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Seattle teachers are fighting for their students, racial equity


(Sept. 14, 2015) — The Seattle teachers’ strike of 1985 may have been the best weeks of my life. Facing the start of third grade, the strike felt like a miracle. An illicit second summer was created just for me.

Those days were hot and endless, with cherry tomatoes plucked fresh from the garden and wreaths of cosmos in our hair. Not many adults around, just our teenage minders, whose classes were also delayed. And so I felt my son’s bliss Tuesday as school failed to occur. Instead, we joined dozens of kids and parents on the Orca K-8 picket line for a couple of hours, gossiping with our educators and embarking on a slow, more aware descent into the academic year.


Later, on the Garfield High picket line, the debate club teacher and others mused on one of the teachers’ more creative demands, that the district prioritize student equity around discipline and the opportunity gap, putting an end to the racist school-to-prison pipeline. The Seattle Education Association (SEA) wants to focus on equity issues in every school, not just some. English teacher Rosa Powers told me many of her students are talking about restorative justice, a system of overcoming conflict that acknowledges racism as a force in education, as well as the fact that victims and aggressors will have to co-exist for the rest of the school year.

As a product of Seattle schools in the era of “Zero Tolerance” and DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), I saw many black students mechanically stigmatized, criminalized; their futures tarnished in their youth. Kids couldn’t even get dressed in the morning without breaking one or another culturally ignorant dress-code rule. No doubt, America’s high incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos are born in hyper-aggressive school discipline styles so prevalent from the 1980s on.

In contrast, the SEA’s current commitment to equitable education is a relief, a hope of children of color waking from a nightmare. Black Student Unions at several Seattle schools have been on the frontlines of our city’s movement to effectively address institutionalized racism and get out the message that #BlackLivesMatter.

Meanwhile, the Seattle School District’s recent decision to authorize possible legal action against the striking teachers reeks of the passion for criminalization. Their attitude is old, punitive and leading them down a road to nowhere. The School District can’t claim to favor equity and decriminalization while hiring expensive lawyers to litigate against educators and their union. Restorative justice applied to this situation would keep the district at the bargaining table, not lead to the courtroom. A fair deal will end this strike — hostility won’t.

15Sep10-Seattle-teachers-strike-Garfield-JJNGAs a parent and proud labor supporter, I’m going to keep on walking a picket line or two every day until our educators get that fair deal because they are fighting for my family. Seattle needs strong schools that will set kids up for fulfilling, productive careers. The SEA has been saying we need to attract and keep caring, qualified educators in Seattle, which is one of the most expensive cities in the United States. It makes sense.

The Seahawks didn’t win the Super Bowl without spending money on the players. Investing in a world-class public education system includes professional pay for teachers. I’ve noticed my educator friends discuss their income less than others, probably because it is humiliating to say out loud how little they are paid even though most have master’s degrees. Seattle teachers haven’t even received a cost-of-living increase for five years during a time when rents are skyrocketing.

The 1985 strike went on for 19 days, but my crystal ball suggests this one will resolve more quickly. Everything is easier with money and our economy is booming, unemployment is low. The general sense of prosperity has boosted public support for the teachers because it doesn’t seem fair for them to get left behind as so many get ahead. That’s good because the more support parents, students and the larger community show, the faster this strike gets resolved.

Hopefully, the kids will see it that way too, but 30 years ago I did not. My young self wanted to see that strike linger on until the first snow day. Though I didn’t have a strong understanding at the time of what the strike was about, I will never forget that feeling of freedom and space that I hoped would never end.

The educators of the SEA have been fighting for the funding and control needed to make sure we have the best education system possible, and not just for my privileged children, but for every last child in Seattle. By striking they are making substantial personal sacrifices. Their courage inspires me, draws me bodily to walk the line with them and feel a part of something relevant and historic.

grant-nicoleNicole Grant is Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the M.L. King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This column originally appeared at Crosscut and is posted here with the author’s permission.

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