NEA President’s valedictory speech challenges teachers to take on Trump
Lily-Eskelsen Garcia delivers valedictory speech at virtual NEA convention.

WASHINGTON —Lily Eskelsen-Garcia may be stepping down as the head of the nation’s largest union, but the elementary school teacher from Salt Lake City isn’t going quietly into the dark from her post as National Education Association president.

Speaking via zoom to her union’s virtual convention, she had some choice words not just for GOP President Donald Trump but especially for the racism and inequality he symbolizes, and that has run through the U.S. since the first European migrants arrived on North American shores.

That “inequality was by design” of the “white, male, Protestant, property owners,” the rich and powerful, Eskelsen-Garcia declared. Exclusion and greed were and are their creeds, and Trump is their champion, she emphasized.

And then she challenged her teachers and fellow unionists, all known for political activism and success at mobilizing communities to their aid and particularly to the aid of their kids, to take on both Trump and the racism.

“What will you do as we face the most dangerous threat to our democracy that we’ve ever faced? We are threatened by a man who does not recognize any law he must obey. He believes he is above the law. He acts as if he is our king. He has disgraced and corrupted his office. He has tried to manipulate us and get us to hate each other. He knows exactly what he’s doing–surgically removing certain parts from ‘We the People.’”

Unlike prior years, Eskelsen spoke to a “virtual” Representative Assembly. The convention by teleconference occurred in early July. It still had more than 7,000 delegates and hundreds of alternates, and it still was the nation’s largest single-union convention.

But the actual meeting in Atlanta was scrubbed due to the ban on large crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic. So was the vote on her successor and other officers. It’ll be done by mail, with results, and a new president, by August 31.

Meanwhile, the virtual convention heard her, other speakers, and presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, whom the board of the three-million-member union endorsed.

All this didn’t stop Eskelsen-Garcia. In her speech last year, she took on Trump. This year, she took on Trump and what he represents—the rot that infests the U.S. And that came first. The president is a symptom of a disease that runs back centuries, she said.

“Somebody called me unpatriotic–for telling the truth. I said in an interview, ‘America never was America for too many Americans.’ It’s from a Langston Hughes poem,” Eskelsen-Garcia declared in her speech, posted on http://neatoday.org/tag/lily-eskelsen-ra-speech/ “I’m a teacher in my bones. It’s my job to teach the truth. I taught my 6th graders U.S. History that wasn’t in our textbook.” Then she shelled out the truths, rapid-fire.

“I taught them about the American Revolution. I taught them what a ‘republic’ was–that we would not have a king! ‘We’ the people would democratically VOTE for leaders who would make decisions for us so that we would have Freedom and Justice for All!” (her emphasis).

“Except for you–because you’re Black. In fact, if you’re born in this state”—the assembly was scheduled for Atlanta—”you’re not actually a real person, you know. Technically, you’re property.

“And except for you–because you’re a Native American and some of us would like your land–the land we agreed in treaties would be yours as long as grass grows and water runs, yeah. We didn’t really mean it.”

“Oh, and of course, except for you, because you’re a woman…and because you don’t speak English… and because you woke up one day and decided to be gay. ‘Cause that’s how that works.”

“Or you–because you have a disability. Because you’re Jewish. Or Catholic. Or Muslim. Or Mormon. Because YOU were born in a time that we did not include you in ‘We’ the People.”

For that WASP elite, “law and order and freedom and opportunity and happiness for Us,” was the creed. “And for you…not so much.”

“It is historical truth. America never was America for too many Americans. What some folks who know that haven’t figured out that this wasn’t by accident. Exclusion was intentional.”

“We have to know our history, or we’ll never find the path forward to something better. Folks’ll just look around at the absurdity of our inequality and think, ‘Well, this doesn’t make any sense!’ Why do some schools have so much more than other schools? Why do some kids come to school hungry? Why does this parent have a job with health care benefits and that parent has to have a Go Fund Me page because their kid has cancer?”

Eskelsen-Garcia challenged her members to keep teaching those truths, which fly directly in the face of the WASP-white-men-only idealized America spouted by Trump and his legions. Why? she asked. Because we’re teachers, and teachers of truth, she replied.

And the truth is the “inequality was by design” of the ruling class, including Trump, the right-wing worker-hating Koch Brothers, Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos—a GOP big giver who hates public schools, their unions and their teachers–and her family, and their ilk.

That group, again led by Trump, has hijacked the word “freedom” into “freedom to make money” for themselves and their families. “But this is not a history lesson. It’s current events.” Which led Eskelsen-Garcia to caustic characterizations of the Oval Office occupant.

But even though she described his royal and autocratic tendencies, Eskelsen-Garcia didn’t spend much time on Trump. She did, however, lampoon his “leadership” during the coronavirus epidemic, mock his “Make America Great Again” slogan, point out how he’s thrown the economy into the tank, excoriate him for standing idly by—or worse—when a Minneapolis cop kneed George Floyd to death, and for sending troops into the streets against peaceful protesters demanding equality and justice for all, including Black and brown people.

His leadership flies directly in the face of those U.S. ideals the founders articulated, even if we often fall far short of achieving them, Eskelsen-Garcia said. So she challenged her teachers to get out, campaign, get everyone else involved, demonstrate, and, above all, both teach those principles and to vote. The founders’ “poetry is both radical and powerful.”

“All of us are called on–both those who had to demand their rights and those whose rights have never been questioned–all of us have a patriotic responsibility to demand that All of us be included in this imperfect democracy.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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