By David Sheridan
It all began with the union listening to its members. In preparation for bargaining a new contract two years ago, the Seattle Education Association (SEA) held more than 2,000 conversations with members to determine the issues they wanted addressed. Equity in the schools rose to the top as one of the educators’ leading concerns.
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So the union brought equity to the bargaining table. In doing so, the union was fully transparent, making sure that all union members and the community knew exactly what they were bargaining for.
And the community responded. When the educators staged a five-day strike at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year, members of a large grassroots community organization called Soup for Teachers brought food to the picketing educators and joined them on the picket line. And during the final hours of bargaining, hundreds of Seattle citizens rallied outside the District office to support the union. Says Laura Lehni, a member of the union bargaining team and middle school social studies teacher: “We could hear those people out there at 4 a.m., chanting their support for us, and you better believe they lifted our spirits.”
Lehni also notes that one particular equity issue raised by the union really connected with the public during bargaining—elementary school students of color were getting far less recess time, on average, than white students because they were being held out for disciplinary or testing purposes.
After the five-day strike, the union and the district agreed on a contract and that contract guarantees, among other things, that all elementary school students get 30 minutes of recess each day.
Because of the bargaining campaign they waged and the contract they bargained, SEA is one of first local unions in the nation to have a Center for Race & Equity. The Center’s mission statement and agenda have been created entirely by educators for educators. “We don’t need experts. We are the experts,” says Michael Tamayo, 4th grade teacher and SEA Vice President.
The Center’s project leader is a full-time release elementary school teacher—Marquita Prinzing. “This is Seattle—educators know the language of race and equity. But now we have to help people identify specific practices, curricula and resource inequities that prevent us from providing the best opportunities for all students and then change them.”
At the Center’s recent Leadership Summit, educator leaders focused on issues such as equitable access to advanced curriculum, disproportionate discipline of students of color, culturally responsive teaching, and the recruitment and retention of teachers of color. The educator leaders will connect with equity teams in the schools and help them organize for change. They seek to cultivate and sustain bias-free, discrimination-free school communities.
As an African American who was born and raised in Seattle and a mother of two small children who are about to go into the Seattle school system, Marquita Prinzing brings an urgency to her job. “I am more optimistic than I have ever been. We’ve got some real momentum going here—educators are doing great things in every building and we have strong community support.” Then she quickly adds, “But we still have a very long way to go.”