by Tim Walker
Lucia Baez, an English Teacher in Miami, Florida, was awarded NEA’s very first award for political activist of the year at the 2013 NEA Representative Assembly on Saturday, July 6. For the announcement from NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Baez was joined on the RA stage by the seven other finalists – Traci Arway of Ohio, Beary Clark of Pennsylvania, Loretta Harper of Nevada, Dara Denoia of Ohio, Rachel Meyer and Colleen Robinson of Wisconsin, and Hiawatha Foster of North Carolina. Harper and Clark were named second and first runner up respectively.
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Van Roekel thanked the finalists – and all NEA activists – for their “tireless work” in election campaigns and legislative advocacy fighting for public education.
Deeply honored to be named activist of the year, Baez said she is ready to get back to work. “Motivation is what got me here, and I believe in moving forward. This award will help me make our students’ cause more visible in Miami and across Florida. I’m excited to see how we can push our agenda forward and see how much we can get done.”
For Baez and her colleagues, there’ll be no time to waste – 2014 is lining up to be a critical year for public education activists in Florida. Up for reelection is Governor Rick Scott, one of the members of the GOP governor “Class of 2010.” Scott, along with John Kasich in Ohio, Tom Corbett in Pennsylvania, Rick Snyder in Michigan and, of course, Scott Walker in Wisconsin have became notorious either for slashing education funding, pushing privatization schemes, or dismantling workers rights (or all three). Unseating Scott, Baez says, is a top priority.
“That race will be critical for the education system and the course and direction of our schools,” Baez says.
But Baez will also be deeply engaged on the two issues she is most passionate about; parent trigger and voting rights.
“Parent trigger has come up twice in Florida now and was defeated, just barely, both times. Parent trigger does not work. It’s just another way to privatize our schools. So parent trigger, for me, is everything.”
Baez was appalled at the sight on election day last November of long lines of people, many of them elderly, faced record wait times to vote in hot temperatures. The resulting outcry only crystallized for Baez how precious the right to vote is.
“Our right as voters is what makes us American. I want to have a stake in protecting that for all people.”
It was the 2012 election that elevated Baez’s activism. When she was ready to get more involved, her local union – United Teachers of Dade – was ready to help.
“They had actions for me to do. They wasted no time in getting me to work and my life has completely changed. When I stared acting at the local level, I soon got to know folks at the state affiliate – the Florida Education Association – and then of course the NEA. What helped me the most was the information and resources that were made available to me,” explains Baez. “It was inspiring and empowering to have those tools to help inform people about how the government in Florida was taking away our students’ future.”
“The union knows how to develop activism in their members,” she added. “What’s great is that they are different ways to get engaged – you can pick and choose what is best for you.”
For educators who have yet to take that first step towards activism – they may feel pressed or time or they may not quite see the connection between their students learning and “politics” – Baez suggests go slow if it helps and look close to home.
“Get started where it matters, where your heart is. For me, that is Miami. That is where I am from and that is where I teach. Just go out and tell your story – who you are and what your students going through,” Baez says.
“Don’t be afraid to knock on those doors, don’t be afraid to talk to friends about the issues, do not be afraid to ask questions. Just go out there with the knowledge that your voice matters. I want people to be excited about our democratic process, to be confident , and hold their heads high knowing that they are holding people accountable and that they are making a change in their communities.”