by Gilbert Nuñez & Félix Pérez
This is the first of four profiles of the finalists for the 2014 NEA Political Activist of the Year award. The finalists were chosen based on the amount and quality of political activism they’ve undertaken in the past year. Delegates at this year’s NEA Representative Assembly, being held next month in Denver, will choose the Political Activist of the Year. The finalists are the cream of the crop, leading the way in election campaigns and legislative advocacy efforts through actions such as sending letters and emails to elected officials, calling fellow members, and knocking on doors to speak up for their students and public education.
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An International Baccalaureate program teacher at North High School in Phoenix for 23 years, Paul Lowes is driven by his passion — for his students and their families, his colleagues, his community, his local association and his profession. When it comes to political activism, Lowes is a jack of all trades. He has organized “Days of Action” that included phone banking and canvassing for state legislative races. He has formed partnerships with educators in neighboring school districts, and among parents, administrators and businesses. He has recruited candidates for school board races and managed their campaigns. He organized a campaign to pass a local school bond and capital override election. And he has attended countless rallies on behalf of education.
Through it all Lowes has kept his eyes focused not on the campaign of the moment but on building community and inter-district connections that serve students. “I can’t say whether we’ll win this particular go-around, of course,” said Lowes before last year’s successful bond and override election. “But it’s pretty fair to say that we’ve made many more friends, and that’s what I think will best serve our students over the long run. That’s what has me jazzed.”
Education Votes: What about your students and fellow educators drive you to be so involved?
I’ve been an activist all my life, going back to Vietnam, and civil rights, and Native American Indian rights, and wilderness advocacy, energy politics, water conservation. You name it; I’ve been involved in a variety of movements and causes for a long, long time. I was a rep in my local association back in the early ’90s and mid ’90s. Then in 2006, our then-very unsympathetic school board abrogated our long-standing professional agreement. Ever since that time, I’ve switched over to education activism and essentially made that my main commitment. I want to see my association with a seat at every pertinent table. I believe that our educators – and I represent teachers and all the other certificated staff – are not just the best stewards of education, but the closest to our students and have a bigger picture of what really works in public education. I want our vision to come to the fore, so my ambition is to make sure that my local association has its voice fully weighed in every conversation that matters regarding public education in Arizona. And I want to see that voice spread to all of our ally associations in the Valley. Phoenix Union has 13 feeder districts, and they’re important partners for us in all of this. So I’m trying to help weave those voices all together.
Education Votes: Why do you think it’s important for educators to be involved in government and politics?
I’m perplexed by the number of educators who don’t believe education should be political. As I look at all the things – textbook adoption, pensions, payroll deduction plans, ethnic studies, employee compensation, academic freedom – I have a hard time seeing how anything that we do, especially in such an environment as Arizona, a rather unfriendly environment, is not political? Politics is not the all of education, but it’s an important leg. Education and politics are more or less natural partners in Arizona. It would be terrible if we didn’t act politically.
Education Votes: What advocacy work do you like most?
The truth is, I do like watching my colleagues realize their power. I do like seeing our students see their teachers as models for action. And I love watching our former students – or even our current students – unorganized by us, but organized by their own passions and interests and various groups. I love to see them involved. So I think, in the long run, what I enjoy the most is watching coalitions – young and old, even high school-aged kids – getting involved. And we’ve seen this happen in Phoenix at a really impressive level. I like watching the ethic of commitment build.
Education Votes: How did you get started being politically active?
My activism goes back to the mid ’70s. I switched to education activism on a pretty major scale when we had an unsympathetic board take away the Classroom Teachers Association’s professional agreement. Our PA is the second oldest in the whole country and the oldest in Arizona. And it’s an agreement in a right to work state that we have earned over decades of communication and disagreement and dialogue. It’s an agreement that’s pretty comprehensive, pretty thick, pretty strong. And so when they took that away in Arizona, it was very clear that there was only one way to redress that wrong. Again, it’s a right to work state, and we don’t have a right to contractual agreements like they do in many other states. Our only recourse is with the ballot box. I remember being at the board meeting when they voted to take away our agreement and give us instead some un-negotiated thing that they called the “teacher’s handbook,” which we had no part in crafting and little ability to use in teachers’ favor. I remember being at that meeting and saying, “Okay, see you guys in November. We will find redress at the ballot box.”
