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By Julian Peeples

Fighting for Justice, Fulfilling the Promise of Public Education

Thousands attend first-ever virtual NEA Representative Assembly

More than 7,000 educators from across the country affirmed their commitment to the fight for the soul of our democracy during the 2020 NEA Representative Assembly (RA), which was held virtually for the past two days.

Nearly 950 CTA members took part in the historic event—the first-ever virtual RA in NEA history. While the COVID-19 pandemic may have prevented thousands of educators from meeting in-person, the solidarity, unity and commitment was as real as ever.

“Nothing, not even a global pandemic, is going to stop the National Education Association from doing its work,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.

Delegates were treated to a string of high-profile visitors, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, former First Lady Michelle Obama and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah—all of whom were eager to celebrate and thank educators for their tireless dedication to America’s future.

“Educators, you are more than just teachers. You embody the spirit that is America,” said Abrams. “And in every facet of our academic communities, you stand up and you declare that more must be done because your charges deserve the best the world can offer.”

For CTA member-delegates, the RA started each morning as usual with the California Caucus meeting, led by CTA President E. Toby Boyd, Vice President David B. Goldberg and Secretary-Treasurer Leslie Littman. During his welcome address to CTA delegates, Boyd acknowledged the difficult challenges facing educators and all Americans.

“There is a lot of uncertainty in the world right now. And we are all concerned about what it means for our families, our students and our schools,” said Boyd. “I want you to know that CTA is standing strong with you.”

Not Your Average RA

The experience was a unique one for CTA member-delegates. What was a planned Fourth of July trip to Atlanta with 10,000 fellow educators and activists became multiple days of videoconferences. Rather than network in between sessions and in long lines for restrooms and food, delegates took to a CTA RA Facebook Group to discuss ongoing business and chat with colleagues. It was certainly different, but delegates also felt the familiar warmth of their union family.

“It’s an amazing experience being a delegate, period. Now add the historic moments that have been happening globally and for thousands of delegates to still be willing to take part of the work of the union—well, that’s just dedication,” said Marcela Chagoya, a member of United Teachers Los Angeles. “While we may miss being around one another, we took on the responsibility to lift the voices of educators and ESPs. Pandemic or not, we are here to do the work and we do it proudly! After all, #WeAreCTA.”

As a first-time delegate, Carrie Eaton said she doesn’t have an in-person experience to compare but her RA experience has still been special.

“I am impressed with the effort that the NEA has put into this virtual event and making sure that it still takes place,” said Eaton, a member of Irvine Teachers Association. “Having Michelle Obama and Trevor Noah speak via video at the beginning was awesome!”

CTA Board Member Mel House said there’s definitely something missing for folks who’ve felt the power of thousands of educators united in passion and purpose, and to share experiences and perspectives with people who are different but the same. This is difficult to achieve in a virtual environment.

“I miss the personal connections from colleagues all over the world,” said House. “The RA is often a place to grow based on experiences. For instance, educators who live and teach in non-diverse places can better understand the struggles of others. LGBTQ+ educators who live and work in hostile places have the opportunity to be supported, and in a safe place for a few days.”

Jacquella Payne said she appreciated the logistical effort by NEA, adding that it was inspiring to hear the resounding statement throughout RA that NEA educators stand united in proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

“They did an amazing job handling a challenging situation with our first virtual RA,” said Payne, a member of Mountain View Teachers Association. “NEA chose to be on the right side of history again and took another major stand for social justice and Black Lives Matter. I feel a change is coming and NEA is helping to make it happen. Grateful to work with and stand alongside this organization.”

Virtual Conference, Real Unity

Delegates celebrated outstanding colleagues, including the National Teacher of the Year Tabatha Rosproy, Education Support Professional of the Year Andrea Beeman and Higher Educator of the Year Elizabeth Davenport. NEA RA also bestowed the prestigious Friend of Education award to climate activist and student Greta Thunberg.

The “largest democratic body in the world” also welcomed presidential candidate Biden, who took a number of live questions from delegates—offering his perspective on issues from racial justice and reopening schools safely during COVID to uniting the country and providing public schools with the resources they need and all students deserve.

“Once we get ahead of this pandemic, we’re going to have an unprecedented opportunity to make progress,” Biden said. “We need to ensure that you and your students get treated with the dignity that you deserve.”

Visit NEA’s Strong Public Schools for more information on the 2020 election and how to be a part of the change our nation needs.

Farewell is Never Easy

The 2020 RA that was full of firsts was also the last for Eskelsen García as NEA President, terming out after six years leading the largest labor union in the United States. Elected officials, fellow educators and other leaders dropped by the RA to express their congratulations on her retirement and gratitude for giving so much to the Movement. She visited the California Caucus meeting to thank delegates for their tireless activism, remarking “when you say the word ‘fearless,’ who doesn’t think of California and CTA?”

The CTA delegation endorsed current NEA Vice President Becky Pringle to be the next NEA president, current Secretary-Treasurer Princess Moss for Vice President and Noel Candelaria for Secretary-Treasurer. The election is being held via mail ballot this year.

President Eskelsen García thanked delegates for the opportunity to serve

“It has been the honor of my life to be the smallest part of us,” she said. “We must fight. We will win.”

The 2021 NEA Representative Assembly is scheduled to be held July 2-6, 2021 in Denver. Full coverage of the 2020 RA is available here.