A year ago, NEA Executive Director Kim A. Anderson was angry. The “Don’t Say Gay” bill had just been signed in Florida, she recalled Tuesday. The Supreme Court had just overturned Roe v. Wade. And, 19 children and two educators had been shot to death in their elementary school classroom in Uvalde, Texas.
“I was angry, as we all were,” said Anderson, to this year’s 2023 NEA Representative Assembly (RA) delegates.
We’re still angry. Over, the past year, the fight has only intensified over the freedom to learn, to protect and support LGBTQ+ people, to make all students and educators safe in their schools and on their higher-ed campuses, Anderson said. But, over the past year, Anderson has reflected on the role of anger in social change, she said.
And what she concluded is “love is the reason we fight,” she told delegates. “Love is actually what fuels our anger, not the other way around. Love is what gets you out of bed every morning to show up for your students—no matter what. And love is why we chose this work in the first place—a love of children and students and a deep love for the value of public education….to our students, to our communities, and to our society.”
The Love That Listens
That kind of love starts with listening, Anderson said. “When we listen to our students, we don’t just learn about what excites them or worries them, engages them or frustrates them. We also learn what they need from us,” she said.
What they need is: First, acceptance—and that includes our LGBTQ+ students, who are more likely to die by suicide when they attend unaccepting schools. Second, students need to be safe. Anderson quoted Parkland survivor Emma Gonzalez who said, “If all our government can do is send thoughts and prayers, it’s time for us to be the change we need to see.” Third, they need opportunity; and, fourth, they need justice.
Anderson implored delegates to visit JustImagineJustice.org, a student expression campaign organized by Kansas-NEA. “Their vision is so powerful. So expansive. So beautiful,” she said. “Thank you KNEA for giving our students a platform to be heard and to remind us of what our country can be.”
And yet, many politicians aren’t listening, Anderson said. Some politicians seek “to sow division rather than champion diversity,” she said. They “ban books instead of bullets,” and they “spread lies instead of solving problems.”
In a direct message to these politicians, Anderson said: “You cannot claim to love America’s students if you refuse to listen to them and take action. That’s not what love for our students looks like.
“Our students know that…we know that…and the majority of Americans know that!”
Harnessing Anger, Acting With Love
Today, NEA members are harnessing their anger, Anderson said. And they “are acting out of love for our students and for the nation they will one day lead.”
On Monday, NEA President Becky Pringle shared many of the legislative victories that NEA members have achieved this past year, by electing pro-public education candidates and then demanding that they deliver legislation that helps students and educators. On Tuesday, Anderson directed RA delegates’ attention to several more.
“Love, just like the fight for freedom, isn’t easy. It requires action. And it requires solutions,” she said. “On this front, NEA is in motion.”
In just the past year, Anderson said, education funding has reached record levels in states like Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Idaho. Lawmakers have passed common-sense gun legislation in Washington, Colorado and Maryland. In South Carolina, legislators passed six weeks of paid parental leave for educators—the first of its kind in the Southeast. And, in North Dakota and Georgia, educators beat back vouchers.
“Becky, you talked about Michigan winning all the things. Well, I think their neighbor Illinois is also winning all the things,” Anderson said. “IEA [the Illinois Education Association] worked to join Hawaii to become the second state in the country to enshrine collective bargaining in the state constitution. Illinois became the first state in the nation to put a ban on banning books. IEA rolled back vouchers—and they won 90 percent of their school board races!”
“Lets go, NEA!”
And it’s not just state victories. When NEA members helped elect President Biden in 2020, they put a friend of public education and unions—and an actual NEA member, First Lady Jill Biden—in the White House.
In just his first 100 days in office, Biden pushed through the American Rescue Plan (ARP)—the single largest investment in public education in our nation’s history. “And, NEA, let me tell you: we went to work," said Anderson. "NEA created a Rescue Plan network of experts in our affiliates across the states to make sure that money was spent on what educators and students truly needed in their communities.”
As a result, today in public schools, we have 36 percent more school social workers, 28 percent more school nurses, and 11 percent more school counselors than we had before the Covid-19 pandemic, Anderson said. “And you know all those educator raises in states that Becky mentioned yesterday? They were made possible by the American Rescue Plan,” she added.
All of this shows what love makes possible, Anderson said.
Anderson quoted the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis, who said: “When we were sitting in, it was love in action. When we went on the freedom ride, it was love in action. The march from Selma to Montgomery was love in action. We do it not simply because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s love in action.”
In conclusion, Anderson exhorted delegates to “transform our righteous anger into fierce love in action! Love in action for our students! Love in action for our professions! Love in action for our communities! Love in action for democracy! Love in action for justice! Love in action for freedom!
“Let’s go NEA, let’s go!”