I am a young teacher from New Jersey with over seven years in the classroom. This summer, I traveled to seven different cities to participate in ten different conferences. We had powerful conversations around racial justice in education, progressive movement-building, leadership development, and more. The most impactful experience was the opportunity of a lifetime, to represent NEA at the Education International (EI) Young Advocates Summit in Brussels, Belgium.
When I arrived in the city, I chose to walk to the hotel and enjoy some fresh air after the eight-hour journey. Rolling luggage… street signs in French… twisted winding roads… no Wi-Fi for Google Maps. I immediately regretted my decision. But along the way, I got to see areas that were not designated for tourists. The rugged city blocks felt like the European version of Washington Heights in New York City, minus the mofongo. I wondered, “how were the schools in this neighborhood?”
During the summit, I engaged with 50 young educator-unionists from 30 different countries on a variety of topics, ranging from the Global Education Reform Movement to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs.) Beyond the content, this experience was a chance to break bread, share stories, and build community in ways that transcended our linguistic and cultural limitations. We each, however, came with our own distinct lens that stretched the meaning of “diverse” in this global collective.
Our comrades from many “developed” countries articulated the norms that underpinned their educational systems: respect, prestige, and compensation for people in the teaching profession. Our comrades from many “developing” countries expressed the struggles of daily life, and illuminated victories born from collective action. It was an equator-wide range of perspectives all converging in one space.
On the first night, one brother detailed the level of violence that gripped his homeland. He shared a sharp truth: “If you are in politics, then you have one of two things… guns or money.” Our conversation waded into the deep waters of his political aspirations. I asked, “how would you maintain your integrity in a corrupt system, and why would you risk your life?” He replied to both questions with one easy response, “the people.”
The next night, we were all invited to share a bowl of Kava, the National Fijian drink made from the root of a pepper plant. It had a slight numbing effect, like Novocain at the dentist. It was totally legal – I checked. So, we all sat in circle around this hotel room each taking a swig, and stating the word “bula!” It was like a “cheers” after the drink. We unpacked what we learned from the day, and filled the room with laughter.
For the last celebratory night, one sister quietly chose not to eat dinner. She politely, but firmly insisted that she was not hungry. With sincere concern and curiosity, the group lovingly probed her decision. Eventually, she confessed. It was not to make some bold statement, or from a lack of funds. In her gut, this sister simply could not justify spending the equivalent of six month’s rent in her country… on one meal.
I was grateful for the wealth of examples that would help me construct a more concrete understanding for my students of our global context.
As a history teacher, I was aware of Belgium's ruthless legacy through King Leopold on the people of Africa. Like the United States, the wealth amassed from colonial exploitation has provided "developed" countries many luxuries, including the ability to lead on issues like poverty reduction and sustainable development. Still, during the summit this international group of young labor activists created strategies to organize around issues of women’s rights, environmental justice, and equitable education. This was how EI planted the seeds of change.
This was a profound learning experience that deepened my sense of our shared humanity. We were all educators connected by the roots of our union family. Each person gifted us with the fruits of their passion, culture, and spirit. These experiences have helped young people, like me, grow as leaders in the classroom.
Since then, we have witnessed violence in Charlottesville, mudslides in Sierra Leone, hurricanes in the Caribbean, human rights violations in the Philippines, attacks on women’s rights, exploding wealth disparity, and more. The world needs passionate public educators, fearless union leaders, and progressive young people more than ever. #thinkglobalactlocal
Note. Some names and locations were omitted to protect the identities of people that shared their stories.
Note. This is the third and final installment of the “Think Global, Act Local: Legacy Series” from www.thesoulera.com. The SOUL Era is a blog space that narrates the journey of three young educators of color in the United States, as they work to educate, organize, and elevate young people. SOUL stands for “Servants Organizing Underground Legends.” (See Part 1& Part 2)