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What the Providence Teachers’ Union Needs for a Win

Teacher union strikes are back in the headlines this spring. Over the past several years, I’ve contributed a few columns to CounterPunch about the Providence Teachers Union, an AFT local, and have come to know and respect several men and women who dedicate their lives and careers to the education of the urban core. Sometimes perhaps I have been a bit hyperbolic in this regard (owing in no small part to how the existence of students in the urban core seems to resemble a trauma center in the ER, with life sometimes seeming like a long series of emergencies punctuated by moments of joy) but I prefer erring on the side of the angels by engaging in such verbiage.

On Saturday, May 12, 2018, Mayor Jorge Elorza convened an All In: Providence Education Summit in the heart of South Providence at the Juanita Sanchez Education Complex, a high school that houses both a public school as well as the 360 charter school. With very little fanfare, he decided not to invite the teachers.

PTU President Maribeth Calabro told GoLocalProv “[The Mayor] called me yesterday or the day before – he said if he were me, he wouldn’t have his people go, because of the community, and that there will be people of color. He said we don’t build relationships with people of color… I can’t believe he said that. I said, ‘Are you serious right now?’ I can’t believe someone in his position would say that there are 95% persons of that color in that district and he doesn’t believe we have a relationship with them.”

In response, the union had a small crowd awaiting his arrival in protest that unfortunately was not as substantial as one at City Hall earlier this year that I reported on for CounterPunch.

Now before I go any further with this, I want to add a few points to foreground here:

-The Ocean State’s African American population is concentrated into a 6 city center at the top of the Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island’s central waterway, the result of decades of systemic racism combining with poverty trends. In this sense the urban core is Black and Brown, which gives it a life and vibrancy that far outshines the lily-white confines of the suburbs. For instance, I was raised in Warwick, where the sidewalks taste like vanilla.

-The largest employer of African Americans nationally is the public sector.

-The largest membership constituency of the national AFL-CIO is African American women.

-According to an Atlanta Black Star report written by David Love from 3/20/2017, Deportation of African and Other Black Immigrants Is Quietly Increasing And No One Is Taking Note. And since the largest Latinx population in Providence is Dominican, with a significant number of members being Afro-Dominican, this is a major issue for Providence.

-Like Portland before it, Providence is now becoming a cool migration locale for annoying white hipsters, a process that is gentrifying the Black and Brown neighborhoods that used to compose the city’s West End. I have observed this process in a fashion mimicking a time-lapse photo over the years. In 2005, I was an intern working at a West End movie theater called the Columbus. The area was part and parcel of the wider urban core. Flash forward 13 years and there is new black top, a bike lane, and trendy new businesses where once there were none. And in a truly Kafka-esque ratio, the glitz and gleam has proportionally increased as the Black and Brown face numbers have decreased.

-The Providence Police have within their ranks the near-fascist “3 am jump-out boys” that prowl the streets of the Black/Brown South Side. In the past several years the various community groups in a large coalition forced City Council to pass the Community Safety Act, a basic checks-and-balances law that provides residents a set of parameters to insist the officers operate within when the boys in blue begin to get out of hand (something that happens far more often if you watch this video footage of Officer Matthew Sheridan not being arrested for behaving like a beast.

-Today Black and Brown residents and allies in Providence are working to pass a Rent Control ordinance.

-While we can certainly say a lot of nice things about the unionized teachers movement in Providence, one undeniable fact is that it is extremely vanilla. Yes, there are many great Euro-American teachers who recognize and understand their privilege. Yes, the ranks have seen the entry of many middle class Black and Brown teachers in the past forty years. But this caucasian persuasion is borne out by the rash of child abuse reports that happened in Fall 2017 in the city. While there certainly is no room for actual abuse of children and I give no comfort to such assailants, something much more revealing happened. Students in the city began to report their teachers to the authorities for no genuine reasons, case and point being revenge over reprimands in the classroom. Leaving aside all the sensational pearl clutching that can arise from understanding this, the obvious conclusion to deduce from this is the following: there is a true level of alienation, mistrust, dislike, and simmering antagonism between students and faculty. A teachers union that can beset by such false charges is one that is disconnected from its student body and their parents. The fact the students can so casually and without regret make such claims against a teacher, even when the claims are false, shows a level of systemic problems that are unable to be avoided. It must be emphasized that part of this stems from the major systemic issues within the training of teachers (requirement of a costly BA and MA, licensing fees, the legacy of the late Albert Shanker’s racist brand of business unionism, etc.) But part of this stems from the fact that Rhode Island is a particularly racist state and overcoming it in education requires a hard introspection from all stakeholders that can often be extremely painful.

Right now the PTU is working without a contract, which expired last August. The Mayor has shown little good faith in negotiations and it seems like the teachers could end the school year without a new one. It stands to wonder whether Mayor Elorza is procrastinating so to await the forthcoming Janus v. AFSCME decision from the Supreme Court, expected to render the entire public sector right-to-work via a ruling on dues collection. This is of course the same Mayor Elorza who allowed the expansion of the Achievement First charter school in December 2016 to such a degree it would “break” the public school system, according to the analysis of one City Council member. He also recently placed traffic cameras near schools in poor neighborhoods that generated tickets for multiple teachers as well as low-income residents.

Here are a few basic ideas they could act upon to build the community support for their contract that they need.

-Endorse the Community Safety Act’s passage and encourage its rigorous enforcement.

-Put serious support behind the Rent Control campaign.

-Denounce the actions of ICE and encourage the Mayor to ban them from the city.

-Create a Rhode Island Black Teacher’s Scholarship Fund. Studies demonstrate that having one Black teacher in the classroom can reverse a child’s feelings about whether to drop out of school, the entry point of the school-to-prison pipeline. Such a scholarship is by no means a be-all end-all solution for the massive systemic racism that hinders a larger Black teachers workforce. But it is a start.

-Show support for teachers who put pro-Black signage in their rooms and begin conversations with membership about why those would be positive steps. While recent reports by outlets like Mint Press News’ Jon Jeter have written important stories about the corporate deflation of Black Lives Matter as an organization, the sentiment still means a great deal to students and having it prominently displayed in classrooms would go a long way.

In his classic anthology The Souls of Black Folk and magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America, the great W.E.B. Du Bois positioned public education as a major engine of democracy. He presented the European public school teachers and the Black students as the components of a dialectic that synthesized within the school house. In the decades since the Reconstruction he put under the microscope in those works, the gap between teacher and student has obviously widened. Denying such is sophistry at its finest.

Yet if teachers were already there once, they can get there again. The students and families in Providence in the urban core need the allies that teachers can become. At the same time, with the forthcoming Janusdecision, teachers need community solidarity to preserve their jobs. It took a Civil War and its Radical Reconstruction revolution to create that synthesis the first time.

Could the dire horizon of Trump-Land and its heightened contradictions create another?

Such is for the PTU to decide.

But it was another African diaspora writer who described the beauty of such a synthesis:

For it is not true that the work of man is finished that we have nothing more to do

but be parasites in the world

that all we need do now is keep in step with the world. The work of man is only just beginning

and it remains to conquer

all the violence entrenched

in the recesses of his passion.

No race holds the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of strength and there is a place for all at the there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.

-Aime Cesaire 

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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