Beginning with the Chicago teachers’ strike in 2012, educators across the country have engaged in a wide-ranging struggle to beat back austerity, increase school funding, and protect public schools from privatization efforts. This fight has been particularly acute in North Carolina where, since a Republican takeover of the state legislature in 2010, public school students, educators, and staff have seen drastic cuts to support staff, pay freezes, growing class sizes, and a rapid growth in the number of charter schools.
Around the same time as the Chicago teachers launched their strike, educators in North Carolina participated in the Moral Monday Movement to stop a wave of Republican attacks. That’s when a small group of organizers and activists coalesced to form Organize 2020 (O2020). Their goal was to unite a layer of rank-and-file educators across the state committed to social justice, building up the statewide teachers’ union, the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), local by local. Through marches, trainings, local union elections, and more, O2020 was able to strengthen to the point that they could push the NCAE to join the historic teacher strike wave in 2018 with a statewide sickout that drew over fifteen thousand educators to the state capitol in Raleigh on May 16, 2018.
Since 2018, Organize 2020 has managed to win leadership at the state level in the NCAE, including the union presidency this past spring, while expanding their presence in locals from Cumberland to Buncombe County. Alex Macmillan, a social studies teacher in Guilford County, sat down with educators and O2020 organizers Turquoise Parker and Shana Richards to get an overview of the ever-growing educators’ movement in North Carolina.
Alex Macmillan: Could you talk a little bit about the origins of NCAE’s social justice caucus Organize 2020? It has been such a big driver of a lot of the educator actions and organizing we have seen over the past few years.
Turquoise Parker: Back in 2012 or 2013 we had a meeting, and in that meeting a bunch of us decided we were sick and tired of being sick and tired. This crew of people came together and decided that we had to do something because we were losing our people. The first meeting for Organize 2020 was on the Saturday before the first day of school.
For me, being organized and being an NCAE member is like being in a marching band. I think that’s one reason why I understand organizing, understand collective work, and systemic change.
In public education there are classified workers, school counselors, school psychologists, media coordinators, classroom teachers, instructional assistance custodians, and administrators. In marching band, you have your piccolo, your percussionist, etc. We need all those pieces for us to be productive, to make music. That’s what really made me love Organize 2020 so much because it felt like I was just getting right back in marching band.
Shana Richards: I remember attending my first training with 2020, and what I loved was that they had childcare at the meeting. I am an educator, and my husband works fulltime so I take my son out of daycare for the summer and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to attend. They made sure there was not going to be any reason not to attend this meeting. They provided childcare and had some snacks for those babies. They wanted to make sure everything was taken care of.
This training was not just a teaching session, it was a full education. It really educated me and helped me understand what we need to do and why we have to do the work that is before us. I went home and I remember sharing it with my husband. I told him that we needed to find the money to pay dues because I needed to be a dues-paying member because the work they were doing was just amazing.
Over the past ten years we have seen an endless string of attacks from the Republicans in the General Assembly. The Democrats have been there, but they haven’t been able to mount much of an opposition. I know one of the lines that you always hear from NCAE and Organize 2020 is that now we are fighting against the privatizers.
Can you explain for folks outside of North Carolina, what has that history been like? How did the attacks start? How have we gotten to where we are now?
Turquoise Parker: Back in 2010, right when I came into the profession, North Carolina became a target.
That’s when the right wing came in. ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council], for example, played a role. The right had a strategy. Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor in 2013, and they have been on a rampage ever since. They cut master’s pay, enacted corporate tax breaks, cut student service representatives, slashed instructional assistance. One of our homies Symone is a school social worker serving two schools. It’s unacceptable.
I could go on and on. This rampage was strategic. They had every person in every position that they needed to make sure the anti–public education agenda was successful.
So what we’ve had to do is work really hard to build back not just in the North Carolina General Assembly, but in our people, because our people are feeling destitute. We don’t want folks to feel like nothing can change, like we’re just never going to return.
In 2013 there was a Moral Monday event, and a couple of us from O2020 just sat in at the General Assembly. We just sat there with our arms crossed with then NCAE president Rodney Ellis and vice president Mark Jewell at the time, and some more of our other NCAE folks got arrested.
You know what, it’s taken us time to reveal that these education enemies did not come in overnight and they’re not going away overnight. We’re going to have to work in every single part of our state to transform what they did.
Beginning in 2018 there was a wave of big teachers’ mobilizations from Arizona to West Virginia to Oklahoma. Years before that there was the Chicago Teachers Union fightback. Teachers were able to win a lot of demands through these big mobilizations and strikes. How do you see the relationship between the nationwide fight for public education and what’s been going on in North Carolina?
