Lily’s remarks on July 4th, 2019 to the delegates of the 98th NEA Representative Assembly, in Houston, Texas.
(As prepared for delivery)
HAPPY 4TH OF JULY!! BIENVENIDOS!
Welcome to the biggest family reunion EVER! This is Red/White and Blue joy! You all look so wonderful and so weird… but as much fun as we’re having, you know the serious business that brings us here. On this 4th of July, you know we are here to stand up for something we’ve taken for granted.
Well, at least I’ll own it. I’ve taken it for granted that in an open, democratic society the moral arc of the universe would always bend towards justice; that our country would keep finding ways to be more inclusive of folks who had been excluded; that we’d be looking for ways to give opportunities to folks who had so little; that we’d see more ways to appreciate our diversity of cultures and languages and races and our LGBTQ communities.
I don’t take anything for granted anymore. I know it doesn’t just happen on its own. The moral arc of the universe needs people to put their backs into pushing that sucker towards justice.
Because there are folks out there who are determined to take us back to when people knew their places: Women got the coffee; people of color sat at the back of the bus; LGBTQ people trembled in fear in dark closets where they didn’t bother anybody.
Public schools and educators and the students and families who rely on them were supposed to accept year after year more funding cuts; program cuts; class sizes exploding; the family of educators to support that whole student being laid off, and being told that told the solution is not more funding, it’s to learn how to Do More With Less – or so say the people who have never done our jobs.
The moral arc of the universe needs us now to put our backs into Education Justice.
Who here has ever heard of a little thing called Red for Ed? (I told my mom on Tuesday we’re all wearing Red for Ed on Thursday. She said, “Who’s Ed?”)
Stand up and shout if you have personally marched, rallied, held a picket sign and been visible standing up for your students and your profession this year! You showed up, and it’s made a difference. You’ve changed the narrative.
Reporters began asking different questions all of a sudden. They’d ask me if it’s true that teachers and support staff have to pay for their own supplies sometimes? (Who knew?)
Are there really classrooms with 35 or 40 kids in them? (Oh Yeah)
They ask me if it’s getting harder to convince young people to aspire to become teachers when they won’t be able to pay off their student loans on a new teacher’s salary.
They ask me about the growing inequality of service and support for students who live in our poorest communities which are still – and not coincidentally – overwhelmingly our black and brown communities; our immigrant communities.
They’re finally asking the right questions.
That’s because of your collective voice lifting up the truth and that truth is getting results.
In February 2018, West Virginia became a Verb: We can all now say – Don’t make me go all West Virginia on you… and folks know what you’re talking about.
And you know what happened next, of course: Oklahoma and Arizona and North Carolina and Kentucky and Colorado. We celebrated all of them this time last summer.
And then in the fall, came an election. Every Congressional House seat was up; important governor’s races, state legislators, mayors and school boards… all over the country in places that had Red for Ed action and a lot of places that didn’t.
All over this country, politicians ran on being the best candidate for… (wait for it)…better public schools! And some of them were telling the truth. And some of them were big fat liars.
Does it just make you smile that Scott Walker had to clean out his desk because he was beaten by an educator? Good times.
Does it just make you smile that the first African American woman to represent Connecticut in Congress was up on this stage as the National Teacher of the Year and NEA member Jahana Hayes!?
Does it make you smile that in Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Mexico, and Idaho we elected pro-education governors. (And let me say this again – In Idaho we elected a pro-education REPUBLICAN governor.)
And with the assistance of NEA training of our own members, I’m proud to report that over 1,000 educators were elected to local, state and federal offices across the country.
The Red for Ed movement in 2019 has continued in locals like Los Angeles and Denver and Oakland and Sacramento and in states like Texas, Virginia, Oregon, South Carolina and Michigan.
And in other states – even without a march – this movement will open up surprising doors. Politicians who usually said, “Talk to the hand,” reached out to our leaders and said, “Let’s talk. We would so rather you not go All West Virginia on us.”
This movement has created something better for millions of students and educators – but it’s bigger than that. We’ve created something better for communities. For this country that we love.
And that scares the DeVos family and the Walton Family and the Koch Brothers. I’ve noticed billionaires who have plans to privatize our public schools, hardly ever paint a picket sign and rally on the capitol steps (‘cause there’d be like four of them and their limo drivers.)