In one of the campaigns, we had to run a write-in candidate. I thought we might win if we got 25 votes, but I was shooting for 250. In the end, our candidate won by a vote of 1,013 to 8. We put together a pretty major write-in campaign, and my teachers and the school staff that were involved did a heck of a job.
We went from a board that was very, very slanted against us, 4 to 3, to a board that was – within a year – 7-0 in our favor and has been ever since that time. It’s a collaborative board that realizes collaboration is a healthier way to do business than antagonism. And we’ve made great strides ever since.
Education Votes: How do you make time to be so involved?
(Laughs). Here I am, on vacation, answering the phone. I don’t sleep as much as I should. I try to live pretty hard, work pretty hard, play pretty hard, and I try to make enough time for family and fun. But it’s always a balancing act. Quite honestly, 40-50 evenings every year are dedicated to canvasses or calls. But it is a passion. And trying to share that out is now one of the greatest jobs ahead of not just me, my whole association. And trying to build those alliances will help.
Education Votes: What would you say to an educator who is not politically involved?
It’s just, I think, common sense. Public education in America is contentious very often. In Arizona, it can very often feel like it’s unending conflict. In my own district, we’re doing pretty well with a sympathetic board and a reasonably sympathetic and cooperative superintendent and administration. We’ve got some good people involved, and so our own front yard is probably a little bit healthier now because of all of our action. In Arizona at large, it can feel more like a war zone. What I would say to people – whether it’s fellow educators or my students – is that you’re only as strong as you act. It can be tough in this situation to be brave enough to act and to not fear the consequences but to strive forward with some kind of confidence, and usually action is rewarded by some more security, some more respect. So I would say get involved. It takes some bravery, it takes some patience, and you find more like you. Build those alliances, build that inter-association – inter-district connectivity – and we will achieve a whole lot more together. So I would say, “Join up.”
Education Votes: Why should the delegates choose you for the 2014 NEA Political Activist of the Year award?
I’m not sure that they should. How would I know compared to all the work that other educators do? If I have something, I think it is that inter-association vision. And I mean that in a lot of ways. Phoenix Union is not a wall-to-wall association. Our classified employees, bus drivers, security, cafeteria staff, front office staff, et cetera, they belong to our classified employees association. And all the certificated non-administrative employees, the teachers, librarians, nurses, social workers, et cetera, belong to our classroom teachers association, assuming that they are members at all. So working with our classified partners, we’ve cemented relationships that in the past have been tattered and have made them healthier. And we’re now doing that with other associations across the city of Phoenix. We’re trying to spread that success story, and we have had some success. I’ve got colleagues in nearby districts that are seeing teacher raises; they’re seeing even the adoption of a professional agreement. And so I think that if I have any talent, it is in trying to further that vision of inter-association, inter-district connectivity, increase the size of our front yard and help to turn Phoenix and even Arizona into a more education-friendly environment. So my strength might be that connectivity. Do I deserve an award? I don’t know. I just know it’s important work.
Education Votes: What are the best ways for members to get involved in activism online?
I’ve always said eyeball-to-eyeball and voice-to-voice actions are a whole lot more powerful. Online engagement is important. Social media are important. And I think it’s really clear that a lot of younger teachers are more interested in that kind of stuff. But it’s not just the online – I mean, you can have a Facebook page, or you can have a website, and you can put out e-mail asks for walks and phone banks, but I think in the end, as important as online stuff is, I think we’ll always come down to human beings talking to each other pretty directly that motivates people to get involved. Old-fashioned conversations and direct contact are probably the healthiest of all tools.
Education Votes: What particular campaign first got you involved in activism with the NEA?
I began with the campaign for a whole new school board to win back our professional agreement. And there have been dozens since. So I guess it’s the campaign, and I guess it’s a proprietary feeling: These are my students, these are my colleagues, this is my valley, my school district, and I’m pretty proud of it. And I’m pretty fierce about that. So it’s not so much a campaign as it is a permanent investment.