WASHINGTON (PAI) – Lily Eskelsen Garcia has seen poverty’s impact on her students, so for her, the issue is personal.
And as a result, the new president of the National Education Association brings a new verve and something of an edge to leading the 3.2-million-member union.
Eskelsen Garcia took office just under a year ago in a contested election at the NEA’s convention. The Salt Lake City teacher quickly made it clear that she’s taking her union to places it hasn’t been before to defend her kids, and their teachers. And combating poverty is one of those areas, because before she became a sixth grade teacher, Eskelsen Garcia taught kids in a day-care center for the homeless.
Those kids often dragged themselves to school, and had trouble learning while they were there, because they were hungry. “They hadn’t had breakfast that morning-or dinner last night, either,” she says. The plight of those children and others like them gives Eskelsen Garcia, the first woman in a quarter of a century to lead a union that is 80 percent female, an extra passion that occasionally has been absent in the NEA.
It’s a passion that puts her on the front lines of such crusades as the Progressive Agenda, a multi-part plan, crafted by union leaders, progressive politicians and the grass-roots to enact a wide range of measures to turn around income inequality in the U.S. And she says that passion for kids even convinces parents and community members in conservative states, such as her home, Utah, to support a pro-public school agenda.
Eskelsen Garcia’s passion also led her to set up “Lily’s Blackboard” on the NEA website-a direct line of communication, updated almost every day, where she posts her observations, impressions and interactions, especially out beyond D.C., and gets immediate feedback.
This is a change from past years at the NEA, because the NEA itself is unusual. Though Mary Hatwood Futrell, the last female president before Eskelsen Garcia, declared NEA to be a union more than 20 years ago, in many states, it “officially” isn’t. Unlike the other teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers, NEA has dozens of branches in states-including Eskelsen Garcia’s Utah-where the word “union” is a red flag for the ruling classes and the majority of voters. NEA Is still an association in those areas.
That’s an attitude that Eskelsen Garcia says she finds when she discusses teachers’ union issues-protecting teacher tenure, reducing class sizes, funding elementary education, and more-with teachers and school staffers, she told Press Associates Union News Service in an interview.
“Utah is very conservative, very Republican – and very pro-family and very pro-child,” she explains. “Ask an average Mom there if she values affordable day-care for her kids” at one end of the school spectrum “and affordable college” at the other, and they respond “these are family values – before (putting in) the quotes.” And family values “are the very things that I tell them I want to see for my students, my parents and for me,” Eskelsen Garcia exclaims.
But it’s not just pre-K and college that can help the kids, she points out even to the most-conservative parents: It’s quality health care, a stable income, a fight against “institutions that don’t help middle-class families. “And then, they get up and say ‘Yes, I’m for that; yes, I’m for that.'”
The NEA, and other unions, fight for those causes. So Eskelsen Garcia sees her mission as one of getting people to look beyond the “who” is doing the fighting and focusing on “the what and whom” they’re fighting for – the kids.
To help embattled union teachers help their kids, “We have to get beyond the label of the word” and its connotations and get people instead to look at the causes NEA espouses, and why it’s advocating them, she says. And once they do, Eskelsen Garcia adds, she finds a lot of common ground with people who ordinarily reflexively react negatively to unions. The progressive agenda, she believes, is part of that common ground.
After all, she explains to her Utah colleagues and others in anti-union states, raising incomes of parents-the agenda’s point-helps raise the educational levels of kids. And with statistics showing that 51 percent of the nation’s public school students are now eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, a notable index of poverty, Eskelsen Garcia also finds parents of all ages, sexes, political colorations and income levels agreeing with her.
“We talk about the whole child – critical skills, creative skills, healthy kids – and we wind up talking about the whole family,” she says. “Heads nod in agreement.”
And there’s one other way Eskelsen Garcia can open pathways to parents: Her singing. She doesn’t advertise it, but she can hold her own – as fellow unionists found out in mid-May – with any famed female folk singer you care to name. And that’s where her union side comes through, too: The organizer of a labor heritage event in D.C. chose her to close the program. And, with a few updated verses to recognize, among others, the union heroes of 9/11, she did, with Solidarity Forever.