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National Education Leaders Have Bold Conversation on Racial Equity

ORLANDO, Fla.—On Friday, leaders and members of the Florida Education Association spent part of their statewide Delegate Assembly having a blunt, tough, uncomfortable but courageous conversation about how to address the lingering effects of racism and inequity in the state Florida and throughout country. This bold conversation comes on the heels of recent racial tensions at the University of Florida.

The conversation included remarks from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcìa, NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, and bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi.

“Institutional racism is deeply ingrained in our society, including our school systems. This has increased as the political tide pushes for privatization of education, which escalates the resegregation of schools,” said Joanne McCall, FEA president. “It’s up to all of us to address these issues in our schools and communities to end the divisiveness that has become so pervasive in our country. Our students deserve better, and we must lead the way against bigotry, racism and hate.”

“Since last November, we have seen some of the negative impacts as institutional racism has come out of the shadows and into the open,” said Fedrick Ingram, FEA executive vice president. “And that is why we must continue to be vigilant for future generations.”

The session was kicked off with opening remarks from Kendi, a former FEA member, a best-selling author and an award-winning historian. “I am pleased to steer this critical discussion,” he said. “Racist ideas render racist policies invisible in education, in society. We must see the problem in order to solve it, and I can assure the problem is not students and parents of color. The problem is institutional racism.”

During the discussion, members and leaders of many FEA locals discussed methods and tools to improve the outcomes for students of color and their families, including professional development opportunities, the creation of local committees, collaborating with the community, and working with both new and traditional civil rights organizations.

“As educators and union activists,” said Weingarten, “we help people secure the American dream, which means fighting for economic and educational justice for all. And one of the biggest obstacles we must confront is institutionalized racism, which means showing up and standing up to bigotry, racism and hatred wherever we find it—in schools and on the streets, in courthouse and statehouses. Today’s polarizing and divisive environment makes this work more important than ever.

“Friday’s town hall during the FEA conference was a step in the right direction. As it did Friday, this work starts with a conversation, and with developing trust and understanding, even if it takes us out of our comfort zones. And when we do that and build on the values that bind us, we can transform the communities we serve into more just places.”

Johnson said, “Fighting for equality and justice has always been the work of our union and its members. That is why we participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and that is why we continue to fight back against all forms of bigotry and hatred today. Having courageous conversations about racial equity and improving public education for all students—no matter their race, sexual orientation, immigration status or ZIP code—is our top priority. We will do everything in our power to ensure that black lives matter—and that must start with having honest and uncomfortable conversations about the injustices and inequalities the plague our society.”

“Educators are the greatest drivers of change in our great nation—from seeking funds for the education of free slaves after the Civil War to speaking out against the internment of Japanese-American children during World War II to opposing the segregation of black children in inherently unequal schools,” said Eskelsen Garcia. “Educators are the bridge to the future for the millions of lives they touch on a daily basis.

“Today, we continue to use our collective strength to defend democracy, to fight for equal opportunity, and to create a more just society for our students. Whether we’re standing up against a reckless and irresponsible Trump administration trampling on the rights of transgender students, or fighting to protect and provide certainty to our Dreamers, we will continue to challenge our present to forge a better future for all of us and our nation.”

Pringle said, “Social and racial justice is everyone’s business. It is our business. We all have a responsibility to challenge the system of hierarchy and inequity that is ongoing and reinforcing, where one group is given preferential treatment over another, where power and privilege combine to disproportionately impact people of color. We see racism consistently, in subtle and not so subtle forms, in our institutions of education, healthcare, mass media, law enforcement and business, where systems operate and intersect to create and sustain unfair policies and practices based on race. That’s why a few years ago we embarked on an important quest to address the scourge of racism in America. We are doubling down on our efforts to end the barriers that stand between our nation’s students and their opportunities to realize their full potential, no matter their race, ethnicity or ZIP code.”

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