Beginnings: A Social Justice Caucus in Formation in Boston

By Amrita Dani and Chloe Asselin

Amrita Dani is a high school ESL teacher in the Boston Public Schools who as a teacher-activist has been involved with groups within and outside of the union organizing for racial, economic, and social justice.

Chloe Asselin is a new Boston resident who was invited to help facilitate the first meetings of the caucus as someone who has been studying, writing, and organizing in solidarity with social justice caucuses as a recent PhD in Urban Education.

In 2017, Jessica Tang and the progressive BTU for All team won control of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU). BTU for All ran on progressive principles including advocating for economic and racial justice, organizing with students and their families, member-led unionism, and union democracy. Since then, union leadership has worked to uphold these principles. The progressive leadership team has expanded on and strengthened the Organizing Department within the BTU, organizing institutes for members, and several issue-based organizing committees founded and led by union members with the support of union organizers and leadership, including Unafraid Educators fighting for immigration justice, the Haitian Educators Committee, and an Ethnic Studies Committee. While BTU members have seen a shift away from business/service-style unionism with the new leadership, the union is still far from an organizing model of unionism in which rank-and-file members are in decision-making roles in the union, determine the goals of the union, and have power to take collective action to achieve those goals working deeply with the students and communities that BTU members serve. In addition, many in the union leadership and those rank-and-file members empowered in the union remain overwhelmingly white with race neutral politics. Across the country, educators working in schools have been forming social justice caucuses to win control of their unions and to keep progressive leadership teams accountable and moving left politically. For example, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) remained active after being elected to the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union because “CORE can raise red flags and alarms, have the pulse of the members . . . be a critical conscience to raise concerns when the union is making bad choices” (Bradbury et al., 2014, pg. 69). As of 2019, there were more than twenty social justice caucuses across the United States (see Friedman, 2018; Stark, 2019).

In Boston, a small group of about thirteen educators has been meeting to form a social justice caucus within the Boston Teachers Union to critically support the BTU for All team and engage more members in union activism aligned with the principles of working class unity and racial justice. The forming caucus supports the progressive leadership of the BTU and also believes that a social justice caucus is necessary to empower rank-and-file members, especially educators of color, who have not been previously involved in or empowered by the union and students and community members, who are disproportionately people of color. The union will not achieve an organizing model of unionism depending on leadership alone.

Boston School District* African American Asian Hispanic White
Students 30% 9% 42% 15%
Teachers 23% 6% 11% 58%
Paraprofessionals 43% 3% 23% 28%

*See 2019-2020 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education enrollment data and 2019-2020 Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staffing data.

The planning team of this caucus began work in the spring of 2020, arising out of an activist book club that had been meeting regularly since the spring of 2019. The founding caucus members are predominantly people of color. In terms of racial identity, five educators in the group identify as Black (and more specifically African-American, Haitian-American, and Cape-Verdean-American), one as Asian, three as white, and four as Latinx, with the latter including some educators who identify as white-passing. In terms of gender, 70 percent of the team identify as women. Most joined the caucus to push the BTU towards an authentic anti-racist, pro-Black and Latinx organizing model. Due to COVID-19, the group met virtually. This paper reflects the organizing that occurred in the spring of 2020 as the caucus was first beginning to form. As of September 2020, the caucus was not yet official as many of its core founding members have been active in organizing for the safe reopening of schools during the pandemic. The first seven meetings of the forming caucus in the spring of 2020 included getting to know each other, political education, and learning from other social justice caucuses. During six of the seven meetings, the group interviewed two to four members of different social justice caucuses who are part of the United Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), a network of social justice caucuses across the country. The majority of members interviewed were educators of color. We reflect on these first seven meetings to share lessons learned from the UCORE caucuses and to explain how this small group of educators is applying those lessons to the formation of their own caucus. We hope our reflections, while the caucus is still forming, will provide other educators some tools and inspiration for creating their own social justice caucuses.

Creating POC-Centered Spaces

In the wake of the George Floyd protests against police terror, there has been a wave of labor solidarity led by the Black working class. One of the most salient themes to emerge from the interviews of UCORE members was the need to create spaces within unions that are safe and welcoming for people of color. The caucuses mentioned intentionally building protocols and structures that center the voices of working class people of color, including dismantling racism workshops and purposeful anti-racist trainings, a racial justice or Black educators committee within the caucus, leading the Black Lives Matter at School week of action, training in restorative justice for ‘calling in’ when harm is caused and exiting people from the caucus if harm is not repaired, and a recognition that the caucus is there for political action and education, not for processing white guilt.