Oh, no no. They’re so much more civilized. They plan their Education Industry takeover where no one can see them. They sit and sip at the country club and decide the fate of students they will never see.
I want you to know, I have never taken a politician to a country club. I take them to a school cafeteria for corn dogs. I want governors and senators and mayors to meet you – and see the love and the professionalism in YOU. I want them to listen to the people who know what they’re talking about.
Because the people who THINK they know EVERYTHING are so annoying to those of us who actually do.
The Koch Brothers will never take their case to the public because the public’s not stupid. They have to hide their agenda. Because their agenda is profoundly un-democratic; and un-American.
They want a permanent and institutionalized system where mega-wealth and mega-corporations rule. Donald Trump was not their favorite candidate four years ago, but he is now. He’s delivered their tax cuts; he’s accepted their preferred list of corporate-friendly judges; and he’s placed their cronies in key government positions expressly to sabotage agencies that were set up to protect consumers, the environment, health care, workers, and, of course, education.
We try very hard to find Democratic friends and Republican friends and independent friends. We believe that support for public education and public services should never be partisan.
I am not being partisan when I tell you that Donald Trump disqualified himself for our consideration many times and in many ways, but most particularly on education issues, he disqualified himself with two words: Betsy DeVos.
He put the least qualified person to ever hold a cabinet position in charge of protecting children’s access to quality, equitable public education. To protect the rights of girls to have the same opportunity as boys; to protect immigrant students and English language learners; to protect LGBTQ students and poor students and students with disabilities and students everywhere against racism and discrimination. So, it won’t surprise you that just the other day she explained that she wasn’t able to do what she wanted to do because … “Education is not a priority” for Donald Trump. No… kidding.
So, I hope I’m not being too subtle. I want to be clear. The United States of America must have a new president.
We need a new president who will respect our democracy; who serves all the people including the ones who don’t have a membership to Mar-a-Lago. We want one who will not corrupt our institutions by giving friends and family gifts of government positions where their decisions benefit their personal and corporate wealth.
For me, this is not simply about the next election. I believe our democracy itself is in grave danger of being corrupted. Democracy was always supposed to be about the people respecting each other’s’ rights and relying on each other to be responsible for their part in making democracy work: being honest; being informed about issues; showing up to vote.
Donald Trump is pushing our beautiful, imperfect nation toward something that would break the hearts of our Founding Fathers and Mothers. Towards authoritarianism and despotism. In the history of history, wherever authoritarian, anti-democratic despots took over, they had a common strategy. It’s about who you oppress; who you scapegoat; and the institutions you corrupt.
1. You suppress a free press. You don’t want people being informed with the truth. You need to carefully manage information so you always look good and good people can’t distinguish the truth from a lie.
2. You suppress wages. You kill unions. You want people underpaid and fearful of the future. You intentionally create insecurity so you can scapegoat some group as the cause and offer yourself as the savior.
3. You suppress the vote: Make it hard, inconvenient, even dangerous to register or cast a ballot, because the more that ordinary people show up to vote, the more the authoritarian loses.
4. And you suppress education. You don’t want people who are prepared to engage as critical thinkers and make informed decisions; who are curious; who ask tough questions.
This has been the formula at work right now in our beloved country.
But I don’t think everyone sees it.
I used to have a weekly phone call with a retiree who’d say, “Lily, I love you, but you know I think if you just got out of politics, those politicians would like you guys more.”
And I’d always let him finish. And then I’d say, “Dad. We don’t care if they like us. We care if they respect us and listen to us.”
Political action isn’t subversive. It’s the essence of democracy. Showing up informed and engaged; prepared to make a difference is exactly what democracy looks like.
And it is the work of this union to BRING YOU as much information as humanly possible and TO GET as much information FROM YOU as humanly possible so that we are prepared to be powerfully engaged in the most important election in our lifetime.
And a major step in that direction will happen tomorrow. It is the business of this Representative Assembly to be informed about the candidates who wish to take on Donald Trump in Election 2020. It was impossible to find a perfect day that fit everyone’s calendar, but ten candidates accepted our invitation to come before you, answer your questions; and make their case.
— NEA Education Votes (@edvotes) July 4, 2019
This election is very different than four years ago. It’s actually very different from any election I’ve ever seen. And every election is about the future, but this one is to protect our democracy. We will need more information and more member engagement than ever before. We are only at the beginning of the process to select the candidate who will face Donald Trump.
