Stories of wisdom acquired through struggle highlighted the 2015 MTA Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee Conference.
The event, held Dec. 4 and 5 at the Sheraton Framingham Hotel and Conference Center, also featured an array of workshops.
The keynote speakers — Jitu Brown, a Dyett High School hunger striker from Chicago who is the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, and Clayola Brown, a former textile industry organizer who is president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute — addressed the enthusiastic conference audience about the need to organize, build coalitions and focus on the big picture.
EMAC Chair Christine Boseman welcomed the crowd at the opening dinner and recognized the work of the Ethnic Minority Affairs Committee. She also asked how many members were attending their first EMAC conference, and a dozen hands shot up.
Boseman introduced MTA Vice President Janet Anderson, who thanked participants for attending and reminded them of their “ability to create a lot of positive change.”
Every day, there are approximately 1 million students in Massachusetts classrooms, Anderson noted.
“That means that every day, we impact the lives of 1 million children,” she said. “But we don’t impact just their lives, we impact the lives of their parents, their families and their communities. That’s a lot of activism.”
MTA President Barbara Madeloni introduced Jitu Brown and said she first came to know about Brown through his work on the hunger strike, which lasted more than a month. She called the fight to save Dyett a “profound action that was the culmination of many years of relationship building, of strengthening alliances, of working through and coming to know each other in struggle.” Madeloni said she was touched by the story of those who understood “that saving public schools was so critical that people would put their lives on the line and refuse food.” She noted that movements are driven by a shared vision to be kept in sight as small victories are won along the way.
Brown told conferees that he had been a youth organizer for most of his adult life, but that issues of equality and justice eventually drove him to work on behalf of public schools.
“We did not come to the idea of a hunger strike on a whim,” he said of the strikers at Dyett. “We were at a place of desperation.”
A veteran of Chicago’s school councils, Brown had seen investments that improved many schools throughout the city, but that a “gradual disinvestment” in predominantly African-American Bronzeville, driven by racism and a push to gentrify the area where Dyett is located, had left families and educators demoralized.
Eventually, he and other community activists decided to act on the lack of equity for all children. Schools in some parts of the city, he said, offer classes in Arabic, Chinese and Spanish and have fully stocked libraries. But in Bronzeville, Brown said, one elementary school is so crowded that 53 kindergartners are jammed into a single classroom.
In 2009, educators and community activists formed a coalition to revitalize Dyett, the last open-enrollment high school in the black community. By that time things had gotten so bad that students took art and physical education classes online. No AP classes were offered. The city marked the school for closure.
Brown said that advocates “met with every bureaucrat, went to every bogus school council hearing, met with every spineless politician” in an effort to work with the city to avoid closure. But the city wouldn’t budge.
By last summer, Brown said, “12 men and women decided to go on a hunger strike.”
The struggle for Dyett struck a nerve, he said, both across his “hypersegregated city” and across the nation.
“We fought for this school,” Brown said. “We got commitment from thousands of people in the city – and not just token commitment. What came out of it was that for the first time, perhaps the first time in this country, a closed school was reopened as a neighborhood school.”
He reminded the audience of the threat of so-called education reformers. “The privatizers are hunting your profession and they are destroying our communities,” he said.
He urged educators to “work with parents, with communities and, as labor leaders, be committed to transforming the culture.
“Those against us have built a structure for our destruction,” he said. “So let’s build a structure for our salvation.”
After the speech, entertainment was provided by the Eastern Medicine Singers, a Native American group that shared its traditions through drumming and song.
On Saturday, workshop presenters delved into topics such as destroying the school-to-prison pipeline, talking about immigration status in schools, grassroots organizing, and diversity challenges in the labor movement.
Luncheon speaker Clayola Brown recalled her own activist background as a teenager working alongside her mother to organize a textile factory in South Carolina.
Since then, Brown has committed herself to working for labor and civil rights. In 2004 she became the first woman president of the Randolph Institute, which is located in Washington, D.C., and named for Asa Philip Randolph, who organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, the first predominantly African-American labor union. Decades later, Randolph was a key figure in organizing the 1963 March on Washington.
In the 1920s, porters slept in baggage cars and sometimes worked for three or four months without a day off. Though their working conditions were deplorable, Brown said, what finally drove the porters to overcome their fear of organizing was the tremendous level of disrespect shown by their employer, George Pullman.
Pullman insisted that all porters be called George, based on his own first name. Pullman “didn’t even see the need to call these men by their own names,” Brown said.
The union eventually signed a collective bargaining agreement with Pullman in 1937, providing porters with a living wage that made the job one of the most desirable in the black community.
Through Randolph’s vision, the union grew more powerful over the decades. But still, Brown said, 50 years after the founding of the institute, Randolph’s premise — that labor’s fight is indeed one fight for social and economic justice — “is just as much needed now.”
She urged participants to be activists, to build honest relationships that help develop trust, and then “expand relationships beyond your circle.”
Priscilla Bartley, a second-grade teacher at the Horace Mann School in Newton and a member of the Newton Teachers Association, said she felt motivated by the “really powerful” keynote speeches at the conference, as well as by a workshop she had just attended called The Mindful Classroom. She said the techniques she learned during the session taught her to “be present in the moment — not just in teaching, but in life.”