Shana Richards: The fight in other states really helped us here in North Carolina to realize that we have to fight for our students and we have to fight for our profession. For so long my mindset was that I was just going to show up, do my job, work really hard, and hope that things get better. But when we saw the fight in other states, I realized that showing up to work, working long hours, working really hard and being passionate about what I do is simply not enough to change things around in this state.
I’ve heard a lot of educators say that our students’ learning conditions are our working conditions, and that’s so true. When you begin to think about it that way, educators started to realize we’re going to take this fight to the streets because our elected officials have been disrespecting us and not listening to us. We tried to be nice about it, to write letters, to call them. This is not enough. We have to be bold. We’re going to be really bold; they are going to see us and they are going to hear us.
I also believe that parents joining the struggle had a major impact, because parents and educators want the same things. We want the best education possible for our kids. If elected officials are not willing to invest in our children, then we are going to fight to get them all out of office, because it’s not just education, it’s an investment in our children and an investment in our communities.
I’m so excited about the work that we are doing because it’s not just teachers, it’s not just educators bringing this fight. Now we have parents who are on board with O2020 and who are now realizing that North Carolina has a union, and they are fighting for our kids.
Turquoise Parker: 2018 was the year we did our sickout, and West Virginia was a huge inspiration for us. But one of the things that really inspired O2020 back in the day was Chicago and CORE (Caucus of Rank and File Educators) and Wisconsin. The 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building in protest of Scott Walker was hugely inspirational for us.
A huge part of our job again is educating our kids, educating our people. It is not clear to everyone how the system is oppressing us in a way that makes us feel like we have to submit to whatever the system says and not realize the way the system is messing us up. As educators we need to educate people on this oppression. And when it is time to march, you need to be ready to take a day to march. We are shutting this down, we are going to Raleigh, and, like we did last time, we are going to shut down a majority of the state.
Let’s talk about a couple of the victories. What do you say to the naysayers out there who say the mobilizations in North Carolina didn’t win anything?
Shana Richards: It wasn’t just about that one day of action. It’s about what grew out of that one day and what grew out of other days of action in a state where it’s illegal to strike. We built our membership and people who didn’t even know they had a voice found it. We built leaders. It grew beyond that. And so now we’re in a state where educators realize that they have power. They have a voice. They have a union. Now let’s do some things.
Turquoise Parker: We are building power. Walkouts are demonstrations of power, and demonstrations are a structure test. We call them structure tests to see where we stand and where we have to grow. We have opportunities for growth in so many ways. You have so many people who saw the multiple steps that it took for us to shut down Durham County Public Schools, Guilford County Schools, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, and Cabarrus County Schools. We shut down all the schools on those days and then did it again the following year. Then this year we closed our school district for the first quarter for remote learning because we were organized.
At the beginning of this school year we hosted an online town hall, and about three hundred people on zoom and about four hundred people on the Facebook Live attended. At this town hall it became clear what we had to do: we were not going into the building for the first quarter. We continued to build and organize demonstrations of power. Now we are out until January.
We are grateful that people are seeing that this is a union for everybody. People who didn’t really believe in our project and were naysayers a couple years ago now are asking where to sign up. We had tons of people sign up the very day that the superintendent made it unofficially clear that we weren’t going back into the buildings. We have had folks join because people realize that in order for us to win, we have to reject individualism, and we must embrace collective work and collective action. It’s the only way.
Could you speak to how the recent elections within NCAE have had an impact on the educators’ movement in North Carolina?
Turquoise Parker: I think there is the connection between the work that we have done over the years, being able to see the progress, and the process of what it takes to organize and win. It doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t get to win because you woke up and decided you want to win. You win because you put in the time, and you had to take a couple of losses along the way. It has helped that people have been able to see that.
I think the way that we have been able to win is through the other ways that we have organized like building a massive structure test like on May 16 and May 1st.
This period of teacher fightback has happened at the same time as the Black Lives Matter movement. Can you speak to how fighting for strong unions in public education intersects with the fight against racism?
Turquoise Parker: Last month was Fannie Lou Hammer’s 103rd birthday, and I always say her quote, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” I say it all the time because it’s true, and it’s so deeply connected to the work we do as educators and the injustices we see in our classrooms. If you don’t have educators at the core saying Black Lives Matter, boldly, unashamedly, then we got some work to do. And we do. A significant core of educators have to say Black Lives Matter.