And you don’t have to wait until tomorrow to begin. You can go to StrongPublicSchools.org to get and give information. I love our new website. You can see the candidates and their positions side-by-side; you can upload a video of yourself asking the candidates the question you want to hear them answer. We’re showing them your videos. And this site is something you can share with your friends, family, colleagues… it’s a public site and a public service.
So much depends on us getting this right. And I never tell people that “I’m hopeful.” ‘Hope’ was a lousy business plan. We’re not going to “hope” we win. We’re going to work our butts off.
And I want you to understand this: Something big is about to happen. I’ve never been more convinced that because of you, because of how we’re preparing, something big is about to happen.
And I remember the moment I became convinced. Folks have asked me if I’ve ever been in the same room with Donald Trump. There was one time: I was invited to hear his last State of the Union speech. He didn’t invite me, of course. I was the guest of the most powerful, persistent woman on the face of the planet, Speaker of the House and 3rd in line to the presidency, the Honorable Nancy Pelosi.
She had invited representatives of constituencies who had not been respected by this administration. There were transgender soldiers; people representing immigrant communities and Black Lives Matter and people without health care and I was there representing educators and public schools and students.
There was a reception in her offices before the speech. Big crowd of who’s who in the advocate community; members of Congress, Senators and Governors… These were folks you see on TV. I’m there without adult supervision. NEA staff usually come with me to remind me who I’m talking to. This time I’m on my own, hoping I don’t get someone’s name wrong.
I’m nervous. Some folks are saying hello and I’m faking it… I’m saying: HOW are you?! When what I mean is: WHO are you?!
But I’m getting through it. And then SHE catches my eye. This woman is walking towards me with a big smile on her face like she’s so happy to see me. And I’m getting nothing. Who is she?
Then she gets closer and she says, “Lily!” and I think, “Crap. She knows me.” Then she says, “I’ve always wanted to meet you.” And I think, “Good. She hasn’t met me.” And then I look down.
I met a teacher on the night of #SOTU “So, this is your second job?” She said, “No. This is my third. I have another on weekends.” This is what I will never forget of the State of the Union. #RedForEd https://t.co/Ck8JhXZ9eM pic.twitter.com/NGPXtF7QLt
— Lily Eskelsen García (@Lily_NEA) February 7, 2019
She’s holding a tray of dirty dishes. She’s one of the servers.
With this big smile she says, “Lily, I feel bad that I won’t be in Houston at the RA this year, but I’m hoping I’ll get elected to the next one. I love going to the RA!”
I said, “You’re one of my members.”
She said, “Yes, I’ve always been a member. I teach in Prince George’s County, Maryland. And I’ve always wanted to meet you.” (So, you know, she doesn’t get out much.)
I said, “So, this is your second job?”
She said, “No. This is my third.”
You know, she kept that smile on her face the whole time. She wasn’t embarrassed that she was working a third job. All work has dignity. She was doing what she needed to do, the way we all have at one time or another.
And with that enormous smile, she said the words that flipped my brain around and changed my heart.
She said, “Lily, I do a lot of these kinds of events. But tonight, I see all these important people and I see you, the NEA president right here with them, and I just know, something big is going to happen.”
Evelyn Fabito was the most important person I met that night. (She told me I could tell you her name.) And Maryland, you tell Evelyn how much her presence impacted me.
I left that bizarro State of the Union stream of consciousness/ “only I can save you” thing that Donald Trump delivered, and the only thing on my mind was Evelyn saying, “I just know something big is going to happen.”
There is no freaking way I’m letting her down. Something big is going to happen and she’s going to be part of it. And the thousands of you in this room are going to be a part of it. And our 3 million members are going to be a part of it.
We will not hope that someone rescues us.
We will show up. We will use our collective power to listen and learn and teach and reach and engage and organize and convince. And who better to do all that than those who teach our students their rights – but also their responsibilities in our democracy.
Our opponents want to divide us. We won’t let them.
We will unite. We will inspire. We will act.
We will never be silent when it comes to our voice.
This is OUR democracy; This is OUR responsibility. This is OUR time to show the world what democracy looks like.
TELL ME what democracy looks like? THIS IS what Democracy looks like.
Ya es la hora! This is our time! Gracias Hermanos y hermanas – gracias de mi corazón.