Petal Plus One

A member engagement initiative

By Angel Boose

NJEA thrives when member engagement is high. This is the reason so many opportunities exist for members to connect and get involved. With the onset of the pandemic, NJEA continued to create those opportunities with virtual spaces for members to continue to connect with, learn from and grow with the association. 

The 2021 NJEA Convention was the first event open to all members since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way we socially engage. Although the convention was held in person and required all attendees to show proof of vaccination or the negative results of a PCR test administered within the previous 72 hours, members had the option to attend workshops and the keynotes virtually. It is important for the association to provide members with the option to attend in-person or online as they continue to navigate through the pandemic. 

With the excitement of the return to an in-person convention, came the opportunity members to attend events as the “plus one” of the NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson. Can you imagine being personally invited to attend an event by an NJEA officer? Well, some members got to experience just that. 

To encourage members who had not previously attended the NJEA Convention to do so for the first time, Robertson pinned an open invitation on various Facebook forums asking members to communicate with her if they had never attended it. She also reached out to locals or individuals she observed working within their local to extend an invitation. Those who responded to the call were asked to accompany her to a convention event. 

 “Most people I know are involved in the union simply because they were invited to something,” Robertson said. “So I decided to pay it forward and invite people out to the very same events that I get to attend. It helps me build an authentic relationship with the member and for that member to build an authentic relationship with their union.” 

Petal Plus One at the NJEA Convention

Two Early Career Members attended the 2021 NJEA Convention in-person for the first time, Jon Coxen, and educational support professional (ESP) from the West Hampton Education Association and Cynthia Ruszczyk, a middle school science teacher from the New Brunswick Education Association. Both were Robertson’s guests at the keynote with Sonia Manzano. Each of them connected with Robertson via her Facebook posts. 

 “A highlight was networking, meeting new people and having the chance to learn different things,” Coxen said.

“I got to meet Sean Spiller and speak candidly to others about what we are currently experiencing in education,” Ruszczyk shared. “It was exciting to being able to speak with Petal and other guests prior to the keynote, and to chat about the keynote at its conclusion. Listening to Sonia was amazing. I grew up watching her on Sesame Street. She said things about her past I never thought about. It made me think about my current position and the impact I could be having on my students.”

Fuquan Brown, head custodian from the Montclair Education Association attended the 2021 NJEA Convention as a first-timer. He was invited to be Robertson’s plus one at the keynote with Henry Louis Gates Jr. 

“I gained knowledge about a lot of things I didn’t know pertaining to my ethnicity,” Brown said. “I was intrigued by the guest speaker Henry Louis Gates and the ways he tried to get the audience, a diverse audience, to understand his point of view and all he studied for so many years. The visuals he used were a highlight. It elevated my way of thinking.”

From left: Montclair EA Grievance Chair Amy Fowlkes, NJEA Secretary-Treasurer Petal Robertson, and New Brunswick EA member Cynthia Ruszczyk at the Sonia Manzano keynote address at the 2022 NJEA Convention.

Petal Plus One, beyond the convention

Vice President of the Lindenwold Education Association and fifth grade math teacher Ryan Strothers had the opportunity to be Robertson’s plus one at the Garden State Equality Ball. Although Strothers is very involved with the union, he was not familiar with the event upon being invited. 

“It was an honor to accompany Petal,” Strothers said. “Having an NJEA officer reach out to see if members want to attend events is really impactful. That personal touch means the world to members and helps them feel personally connected.” 

Kiara Gary, a paraprofessional from the Montclair Education Association accompanied Robertson at various political events, including an event for Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin (D-Essex). 

“It’s an amazing experience to be two Black women in a room, and one is the NJEA secretary-treasurer. I was able to begin putting a name to dignitaries as I was introduced. As an ESP, it was an amazing experience,” Gary said. “Petal introduced me to people I would never have met on my own. Her telling them my name and where I’m from made me feel very special. She introduces you like you are someone special.”

Although her title is secretary-treasurer, Robertson wants members to remember that she is still a member, just like any other member. She realizes that without members there is no union and wants each member to recognize the value they bring to our association. She believes intentionally engaging our members means that we will retain them, even when we don’t always see eye to eye because we have built those relationships that can withstand disagreements. Robertson is dedicated to building relationships with members, and her Petal Plus One initiative is just the beginning.

If you are interested in getting more involved in the union and would like to attend a future event with the NJEA secretary-treasurer, you can send an email to her executive assistant, Tamika Elder at indicating some of your interests.

Robertson also encourages members to speak with her in person, at conferences and workshops. She loves to talk and would be happy to connect. You might be an email or a conversation away from being her next plus one. 

Angel Boose is a third-grade teacher at the Benjamin Banneker Academy in the East Orange School District. She is the vice president of the East Orange Education Association and an NJEA Communications Consultant.