We have to do this work because we have a commitment to Black leadership. Not Black people in leadership, but Black leadership. There is a difference between the two. Black leadership is the leadership of John Lucas here in Durham. Black leadership is Elizabeth Duncan Koontz from Salisbury, North Carolina, who was one of the NEA presidents. That’s Black leadership. Black people in leadership is homeboy in Kentucky, who knows the truth but is intentionally suppressing justice for this innocent Black woman and giving total, compete and continual life to white supremacy by allowing Breonna Taylor’s murderers to not be sentenced for the murder they carried out.
Can you talk a bit about organizing in your schools? What do you think has worked well, what are some challenges, and what are some tips that you would give to people looking to organize their schools?
Shana Richards: I’m at a new school, so it’s like being fresh and brand new all over again, but I’m not by myself. Most of us are working virtually and it’s like trying to figure this thing out all over again. The first thing that I did that I recommend for anybody was get a team and build your leadership. My school has almost eighteen hundred kids, and there are three of us so we had to split the school up so that we can communicate. We started simply. We took a Red for Ed picture. Everybody got on zoom, we had some conversation, people took their picture and posted on the Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE) facebook page.
I would say the challenges are that people are overwhelmed with everything we are working on. My advice is to take the time to hear people out because everybody has something they are overwhelmed with. Listen to them, meet people where they are, because everyone is at different points in this walk with the union. Once you have that team built, meet the rest of your people where they are. You may have someone who has been a fighter since day one; they may be ready to be a dues-paying member, and they’re ready to get to work immediately. Great, we have a place for them, and we can plug them in right away. But we may also have someone else who is very shy, they may be afraid of the system, they don’t yet know the power that they have. But we love those people too because we see something in them, and we know that we are going to support those people, and that they are also going to be great leaders. We explain to them that leadership is not always being up front and center. It may be data collection, typing up the names from the list or merging files. We love our data people and they never take the front seat and are never in front of the camera, but they are leaders all the same.
Having patience and taking time to build the leadership in your building will not only make your building stronger, but it makes our union stronger. That is the best advice I have.
Turquoise Parker: I like to remind people that comparison is the thief of progress. You can’t compare what a movement is going to look like in your building versus mine. Like, one building might be having a building-level meeting where they’re doing serious things that they’re organizing in their building, but we don’t know how long they have been working at that. So we can’t look at them and think that we can never get there and then never even try. We can’t do that. We owe ourselves an opportunity to grow. Like Shana said, Red for Ed is an organizing tool. If that’s what you’re doing, you’re doing some great work! People need to know that on Wednesdays we wear red, and that’s it. This is a journey not a destination.
Tamika and I did a call with some folks in Boston and I did a call with some folks in a town outside of Orlando, Florida. They are trying to start Organize 2020 because they’re trying to grow their union. I tell them all: “Do not look at us and think you have to shut down the state today.” No! We didn’t do that on day one; no! That’s not a start! No baby is born running, right? These things take time.
Organize 2020 had a ten-year plan to win leadership in the union and help transform the fight for public schools. NCAE has always been fighting, but Organize 2020 really wanted to ramp up the fight as much as possible. What do you see as Organize 2020 and NCAE’s vision for the next ten years?
Shana Richards: The next decade will not only be fighting to maintain funding, which is already very low, but also waging a full-on fight to fully invest in our children, in our communities, and in our state so that we can have the schools that our children deserve. When I say investment, that investment is not just monetary—although money is necessary—but also is investing holistically in our children. We need to dream bigger than we have ever had the chance to dream. When people say that our leadership is radical it is funny to me because when did dreaming big and demanding what is right for us become radical? That is what should be normal, that should be an expectation. We set the bar high because that is what we and our kids deserve.
In the next ten years. We are changing the idea that we are a radical group to a group that knows what we deserve and are going to fight for it. We want to get more people to understand that it’s not radical to demand what is truly yours. That’s what I see for O2020. We are headed in the right direction, and you’re going to see some great things over the course of the next decade.
Turquoise Parker: The thing I would add is that I don’t want a new teacher to be saying the same thing in 2030 as I am saying today in 2020. My husband and I are both in our tenth year, and neither one of us have seen $40,000 yet. I don’t want any educator to say that in ten years. That’s not cool. In year one an educator shouldn’t be saying, I only make $40,000. That’s not okay. It’s not cool for our educators who got paid last Friday and to only see two-something in their account. It’s unacceptable, and it’s disrespectful to feel like you’re giving so much of who you are and your direct deposit shatters everything that you were hoping. It is unacceptable. What we have to do is we have to win for each other.
We have got to reimagine a system that is better for our kids, for their families, for each other, for something that will be systemic that we can build for decades. Because we absolutely deserve it. We absolutely deserve it.