By Amanda Menas
North Carolina educator Turquoise LeJeune Parker knows how amazing her students are. In fact, she calls her students Mrs. Parker’s Professors. However, supporting her professors requires leadership in and out of the classroom.
“I want us to be celebrating Black joy, celebrating Black intelligence, not normalizing it,” said Parker, a K-5 media specialist at Lakewood Elementary in Durham, North Carolina. “Because there’s nothing normal about this intelligence, about this beauty, about this strength, about this courage. It is extraordinary. I wanted to make sure that it’s not something that is just for Black and Brown kids, we need white kids to see that racial and social justice is to be a part of who we are.”
Parker was one of three educators chosen to ask a question to former Vice President Joe Biden at the 2020 NEA Representative Assembly on July 3. She decided to submit a question about racial justice during a time when she is educating her students about issues from police brutality to voter suppression.
“You talk a lot about fighting for the soul of the nation, but how will you change the systems that have benefited the many corrupt souls that have stood in the way of true change?” asked Parker, who introduced herself as a racial and social justice teacher.
Biden’s plan for educators and students tackles racial inequality by investing in the whole student from universal pre-K to college or workforce training, improving teacher diversity, and addressing the student debt crisis. He told Parker that we need to treat students and educators with respect.
Biden believes that in order to do that, educators need a partner in the White House and in the Department of Education in order to provide for their students. During the 2019 NEA Representative Assembly when Biden spoke to educators, he mentioned his priority that “Teachers should have the ability to have input…on deciding what the curricula is.”
“It’s my duty to structure a curriculum that talks through all kinds of complex issues such as police brutality, how to fight it while staying safe, how to organize and how they can come to terms with the possibility that they might be the next victim of white supremacy at absolutely no fault of their own,” Parker told Biden. She continued, “Teaching in the resistance is incredibly hard work, but we have to do it because we need our kids to know that they are absolutely a part of this movement to smash white supremacy.”
Parker, vice president of the Durham Association of Educators, knows that unions are one of the best vehicles to create systemic and long lasting change. She became involved in her union when she first became an educator, saying “the only way that we are going to see systemic change is if we are a part of an anti-racist collective.”
Biden promises to support unions in his administration by ensuring the protections of public sector employees to organize and bargain collectively. Additionally, as the nation continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic, Biden will prioritize child care workers and frontline workers, such as education support professionals, to ensure they receive priority access to personal protective equipment and testing.
Speaking with Biden during the virtual town-hall during the 2020 Representative Assembly, Parker cheered when he mentioned his plan to invest in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU).
“I propose making sure we get $75 billion to HBCUs, which I’ve been deeply involved in my whole career because they don’t have the kind of backup funding to provide for the laboratories and all the other things needed to compete for government contracts,” said Biden.
Under his administration, students at HBCUs, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Minority-Serving Institutions will also benefit from Biden’s proposals to double Pell grants, slash the income-based repayment of loans to 5 percent of income, and provide free tuition for students at all community colleges, including those that are MSIs.
Parker sees too that many of her students lack the privilege of private schools, not just in higher education. In showing students and families that private schools are “not a solution, period,” Parker hopes that more money will be invested in public schools to benefit all students..
Biden promised Parker that his administration would “Triple Title I funding to close that gap between the rich and the poor,” to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities to succeed because “these kids are capable of doing anything anybody else can do.”
Biden also mentioned that in order for districts to receive the money, they must ensure higher wages for educators, which Parker says will help break down some of the orchestrated, systemic problems facing the education system.
“If schools and racial and social justice and policy/ politics weren’t important, every governor and congress person in this country right now wouldn’t be so pressed to get us back into schools physically in August,” said Parker. She says that in order for the economy to reopen, schools will have to reopen, and “when we come out of this, we need to make sure that we come out of this better, moving or doing our best to be better, than when we went in.”