Whatever happened to 30 under 30?

By Patrick Rumaker, NJEA Review editor

It seemed like a simple enough idea: find 30 NJEA members under 30 years old who are movers and shakers among their colleagues or in their communities, then honor their work in the NJEA Review.

The under-30-year-old members might have already been holding office in their local or county associations or were elected school board members in their home communities. They might have already been named a school’s teacher or educational support professional (ESP) of the year in their districts. Maybe they led an initiative related to immigration, racial and economic justice, LBGTQ+ inclusion, gender equity or anti-bullying.

A call for nominations of accomplished younger members first appeared in the December 2017 Review. The call for nominations also appeared on the NJEA website and was shared on NJEA’s social media properties. It was shared by word-of-mouth and email through NJEA member groups such as the NJEA Early Career Network.

With 200,000 members, we believed it wouldn’t be too hard to gather a sizable—and diverse—class of nominees for the NJEA Membership Committee to consider. The committee reviewed the nominations with the information it had before it. In addition to nominees’ names and accomplishments, the committee knew the local and county associations to which they belonged to ensure geographic diversity—northern, central, and southern New Jersey. But the committee did not know the race or ethnicity of the nominees.

Each of the 30 selected were notified of their achievement and were asked to submit a photograph. As the editor of the Review, I received the photographs for publication.

With 30 accomplished members’ faces staring back at me from my computer screen, it appeared that the group was nearly all white. Using our membership database, which has an optional field in which members can identify their ethnicity—something the Membership Committee did not have access to in the selection process—I discovered that 27 of the 30 winners self-identified as Caucasian. One of the winners self-identified as a Hispanic male and two self-identified as Hispanic females.

The member who had initiated the 30-under-30 project and I attempted to expand the list to 40-under-30. We took a second look at the list of nominees who weren’t selected and discovered a lack of diversity existed there as well. We explained the reason for the publication delay to the original 30 winners and re-opened nominations with intentional invitations through NJEA committees and conferences that focus on racial, educational and social justice. We received few new nominations.

Intentions and impact

No one involved in the 30-under-30 project intended for the process to identify so few members of color. But good intentions do not absolve us from the impact of the systems in which we are working. Rather, the process is a call to action to direct our intentions toward challenging those systems and both the intentional and unintentional biases they perpetuate.

It was a difficult and unpopular decision for me not to publish the 30-under-30 column. All of the persons nominated, and the 30 ultimately selected, have worked hard for their profession, their schools and their communities. But the message to members of color, who would not have seen themselves reflected among those featured, would have been “There is no a place for you here.” The good intentions of the project did not, in my mind, outweigh impact of the outcome.

In last month’s Review, NJEA Executive Director Steve Swetsky reflected on his conversations with members.

“Members of color will speak highly of NJEA in the abstract, but when you ask about their personal experiences either in their locals or in looking at the NJEA Review or in so much else that NJEA does, they’re looking and not seeing themselves,” he said. “We are getting better, but we have a long way to go.”

Member and staff groups have formed and been supported by NJEA leadership to engage in conversations on the realities of being a member of color. It is an ongoing and sometimes uncomfortable conversation, but a vital one if NJEA is to be a genuine force for social justice, education justice and student success. It’s not about political correctness, it’s about representing the values and voices of all NJEA members.

What do you think? What is your experience as a member around the issues raised here? Write and let me know at NJEAReview@njea.org.

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