the power of the NEA, and the NEA stands in the power that is you!
For over a year, I have traveled this nation to listen to the voices of, learn from, and be inspired by our NEA members. I’ve met with students who are full of wonder, and wisdom, and wit. I’ve listened to educators describe their challenges as tears streamed down their cheeks; watched their eyes widen with joy when proudly sharing their successes and imagining all that is still possible. I have visited communities that are coming together, harnessing their assets, recognizing their shared humanity, and collaborating to nurture and support their schools so they reflect the highest aspirations for their students.
In California, I experienced the joy of LA Students Deserve. Parents and students standing side by side – in their power – centering students’ voices. They demanded more mental health services, and the funding to enhance the academic achievement of their Black students, and stop the over-policing of their schools. And they won!
In Durham, North Carolina, I learned from educators, parents, and school leaders at Lakewood Elementary what it’s been like for them to build a community school; one that is focused on students’ needs, grounded in distributive leadership, committed to valuing the assets of, and engaging with, their parents and communities.
Because you see, NEA, when it comes to our students, we must do justice. Justice must be an action!
I celebrated ESP Day in Wilmington, Delaware, with educators who created calming corners and a center devoted to wellness to support the minds, bodies, and spirits of students affected by trauma.
In New Jersey, I had the opportunity to “show off” NEA’s partnership with the powerful NJEA when I invited Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to see and learn from the excellence that can come from a labor-management collaboration that is supported and sustained to transform schools and empower our union.
There are so many more examples I witnessed, and so many more I haven’t, that demonstrate, NEA, you are answering my call to lead a movement that unites not just our members, but this entire nation, to reclaim public education as a common good, and then transform it into something it was never designed to be—a racially and socially just and equitable system that prepares every student, every one, to succeed in this diverse and interdependent world.
At this RA, we will unpack that big ol’ vision together. We’ll imagine, how it would actually look in its fullness; determine what we need to do, together, to ensure “all students, all educators, and all schools are excelling and everyone knows it!”
And we will do that work understanding that the rights many of us have spent a lifetime fighting to secure, are being stripped away in our lifetimes.
We have known since the 2016 election, this day would come; we would feel the effects of a radicalized Supreme Court issuing decisions that do not reflect the views or the values of the majority of Americans. We knew the ground had shifted, and the stage had been set to move us further away from the promise of America for all Americans. From decisions on school prayer that attack religious freedom; to vouchers that threaten the right to a universal public education; to the long-term, devastating impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to highjack the fundamental freedom to decide for ourselves when and how to have a family, and the care we need.
Like me, you knew these decisions were coming. That still didn’t change the gut punch it delivered. But I also know this: Like me, you absorbed that punch, you stood up, and you got back to work!
As we have for decades we will fight tirelessly for the right to choose. We will fight unceasingly for the rights of our LGBTQ+ students and educators.
We will say gay. We will say trans. We will use the words that validate our students and their families; words that encourage them to walk in their authenticity; to love themselves fully to become who they are meant to be!
And we will continue to take seriously our responsibility as educators to teach our students this nation’s true and complete history— the dynamics of our rich diversity - the triumphant moments, and those where we turned our backs on the values we espoused at our founding.
On May 14, in Buffalo, New York, we saw the horrible carnage that can grow when seeds of dishonesty, disinformation, and hate are sown by the extreme right, then cultivated by a misguided 18-year-old who was fueled by racism and armed with an assault rifle.
And then Ulvade. As I stood with the survivors of Columbine and Parkland and Oxford; as I listened to the stories of the young people who experience gun violence every day in their communities, as we gathered together, we knew our fight would have to continue. But let me be clear: The legislation President Biden signed into law represents the strictest gun control measures this nation has seen in 30 years. That was your work NEA, your activism; your support of our students; your partnership with parents and allies. Still, the legislation is not enough, and the court’s decision on guns makes that even more true.
But, NEA, we will be unwavering in our demands; undaunted by the challenges; unapologetic about our advocacy; and we will stand with our backs straight and unyielding. We will fight for what we know is right!
At Arlington Cemetery, the headstone of President John F. Kennedy holds these timeless words: “In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I don’t shrink from this responsibility,” his quote continues. “I welcome it.”
NEA, in 2022, our generation is being called to teach, and lead and heal this nation. We are being called to defend freedom during its hour of maximum danger. And we, the NEA, welcome that calling.
We will begin by placing every candidate for political office on notice. If you refuse to keep our schools safe, while calling on us to take up arms; if you disrespect us as educators and refuse to pay us as professionals; if you disregard or deliberately fuel the inequities that impact our students’ ability to learn; if you continue to wage a concerted effort to disinvest in and destroy our public schools know this: One in every 10 households in this country has an NEA member! Just as we did in the presidential election of 2020, we will make sure you know who we are. If you stand against our students, we will stand against you. If you vote against our educators, we will vote against you. This November, if you get in the way of our progress toward a more just nation, we will get in the way of your election.
So, NEA, my question is this: What will you do to embrace the call to defend equity, justice and freedom? What will you do in this perilous moment where the challenges seem insurmountable, yet the opportunities must be seized?
As proud members of the NEA; as delegates to this historic Representative Assembly, these are the commitments I need you to make:
You will demand and work to create safe, just and equitable schools grounded in students’ humanity and respect for our educators.
You will defend our democracy by strengthening voting rights so people can vote to support public education - the foundation of that democracy!
You will build our power by organizing our members and allies-- welcoming anyone who believes in our righteous cause.
It’s been almost five years since I lost my beloved husband. Before coming to Chicago, I stopped to spend time with him on the memorial bench my friends gifted me to honor his life. The plaque I wrote to Nate says this: “You pushed and pulled us. You caught and loved us. You made us risk and reach.”
As I reread those words, NEA, I thought of you. Every day, you push yourselves and others to do what we must for our students. Every day, you pull those who need it. Every day, you catch and love our children, their families and communities. You catch and love each other. You challenge yourselves to risk dreaming of the impossible, and then you’re always reaching to make it so.
That’s why I know, we will act as if it were possible to radically transform the world – every day, all day; in every school, and every community, and every state across this nation.
As I think about all that is expected of us in this moment, I can hear my father saying, “Rebecca, look up. The sun is still shining, and it will rise again tomorrow.”
Look up, NEA. You get to be the champions for our students.
Look up, NEA. You get to defend our democracy.
Look up, NEA. The sun is still shining. We will not be defeated. We will never give up; we will never give in! Every day, all day, we will stay centered in the work we have been called to do together. Every day, all day we will embrace our resistance as joy.
Every day, all day, we will remember who we are!
Delegates, lift up your heads, we are the NEA!
We are the NEA! WE are the NEA…
And we WILL prevail!
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The National Education Association is the nation's largest professional employee organization, representing more than 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators, students preparing to become teachers, healthcare workers, and public employees. Learn more at www.nea.org.
- Richard Allen Smith
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