By Patrick Rumaker, editor, NJEA Review
“We call it the ‘head-nod,’” says Jennifer Johnson, an NJEA organizing consultant and teacher at Piscataway Township High School.
“It’s unspoken,” adds Eric Jones, a field representative in the NJEA Organizing Division. “We’re saying ‘You and I are the only ones in here.’ It’s a constant frustration at NJEA meetings, events and workshops—where is everybody?”
During his 18 years as an elementary school teacher in Plainfield, Jones did not regularly have the experience of being the only Black man in the room at local association and school district meetings. But after he became president of the Plainfield Education Association, Jones began to attend meetings at the statewide level of NJEA. It was obvious to him that NJEA had failed to attract members of color in substantial numbers to active participation and leadership.
“We have had all sorts of initiatives, but we haven’t had anything to connect to a huge demographic of our membership—over 35,000 members of color who are hardly reflected in anything we do,” Jones contends. “And when they are reflected in the Review or on the website, it’s typically the same seven to 10 people. It cannot be considered a complete representation if only the same set of individuals are highlighted.”
It was with this in mind that Jones approached NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky to say that he wanted to do something to welcome a broader representation of members of color into more active participation in NJEA. Out of that request, the NJEA Members of Color (MOC) Initiative was born.
The NJEA MOC Initiative was created to educate, engage and empower members of an underrepresented affinity group within our state association through intentional organizing. Consistent with NJEA’s goals, the purpose is to create a safe space for the association’s diverse membership to build awareness and strengthen our collective power. The intention is to cultivate a welcoming space and a network within NJEA for members of color.
“If you’re not embracing or making a space for NJEA’s various affinity groups, then we haven’t really served all of our members,” says Johnson. “They’re paying their dues—most of us do it because we know that’s the responsible thing to do, like having car insurance—but if they’re not embraced, you’re not going to engage them. If they don’t feel like there’s a place that really does belong to them, they’re not going to come.”
Through the NJEA Organizing Division, Jones and Johnson planned meetings in each of New Jersey’s 21 counties to which every member of color living or working in each of those counties was invited.
Typically, when NJEA seeks to invite members into an initiative, it activates its usual tools for outreach: publication in the Review, njea.org and social media, emails to local and county presidents, the notification of UniServ field reps, and various other means though NJEA’s structure. But for dues-paying members whose daily experience rarely intersects with the association’s structure, such methods of invitation do not reach them. That’s why Jones opted for a more direct invitation.
When joining NJEA—and anytime they update their records—members have the option to self-identify their ethnicity. Of NJEA’s 200,000 members, nearly 36,000 identify as a person of color. Using the mobile phone number members provided in their membership records, Jones activated the Hustle app to text every member of color in a given county to invite them to their county’s meeting.
The MOC Initiative partnered with the respective county association leadership and UniServ field offices over the course of the 2019-20 school year to determine meeting dates and venues for the MOC Initiative in each county.
“In addition to the actual events that have taken place, the partnership that we’ve been able to build is getting strong support from various leaders throughout the state,” Jones says.
The plan worked. Hundreds of members across the state who had never attended an NJEA event in the past responded and showed up. At one county meeting an African-American woman said she came because “this was the first time anyone has invited me anyplace in 25 years. I’m a counselor in a nearly all-white district—every one of my colleagues is white. I’ve never been so much as invited to a birthday party.”
“The MOC initiative has created a family environment that has brought together some dynamic educators who have the belief that we are stronger together,” writes an early-career member from Lindenwold. “Coming to MOC events creates a sense of unity and a sense of belonging to members who have, in some cases, felt invisible.”
“Everyone wants to feel a sense of belonging,” Jones says. “We can’t control how districts treat people, but if the union is equally ignorant to the needs of all of its members, we’re not doing our job.”
The county meetings had a simple format. Members were invited to sit at round tables by their years of experience in education. After some introductions—often statewide and county association officers and UniServ field reps and other NJEA staff were in attendance—members were asked to discuss three questions at their tables:
The meetings also provided opportunities to learn more about how to become involved in the association at the local, county, state, and national levels. And as with many NJEA events, attendees broke bread together, shared stories, and started to build lasting relationships with their fellow colleagues.
“NJEA is great at collective bargaining—it is the premier state association in the country,” Jones says. “We protect our members, we help our members negotiate great contacts, and we fight for them. But in so many ways we’ve ignored our members of color, and that’s not OK if we’re standing under a banner of social justice. Just as we can’t teach our students well if they don’t know that we care about them, we can’t expect our diverse membership to fully embrace their state association if they continue to feel marginalized or underrepresented. This disconnect has been huge.
“Prior to the Members of Color Initiative, I had no sense of connection to NJEA because I had never seen anyone representing my culture or heritage in leadership,” wrote Martha Arrizón, a member in Alloway Township who now serves on the NJEA Women in Education and NJEA Professional Development committees. “I honestly felt I was paying my dues to some entity and not being represented. The main reason I’m taking part in the Members of Color Initiative is to make sure newcomers to NJEA, of various ethnicities, know they are welcomed and valued; that they are respected, and their worldviews are honored.”
