National leader urges collaboration
On Nov. 1, I attended a meeting of the Cleveland Heights-University Heights Board of Education with Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
Weingarten leads a union of 1.7 million professionals working in 3,000 organizations, including the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union AFT Local 795.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I was happy to attend. It isn’t often that a person with as much power, status and responsibility as Weingarten invites you to spend time with her and treats you as a valued and wise partner, but that is exactly what she did.
In our gerrymandered state it is very easy to feel powerless to affect policy. The AFT is one of the few organizations that has the wherewithal to challenge the well-funded extremists, in the state and across the nation, who are effectively dismantling public education, the institution that is my passion.
My time at the meeting, which was a stop on Weingarten’s 21-day tour of 13 states, was well spent. The meeting focused on getting out the vote and promoting AFT’s priorities, which are summed up as “what kids and communities need.”
Other participants were Heights High students, district parents and teachers, school board members, pro-public school citizen activists like me, and representatives from a nice assemblage of issue-oriented groups, like the League of Women Voters of Ohio, Honesty for Ohio Education, and Red Wine and Blue.
Many who were in the room have actively fought state policy proposals designed to privatize education, promote division and mistrust, censor the truth, diminish the autonomy of teachers and the rights of students, and undermine public confidence in education professionals and public institutions. These attacks on the common good intensified going into the election season; they are not good for kids, communities, or a free society.
After Superintendent Elizabeth Kirby and Local 795 president Karen Rego welcomed people, Weingarten shared her concerns and reminded us that what we have in common is much more than what divides us.
I was pleased that she framed the threats we face as extremism. That’s an accurate description of the politics and antics that are undermining public education, democracy, freedom, and the well-being of communities and families. She also reminded us that public education is a resource for unity and compassion, which promote equality. It is these features that extremists are trying to thwart.
Each person in the room had a chance to speak. One by one we shared our dreams and our disappointments, our values and passions, our appreciation for our public schools and our students and educators, and our shared commitment to high-quality public education for every child and community.
As we spoke, the soft-spoken and attentive Weingarten listened. She offered a few closing remarks, which included an invitation to work together—the only way to assemble the power needed to tame extremism, protect democracy, strengthen our civic institutions and, in the end, provide people with a better life.
On the ride home I realized the purpose of the meeting was to build the relationships and trust that form the foundation on which people can work together in pursuit of complex and difficult goals. By listening to us, she allowed us to listen to, and know and value, each other, and encounter our shared values—all of which is fundamental to successful collaboration.
The wise leader predicted hard times ahead, regardless of the outcome of the election. We must unite if we are going to achieve what would be impossible to do alone. Like the organizer she is, Weingarten was inviting us and preparing us to stay in the fight.
Susie Kaeser moved to Cleveland Heights in 1979. She is the former director of Reaching Heights and is active with the Heights Coalition for Public Education and the League of Women Voters. A community booster, she is the author of Resisting Segregation, a book about local activism.