Another critical, but challenging, component of actively creating a caucus space that is welcoming of people of color is cultivating authentic leadership by people of color within the union. One caucus leader warned of the danger of tokenization and Black faces in high places (Taylor, 2016). Instead, it is critical that caucus spaces are led by people of color and that those leaders are nurtured and sustained by other members of the caucus. One warning we received from a rank-and-file caucus is that a space that is majority white RARELY returns or becomes a space that is majority people of color. Finally, an important element of fighting for racial justice within a rank-and-file educators’ caucus is having explicit values, norms, vision, and mission that name how the union can fight against racial injustice in schools and society more broadly.

Many of these lessons learned from the UCORE caucuses spoke to the members of color in Boston’s forming caucus. Boston’s school district has 85 percent students of color with a teaching staff that is only 42 percent people of color. In addition, paraprofessionals, who are also represented by the BTU, are 72 percent people of color and have a separate contract from teachers with lower wages and more precarious benefits. Most of the educators of color joined the forming social justice caucus because they want the union to be a voice for and fighting along with union members, students, and communities of color at a faster pace than the union is currently organizing. They want a union that authentically builds leadership of color rather than relying on tokenization. In addition, while the progressive leadership is using anti-racist language and statements, many members of color want more action and follow through from the union and a space to critique the union leadership when it needs to be pushed further on its anti-racist work.

Within our nascent caucus building, we worked collaboratively to put the anti-racist values learned from UCORE caucuses into action now and in our planning for the future. When members of the book club nominated union activists to the planning team for our caucus, they did so with an eye towards the final team including primarily people of color and gender-oppressed people. Early in our caucus building process, we did a values survey together to spark conversations around our shared values around schools and social justice. Some challenges we have faced include recruiting people into the work, making the case for the value of a social justice caucus, and making people feel comfortable with each other throughout the process. In the future, we are planning to use restorative justice to resolve conflicts between members and continue to recruit people of color, particularly paraprofessionals, into the leadership of the caucus.

Relationships!

Building on the importance of trust, a lesson learned from our interviews was the primacy of relationships in caucus building. It was the relationships between caucus members, and often specifically within the leadership, that enabled UCORE member caucuses to support each other, be unified, and pivot and adjust as they navigated various struggles. People built trust through joint actions and working together, identifying leaders of color and supporting them to take on more challenges, and having 1:1 conversations.

Within our own caucus building, there were challenges associated with convening a group of educators who might not have known each other in the past. We used smaller breakout groups and 1:1 sharing and listening sessions. Going forward, caucus members are working in smaller groups—the membership, platform, and political education committees— on different tasks, which allows us to build stronger bonds with each other, and we engaged in 1:1 conversations to learn more about each other through the summer. We also decided to focus on bringing in new caucus members with 1:1 conversations, not big events or emailed petitions. These conversations specifically target the most impacted communities with the least voice and focus on getting to know their experiences and those of their students. Many of these people have not been traditionally involved in the BTU but are organic leaders who care deeply about racial justice and workers power. In our spreadsheet keeping track of conversations, our main two questions are: Are you speaking to a person of color? And are you speaking to a paraprofessional? While we are not excluding white educators, we are disproportionately speaking to people of color and highlighting to everyone how racial injustice is a through line in all issues affecting public schools. From these conversations, we will bring people into more political education events and membership meetings so they feel connected to the whole group. We also encourage educators and community members to join campaigns that are already happening in the BTU, such as those led by Unafraid Educators and the Ethnic Studies Committee.

Union Democracy

One of the main tenets of social justice unionism is the internal democratization of the union. UCORE caucuses mentioned surveying membership, doing listening tours and 1:1 conversations, and voting on everything for member participation. The main lesson learned is that union democracy is iterative, needs constant reflecting, and the willingness to change when needed. In our forming caucus, we opened session planning and creating questions for interviews to all core members. We also split into the three committees—membership, platform, and political education— so that all aspects of the nascent caucus are created by all members in the core group. We use facilitation protocols in our virtual sessions and continue to experiment with a consensus process. Something we are constantly thinking about is how we will be balancing democratic decision-making and holding immovable values as a social justice caucus as we grow. We hope that the anti-racist foundations on which we are creating this caucus will help mitigate this tension.

