By Miles Selib
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This is the third 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.
Jo McKim is no stranger to political action. She has been a teacher for more than 25 years and an activist for even longer. Yet, as McKim says, these two things are not mutually exclusive. Teaching is only the beginning; the job also calls for activism around the policies that affect students’ futures. Whether in Arizona, where she used to reside, organizing for pro-public education candidates or in her current home of Kentucky fighting against pension “deformers,” McKim has lived by these values throughout her life.
Though McKim was reluctant to self-promote, she thinks she would make a good Political Activist of the Year because she feels that her stories will inspire others to get more involved.
EV: What issue(s) drive you to be so involved? Why do you think it’s important for educators to be involved in government and politics?
Truthfully, it is always our students. I feel like whether teachers want to acknowledge it or not, it (teaching) is a very political job. We have to be involved in politics to advocate for our students and to make sure they have the best education possible. If we don’t become active and involved with our actions and put our money where it needs to be, students are going to be the ones who pay for that in the long run.
EV: What advocacy work do you enjoy the most?
That’s a tough question! I think some of my favorite things to do are twofold. On one hand, I like community work. For instance, I have a meeting tonight (at the time of the interview) with a local community group. We do fundraisers and activities to spread awareness about issues like the homeless situation in Louisville and how it impacts our students. Those kinds of events are getting the message out that we can make a difference outside of our profession. Teachers are so overwhelmed and underpaid already, and there is a limit on how much we can do so we have to get others involved. I really like it when I get to do community work like that. The other thing I really enjoy is making an effort to publicize the works teachers and students are already doing. I pushed very hard to get a publication started called Spotlight which goes out quarterly. It’s a way to highlight how teachers empower others.
EV: How did you get started being politically active?
I was politically active at an early start. I voted and I handed out flyers during elections. I used to stand on picket lines with my dad when he participated in UAW strikes when I was a kid. When I was in college I was part of the NEA student program and helped with local and state elections in many ways including going door-to-door to talk to potential voters and distribute candidate materials. When I began teaching, I was surprised by the number of teachers who go into their classrooms thinking “I’m just going to teach my students, I am not here for politics.” Because for me, it was clear that everything about working in education is political — from talking to parents about their students or school activities to getting local businesses to make donations or volunteer at our school. Whatever it is, it’s about politics and activism. It’s about advocating for what we need and getting candidates elected and ballot initiatives passed. If we’re not active on these issues, we’re letting our students down.
EV: How do you make time to be so involved?
Well, my daughter is much older now so it’s much easier. But I was a single mom for most of the time she was in public school. During that time, it was quite a challenge. What I did was pretty much take her everywhere with me. She’s gone to building groups, and she’s gone to rallies. She’s held signs, and she’s been to the capital. She’s had experiences that probably a lot of children and teenagers don’t get. And now as a young adult she’s also very aware of the political climate. She votes and she is not afraid to speak her mind and advocate for what she believes in.
EV: What would you say to an NEA member who is not currently politically involved?
My initial reaction is always: how could you not be? If I’m trying to persuade someone to become more politically active, I’m going to start by talking about what matters to them. I am going to talk to them about children and families and how education policy impacts them. Most of the time, I get to talk to people about the realities of public funding, charter school laws, and things that impact what’s going on in classrooms everywhere. These issues affect their job, their pay, their ability to have a voice in the workplace on behalf of students.
EV: Why should the delegates choose you for the 2014 NEA Political Activist of the Year award?
There are other people doing all kinds of amazing things, and I’m sure there are people doing many more amazing things then I am. But if I have to answer the question, I think people should vote for me because my mission isn’t about me it’s about all of us. I hope my story allows us to advocate for and highlight the amazing things that teachers all over the country are doing. I want to use my examples of activism to inspire others and push our education agenda which is about building great public schools for every child.
EV: What are the best ways for members to get involved in activism online?
We have had a lot of success here in Kentucky in this last legislative session using online tools. We have been fighting to protect the retirement security of our Kentucky teachers, and we put a petition on Change.org which has generated a phenomenal response. We had tens of thousands of people sign within 24 hours and not just in Kentucky but across the country. The petition brought awareness to the whole community. Additionally, we did something called a “ThunderClap,” where, at a certain time, everyone who had signed on sent an email to the governor’s office about our retirement system. I guess that went over really well because it got the attention of the governor’s office and they started calling our state association leaders saying, “What’s going on and how do we fix this?’
Even some of our older teachers are starting to buy into things like Facebook and Twitter, just posting and reposting. I try to get as many people as I can to do it. So even if people don’t have the voice to advocate or don’t know what to say, all you have to do is retweet or share a post and get your 200 friends to see it and get them to share it. This works exponentially and gets our message out.
EV: What particular campaign first got you involved in activism with NEA?
I was a student member of NEA back in the 1980s in Georgia and was somewhat active. But I don’t think it really hit home to me how important political activism is until I was working with the Arizona Education Association. We were fighting for a pro-public education candidate and the NEA came in and helped us get organized and really develop a plan. That’s when it really started to hit home with me how powerful our national organization is. It has the ability to really call in the necessary manpower. NEA came out and they helped our community; they helped me as a local leader figure out how to get in buildings and mobilize educators to get busy. The sheer strength of our national union to be able to come in to a local and do that kind of work really impressed me.