Meetings were scheduled in all 21 counties, but Cape May and Hudson county meetings were yet to be held when the COVID-19 crisis ended the opportunity for in-person meetings.
Prior to the closure of meeting spaces, the NJEA MOC Initiative had many other social and educational gatherings. At the NJEA Convention, MOC hosted a Power of Diversity Brunch. Convention keynote speaker Cornel West dropped in to address the group. During the course of the year, MOC hosted several events with various themes and agendas at NJEA Headquarters in
Trenton and at UniServ field offices around the state.
These sessions have continued in the virtual world on Zoom and WebEx.
“This is all at the direction of what members want,” Jones said. “For example, two members—one a social worker and one a counselor—approached me saying, ‘Why don’t we do something for people who technically aren’t teachers but are still certified’? I suggested they put something together. They did, and it was amazing.”
Jones notes that these kinds of activities give members the opportunity to lead in a nontraditional sense. They may not want to be a negotiations chair, or a grievance chair, but they have leadership skills and through the NJEA MOC initiative they can use them.
Regular Zoom events such as “Wind Down Wednesdays,” financial planning sessions, and member-led activities, such as a prayer hour on Saturday mornings, hosted by East Orange Education Association President Dr. Dawn Nichol-Manning, empower members to take the lead and broaden interest in the association.
On the NJEA staff side, the MOC initiative has held multiple sessions for NJEA consultants of color. NJEA consultants are members of NJEA who work in, or are retired from, a school district but do part-time work for NJEA outside of their school-district hours. Consultants are employed in the UniServ, Organizing, Professional Development and Instructional Issues, Research, and Communications divisions.
“We also have started affinity organizing within the MOC Network by hosting several early career sessions as well as the first-ever NJEA Men-of-Color Symposium in June,” Jones said. “Inclusivity requires intentionality. We want to be sure to engage all members and be sure they understand what NJEA is all about: the conferences, the structure of the local versus the county versus the state, and so forth.”
Jones and Johnson say they were surprised and pleased by how retirees have responded to the MOC Initiative. They are coming to events as well, noting that they wished these opportunities had existed much sooner.
“I am so delighted to be a part of MOC!” writes Barbara Gary, a New Jersey Retirees Education Association (NJREA) member and a retired NJEA Priority Schools consultant. “It thrills my heart to see the movement and the power evolving from members of color. I have been a member since 1971, and this new phase, I feel, is a part of my legacy!”
In addition to meetings on Zoom, and eventually again in person, the NJEA MOC provides a space for interaction and networking on Facebook and Instagram.
“The MOC initiative, specifically this Facebook page, has been a great source of information for its members,” writes Jocelyn Martinez, a teacher in Jersey City. “I have learned more about NJEA in these past few months, than in the past 18 years of teaching and being a member. I am grateful that we are made aware of the different workshops and conferences for its members. MOC has provided us with opportunities to get together and meet other members throughout the different counties.”
The NJEA MOC Facebook page can be found by searching “NJEA Members-of-Color Initiative” in the Facebook search bar. The Instagram page can be found by searching “NJEA Members of Color” on Instagram.
While the NJEA MOC provides a space for members of color to become reacquainted with NJEA and to build supportive member-to-member relationships, it also is meant to serve to make the larger association representative of its diverse membership at all levels. If the NJEA MOC is successful in its aims, the Jennifer Johnsons and Eric Joneses of tomorrow will not enter meetings and, yet again, find themselves to be the “only one” in the room.
“MOC has provided our members insight on how they can begin to feel ownership of their union by playing a more integral role, not just on the local level but branching out to running for different offices throughout NJEA,” writes Lauren Chavis-Ferrer, a Paterson Education Association member. “We have had meet and greets in each county to come together and network with one another and have mini-workshops to empower mobilize and strategize with one another so no one person is spread thin attending the many activities going on throughout New Jersey.”
To learn more about the NJEA MOC Initiative:
The programs and activities of the NJEA MOC Initiative are inspired and initiated by its participants. It takes its direction from what members want. The COVID-19 crisis has changed how members meet, but it has not changed that members meet.
Participants in the NJEA MOC Initiative organize meetings around programs of general interest or the particular interests of affinity groups among members of color. These, so far, have included:
One intention of the MOC initiative is to cultivate a welcoming space and a network within NJEA for members of color. This is not limited to meetings of the MOC Initiative but is meant to include increased participation by members of color in all NJEA activities.
When joining NJEA—and anytime they update their records—members have the option to self-identify their ethnicity. By cross-referencing membership data with the participants in the Jack Bertolino Summer Leadership Conference in 2019 and 2020, it appears that the MOC Initiative, which heavily promoted Summer Leadership Conference among its participants, made a significant difference.
Participation by NJEA members of color in Summer Leadership increased by 83%.
Ethnicity 2019 2020
Alaska Native 1 0
American Indian 6 6
Asian-American 12 45
Black/African American 162 296
Hispanic 63 98
Mexican-American (Chicano) 1 1
Multiethnic 4 15
Other 4 5
Pacific Islander 1 1
Total 254 467