Gaining Power vs. Holding True to Values

A major tension that other UCORE leaders shared was between gaining power in the union and holding true to stated values. Many of the organizers spoke to competing impulses where some people wanted to educate and push the union left through political education and action, while others wanted to contend for union leadership by compromising and moving to the center. These organizers talked about how building power, ultimately, does not always mean winning elections: building power is different from obtaining power. On the other hand, it is also important for the caucus to win key issues.

Within our nascent caucus, we engaged in discussion around a survey of values for the caucus to build unity around our values, many of which center racial justice. In our initial discussions, especially given that the BTU has a progressive leadership team, we decided that our focus as a caucus would be on building power from the ground up, by working with members and providing political education to strengthen members’ understanding of the caucus’ social justice values and to increase the number of organized educators committed to social justice in the BTU. In drafting a platform, there have also been many discussions around how we communicate this theory of change—rank-and-file organizing, decision-making, and empowerment—and our social justice values clearly. Going forward, this conversation will be revisited and reaffirmed.

Meeting vs. Acting

One of the tensions our caucus faced was deciding whether to keep meeting as a small group to do political education, get to know one another, and establish clear core values or to lead and/or participate in actions that would put the caucus on the map and grow the caucus. One of the lessons learned from UCORE caucuses included the importance of taking action even if the caucus’ platform and core values have not been cemented. Our nascent caucus worked on a resolution for building an anti-racist union that was presented to the Boston Teachers Union in early June (see Luce, 2020). Presenting the resolution to BTU membership became an action the group did together that helped strengthen the relationships and trust between core members. Discussion about the resolution by rank-and-file BTU members during the virtual BTU meeting acted as a structure test to better understand the politics of the union’s membership.

A lesson learned from the experience was that even if the caucus is not yet fully formed, it helps to have a structure to direct people toward after an action because some BTU members wanted to join the work being done in the resolution but our forming caucus did not have a structure to join yet. The discussion around the anti-racist resolution also confirmed that BTU members need more anti-racist political education. Therefore, we decided to prioritize political education that connects issues facing public schools to racial capitalism over quickly growing the caucus.

Growing the Caucus

Many of the discussions with UCORE caucuses involved growing the caucus beyond the core group of organizers. Some of the lessons learned included having organizing institutes and book clubs; engaging in both school based organizing and city-wide campaigns; finding organic leaders in colleagues and parents who speak up during school board meetings or other school related events; and creating a logo, t-shirts, website, and facebook page. Our caucus is exploring focusing on political education; mapping organizers, building representatives, and organic leaders who might be interested in joining the caucus; and creating a tiered membership for BTU members, parents and community members, and other folx in solidarity with the caucus. In addition, as mentioned earlier, we will prioritize recruiting members who are working class people of color as we grow the caucus.

In creating a social justice caucus in Boston, our goal is to build on and expand the work of the progressive union leadership in order to keep pushing the BTU towards an authentic anti-racist, pro-Black and Latinx organizing model. The social justice caucus is a unifying space for those fighting to defend public education on multiple fronts that hopes to move the BTU from a progressive to an organizing union. We also hope to get more people, especially people of color, actively involved in building power to fight for the public schools Boston deserves.

Endnotes

“We”/“our” refers to the thirteen founding members of the caucus with whom Amrita and Chloe shared this article in its first drafts. Chloe, as an ally and facilitator, is not included in that “we”/“our.”

 

References
Bradbury, A., Brenner, M., Brown, J., Slaughter, J., & Winslow, S. (2014). How to Jump-Start your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers. Detroit, MI: Labor Notes.

Friedman, E. D. (2018, May-June). What’s behind the teachers’ strikes? The labor-movement dynamic of teacher insurgencies. Dollars&Sense. Retrieved from http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2018/0518edfriedman.html

Luce, S. (2020, July 17). From Resolutions to Transformation: How Unions are Organizing for Racial Justice. Retrieved from https://organizingupgrade.com/from-resolutions-to-transformation-how-unions-are-organizing-for-racial-justice/?fbclid=IwAR0r6IoyVsCAaE__8tCnQCmk4FfiKevImY_a83eDLNfjwgw7sskxkmNvnzw

Stark, L. (2019). ‘We’re trying to create a different world’: Educator organizing in social justice caucuses (PhD Dissertation, University of Virginia, Curry School of Education). Retrieved from https://libraetd.lib.virginia.edu/public_view/h415pb135.

Taylor, K.Y. (2016). From #BlackLivesMatter to Black liberation. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.

 

 

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