By Kate Okeson with Amy Moran, Ph. D.
This is being written in the days shortly after the General Election, where the stakes felt high for education, which was evident in many campaigns as our entire New Jersey Legislature—totaling 120 seats—was up for election. And representation barriers continued to be broken: Luanne Peterpaul is the first out lesbian to be elected to the New Jersey General Assembly.
It’s fitting that the NJEA Convention comes on the heels of the election, where we educators are ever mindful of how we’re impacted by, and discuss events connected to, election outcomes—especially those tied to our representatives’ understanding and promise to support and act on our behalf.
“Rainbow Connection” has been covering the myriad ways that classroom and school experiences can be improved for all students when we are intentionally inclusive and unapologetically committed to the truth about what it takes to authentically support LGBTQIA+ students and educators. Convention attendees, NJEA members recognized for their exemplary service, and our presenters reflected back to us the power of all our stories being represented.
Keynote speakers Spike Lee and Ani DiFranco brought forward the power of storytelling to raise up voices that are less represented around us—or not represented at all. Lee’s particularly clear connection of his own trajectory of going to graduate school in order to have access to filmmaking tools is a lesson for us about access to the means to tell stories and its connection to undoing marginalization. This was a call to be mindful of how we invite students into our educational spaces. We may forget that students often need to have access to various spaces in order to utilize the tools there to both hear other stories and tell their own.
DiFranco’s talk explored the impact of multitudinous stories being in the world: “Laying eyes and ears on those [stories] means there is possibility.” There is power for students in that possibility—our collective and continued efforts to make and keep our schools as places where we can practice with what DiFranco called “revolutionary love.” Taking care of ourselves first, our community together, and then tending to the pain in those that cause harm. In fact, throughout the convention, we heard repeated calls from members for concerted efforts and commitments to restorative practices to be embedded in school, from individual classrooms to district practices.
NJEA Equality Champion Steve Koumoulis shared a reflection on the workshop he facilitated, LGBTQIA+ Issues and Content in the History Classroom. He noted that while much progress is being made and many are committed to inclusive educational practices, participants reported looking for supports that just aren’t offered in teacher preparation programs or district professional development. This leaves them developing cultural competencies independently and sometimes putting their learning into practice in less welcoming environments.
The convention made this, above all, clear: the actions of educators matter. Whether we are working with new content and courses, or integrating new practices that embrace all of our students’ truths in our schools, we are doing what is necessary to clear a path for student successes. Lee stopped NJEA President Sean Spiller during the keynote with a gentle reproach, “The word ‘try’ is like handcuffs,” he said. “We have to do this work.”
We all show each other the possibilities of what the work looks like. In workshops, in the many member areas like SOGI (Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Committee), in the NJEA Consortium space (whose mission is to redefine curricula with diversity and representation), or MOC (Members of Color), NJEA members demonstrate what secretary treasurer Petal Robertson called “activism and advocacy wrapped in love and joy.”
Keep up the good work, team!