The Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee celebrated 35 years of making a difference in the MTA on December 5 and 6 as association members gathered for a conference featuring warm memories of the past and a message about the need to keep EMAC’s spirit of involvement alive.
The theme of the 35th anniversary conference, “Standing on a Great Foundation,” was reflected in the stories of several EMAC members who recounted how the Minority Affairs Committee — later renamed EMAC — grew over the years to become the driving force behind ethnic minority participation and advancement within the MTA.
Several of MTA’s earliest minority activists were on hand to tell their stories about becoming involved with MAC and explain its impact, both on their union and in their personal lives.
Invariably, those stories pointed back and paid tribute to the special honoree of the conference, Louise Gaskins, a primary architect of MTA’s Minority Involvement Plan, which established the Minority Affairs Committee in 1979. Over the years, Gaskins became a leading spokeswoman for minority affairs at the MTA.
EMAC Chair Christine Boseman welcomed about 180 participants to a gala dinner on Friday night. She opened the conference by leading a moment of reflection for the lost lives of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, two unarmed black men who died in encounters with police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City.
MTA President Barbara Madeloni greeted the crowd and spoke about the deaths and the public demonstrations that have occurred in their aftermath. She saluted “the amazing men and women — and the courage and wisdom it took for them to gather over the last few days to begin discussions of race.”
“As much as tonight is a celebration,” she continued, “I know that we are at a moment in time in this country where race relations are clearly exposed as violent, as critically disruptive to the opportunities that our children have.” She said that as educators, “we need to recognize that with all the work we have done, we still have so much work to do.”
After thanking the members of EMAC, who were in charge of the special event, Boseman explained EMAC’s long-held purpose.
“Then, as now,” she said, “our mission is to increase ethnic minority involvement in all phases of the association — at the local, state and national levels.
“We have been successful over these last 35 years,” she continued, “and we have changed our association for the better in many ways. We are indeed standing on a great foundation. But we want to continue to reach higher and dig deeper. We want more ethnic minorities to be involved with the MTA at the local level, as presidents and in other capacities.”
Friday night’s keynote address was delivered by Anne Wass, a former MTA president who spoke of her childhood in Albany, New York, her close relationship with parents who never let her speak badly of another person, and her special bond with Gaskins, whom she called her mentor and “the most important person I have ever met.”
Wass regaled the crowd with humor and anecdotes about how her “super friendship” with Gaskins began, almost accidentally, when the two roomed together at a conference.
Wass said that over the years, Gaskins patiently and persistently “carried on the things that my father had tried to show me” about not judging others. “She gave me the confidence,” Wass said, to grow, to not fear speaking up in the face of injustice, and to stick to her principles when she became vice president and then president of the MTA. “She taught me so much,” Wass said.
“I always felt that Louise should have been the MTA president,” she added. “And I feel that in her time, it wasn’t something that could happen because of her gender and her race. But in my eyes, she is an MTA president.”
Early pioneers of MAC also spoke of their treasured bonds with the MTA and with Gaskins.
Among them was Kitty Hill, a former vice president of the Framingham Teachers Association, who recalled that “everyone loved Louise’s kind and supportive spirit.” She said that through her involvement with MAC, she learned “how to navigate the MTA/NEA system.” Gaskins and Dr. Barbara Spence “paved the way for so many minorities at the state and national level,” Hill said.
Spence, who formerly served as director of the Health and Human Services Program at Quinsigamond Community College and has attended every EMAC conference, had her eyes opened to the opportunities at the national level when she became a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly. She also spoke movingly about her friendship of more than 35 years with Gaskins.
Elvoid Mayers, a former MAC chair, said that her experience as a member of the committee came in handy when she decided to run for the MTA Board of Directors. “I knew exactly what to do,” she said. “There was no stopping me.”
Another past chair, John Reed, recalled being at his first NEA RA and finding himself surrounded by 10,000 people. He said that up until that time, he had never seen such diversity all in one place. “I had a spiritual moment,” he said. “It dawned on me: We are not only one family; we need to support each other to be a better family.”
Former Chair Edith Cannon, who has been instrumental in MAC since the beginning, spoke about the early days and her friendship with Gaskins. She presented a workshop, “The History of EMAC,” on Saturday with Josephine Bernard, also a former chair.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, Vice President Rebecca Pringle, Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss and former president Reg Weaver, who could not be present, sent greetings and tributes from Washington, D.C., via videotape.
As the luncheon speaker on Saturday, Gaskins was introduced by Kevin Gilbert of the NEA Executive Committee. Gilbert, a public educator for 17 years and coordinator of teacher leadership and special projects for the Clinton Public School District in Mississippi, called Gaskins’ a “game-changer.”
“What separates the good teams from the great teams is a superstar,” he said. “Louise Gaskins has proven to be a game-changer for the MTA.
“A game-changer recognizes what needs to be done,” he said, directing his remarks at Gaskins, “and you recognized that your organization needed to be intentional about increasing diversity.”
Gaskins delivered an inspiring speech about her decades of service at the MTA — as an officer in her Ayer local and on the MTA Board of Directors, the Equal Opportunity Council, the Retirement Committee, the Bylaws and Rules Committee, the Administrators Committee and the Human and Civil Rights Council. At the NEA, she served on the Board of Directors as the first elected ethnic minority director of the MTA, as well as on the Elections and Resolutions committees.
Gaskins recalled sitting at her dining room table after a particularly inspiring minority involvement conference back in the late 1970s, “drafting the ideas necessary to meet the NEA requirements for the Massachusetts Minority Involvement Plan.”
“Then I enlisted the support and assistance of some concerned ethnic minority members to join me in presenting these ideas to the Massachusetts president and executive director-treasurer,” she said. “Out of our efforts, there surfaced the recognized need for a Minority Affairs Committee to be an integral part of the plan. Its composition and responsibilities are now history. This arm of the association is critically important and extremely useful in fostering increased involvement of ethnic minorities in the overall program of the MTA.”
Gaskins asked all of the EMAC conferees “to continue to reach out to others as I have tried to do over the years, with a gesture of camaraderie that both congratulates our past dedication and inspires our continued renewal of the MTA and NEA commitment to children, to teachers, to education and to society.”
Along with “The History of EMAC,” workshops on Saturday included “Beyond Discipline: The School-to-Prison Pipeline,” “Creating and Sustaining a Democratic Classroom Community,” “How to Get Elected to MTA Office,” “‘Netiquette’ and Law for Educational Employees,” and “An Exploration into ‘Difference.’”
A workshop titled “The Skin That We Speak” served as a bridge conversation between the Just for New Teachers and EMAC conferences. The conferences were intentionally scheduled on the same day at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in Norwood to facilitate the workshop, which explored the impact of culture and language in the classroom and beyond, and to invite newer teachers to attend the EMAC dinner and conference.