The Role Of The Artist in Trump-time

The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.

Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could  I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read?  How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking  when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education?  It all seemed futile.

Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well.  You can listen to her speech here:   https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.

I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.

But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.

They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.

Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.

This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account –  to call them on the carpet for every outrage.

That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.

One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.” 

And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a  teacher of teachers.

I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.

I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take  money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.

Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence.  With that art and with one another we can fight back.

Let’s get busy.

If Not Us, Who?

Public education in this country will be saved and will grow in new and exciting ways only if those who believe in public education take action. Educators, parents, and citizens must speak up. We together can change what kids learn, how they are tested, and where the money in our state and localities is spent. The first step is to join together. Those who  work to privatize public education and trivialize what is taught in public schools have the money, but educators have the knowledge about kids and about how to teach. Chris Willems, a New Haven teacher, is one educator who is taking action. 

Chris said that he wrote the piece below ” for every teacher who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality and refuses to accept assessments, tests, and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and real learning”.  Let’s join Chris in action. If not us, who?

   Report from a First Time Union Delegate

                                                                  by Chris Willems

“We are fighting a battle of immense proportions that threatens to destroy all we and others in the labor movement have worked for. This battle is ultimately over who holds power in our economy and our democracy. It is a battle to reclaim the promise of America.”

-AFT CT Resolution on Member Engagement

I am a science teacher in New Haven, CT and am thrilled to have an active role as a national delegate within our local union #933, the New Haven Federation of Teachers. Eric Maroney and I are first-time delegates, and our responsibilities include attending state and national conventions as the representative voices of our brothers and sisters in the New Haven Federation of Teachers. It has been a fascinating and energizing experience. I am going to share an update on what I learned this summer, and I challenge you to engage in the dialogue.

On Saturday May 21, 2016, AFT CT hosted the annual business convention at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville, CT. Our business involved recognizing affiliates who represented the approximately 30,000 AFT CT members in attendance, approving the minutes from the last convention, amending our constitution, and passing resolutions.

The theme “Reclaiming our Solidarity” rippled through the presentations and celebrations. AFL-CIO President Lori Pelletier spoke of how firefighters have aligned with paraprofessionals to strengthen local unions. I was inspired by the stories Lori told and began to think about ways in which our own union can partner with others in the New Haven community to benefit those we serve.

On a more sobering note, we were reminded to prepare for more legal cases targeting labor unions for elimination. A Supreme Court case from this past spring that many of our members may have heard about in the national press, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, would likely have been decided against unions had Justice Antonin Scalia not died unexpectedly. The case was decided 4-4. This means unions will be able to continue to automatically charge members the agency fees.

With regard to issues specific to education, AFT National president Randi Weingarten celebrated the new federal education law, “Every Student Succeeds Act” (ESSA), and said it promises to decouple high stakes standardized tests from teacher evaluation. Ms. Weingarten encouraged us to get involved in the implementation of ESSA in CT. She said the “starve and privatize” strategy of 20 years ago is dead and we are now in a new era. She spoke of the power of community schools and the potential under ESSA to adopt the practices of the Performance Assessment Consortium of NYC. http://performanceassessment.org/

Ms. Weingarten spoke of the pain caused by the job-killing 2016 CT state budget.

There are over $830 million dollars in cuts: Education Cost Sharing was cut by 34 million (5.7% cut); $7 million was cut from the Technical High School System; higher education and Medicare are also facing deep cuts.

She suggested we turn our legitimate anger against Governor Dannel Malloy to action. She suggested we “fight the really bad things and fight harder for the good things”.   Specifically, she suggested we call out the legislators who voted for Malloy’s harmful budget. To that end, AFT CT is interviewing politicians before giving endorsements for the fall. Visit http://aftct.org for opportunities to get involved.

As AFT CT delegates, we passed very powerful, worker-centered resolutions on climate change, community engagement, member engagement, teacher leadership, and teacher diversity. This year, we plan to focus on supporting these resolutions and making them come alive in New Haven. Our first event will be joining AFT CT on Thursday, October 6 for school “Walk Ins” as part of our Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS). http://www.reclaimourschools.org

The last exciting news at the AFT CT meeting was seeing NHFT leadership learn about the powerful online “Toolkit” for membership and training.   These web tools are available on mobile devices and will allow our local to more efficiently communicate and organize!

The AFT National Convention was held in Minneapolis from July 18-21, 2016 and was a HUGE event! Eric and I knew it was going to be big, but we were blown away by the amazing diversity and the passion that members brought to the presentations and debates. There were 2,600 delegates representing 1.6 million teachers and healthcare workers. We had the opportunity to hear from giants of union activism such as Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farmworkers, as well as Presidential Candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton!   Each day, the convention center was filled with passionate workers from all over our country, and most notably the red-shirt wearing Chicago Teachers Union delegates! CTU represented unified teacher resistance in action. Next time, we will have NHFT tee shirts!

I chose to serve on the Labor and the Economy Committee. At the convention, we moved three resolutions: Attacking Income Inequality, Opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Achieving Tax Fairness by Cracking Down on Offshore Tax Havens. My fellow first-time delegate, Eric Maroney, served on the Organizing and Collective Bargaining Committee. All passed resolutions are at http://www.aft.org/about/resolutions. We will be following the legislative and organizing actions AFT takes to advance these critical issues. Before the next convention in 2018 in Pittsburgh, we will have the opportunity to propose new action resolutions.

When I first arrived at the convention, I was thrilled to see a table announcing the formation of a new caucus. Our AFT-BATs caucus will collaborate to advance our work as pro-public education teacher activists.

At the convention, Badass Teacher leaders, Marla Kilfoyle and Jamy Brice-Hyde, shared the results of this year’s BATS/AFT Quality-of Worklife survey of 30,000 educators http://www.aft.org/news/survey-shows-need-national-focus-workplace-stress. These distressing survey results are a powerful reminder that a teacher’s work environment is also our students’ learning environment. We need to be kind and take care of one another – all our school colleagues and students!

Please contact me or any other member of the NHFT Community Action Now committee. NHFT CAN is excited for the Thursday, October 6 “Walk Ins”.

I look forward to continuing to serve as a delegate. I’m closing with another quote from the AFT CT Resolution on Member Engagement:

“Our soul, our heart, our courage and our power lie with our members and our communities, and always have.”

I believe our solidarity with one another and our New Haven community is more important in these uncertain times. There are powerful forces jockeying for influence and money. We must support one another and be supported, so we can continue to provide direct support to our students.