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Remarks As Prepared for Delivery by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García to the 94th NEA Representative Assembly

Orange County Convention Center - Orlando, Florida

ORLANDO, Florida - July 03, 2015 -

Twenty-eight years ago, I was sitting right here with my Utah delegation in Los Angeles. I had been teaching seven years. My local had an at-large seat that any member could run for. I was Orchard Elementary AR that year, and my local president said: You’ve got an opinion on everything—You should run.

And I did. And I lost. I was like the alternate-alternate-alternate. Two people had to get sick so I could go. It was the second plane ride I ever had in my life. A day before I got on the plane, they handed me three tons of paperwork—resolutions and platforms and policy statements and I read every word. It was the last time I read every word. But you should, of course.

I walked into the room and it took my breath away. Do you remember the first time you walked into the Representative Assembly? I was a sixth grade teacher from Utah with 39 kids in my class, and I walked in, and I thought: I’m not alone. I belong to something big. I belong to something powerful.

Mary Hatwood Futrell was president. She was the voice of power and professionalism and dignity. I thought: Wow! How could anyone ever have the guts to call someone out of order? All my life I’ve wanted to call someone out of order!

Now, I thought I was supposed to speak on every issue. If a thought entered my head, I got to a microphone. And that made me really…popular. But I had this sense of urgency. Possibilities. Excitement. I had a sense that the people in this room were powerful enough to do something that would make a difference for my students. I wasn’t disappointed.

A lot of things have changed in 28 years. I’ve changed.

I was a lunch lady—okay I was the salad girl. I was working my up to hot food. Then I was a Head Start teacher’s assistant and then a university student and then an elementary teacher. And now I’m the president of the NEA.

But some things haven’t changed.

I’ve never lost that feeling that we are powerful, and we use that power in service to our students.

I know so many of you. I know from a thousand conversations and arguments and motions and debates that whatever journey brought you to this room, your hearts are wrapped around your students. The ones you drive to school. The ones you feed. The ones you teach and scold and counsel and heal and save their lives and love. From the very beginning, our mission has never changed: we wake up every day set on doing whatever we can to ensure that our students have every opportunity to learn, to grow, to succeed.

And that is why we are gathered here today. To carry out that mission.

This room has been mission control for so many of us. How many of you have been coming to the RA for 10 years or more?

How many of you are first time delegates? Stand up so we can clap for you.

There’s only two things that happen to first timers. At the end of four days, you will either run screaming from the room yelling: Make it stop! Or you will be inspired and empowered and you will not let the actions of the RA end at the end of the RA. You will say: Whatever I told my NEA to do, I’m supposed to do when I get back home. I am the NEA back home.

And that is the essence of who we are. We are the NEA. We are rabble rousers; the activists; the true believers…and this is how we are going to make our mark on the world…as educators who understand the fearless power of collective action.

I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you in my first speech. I was thinking about how my life has changed and how my life hasn’t changed. And then I thought, that’s no different from anyone else’s life. We change. We grow. We learn. But the essence of who we are remains.

And then I knew what I wanted to say. Because what’s happening to us as individuals, has also happened to our own union.

At the beginning, we didn’t even call it a union.

In 1857, a couple of states had started forming teacher associations to strengthen this new idea of professionally trained teachers. A teacher in New York thought it would be a good idea for all these new state associations to come together and start advocating for public schools and professional teachers on the national level. Around 100 teachers representing 15 states answered his call. They voted to form the National Teachers Association, which soon became the National Education Association.

Women were barred from membership. Oh my, how things have changed.

The years rolled by, and NEA changed again and again. Leadership from the beginning in our organization was mostly men and mostly white and mostly administrators and deans of colleges of education.

We didn’t even have a place at the table for our education support professionals. We thought it was unprofessional to bargain a contract. There was a great debate on whether or not we should be a union or a professional association—it took us a while until we discovered that that was a false choice. We needed to be both.

Because a school is more than our place of employment. That school was our cause. It was a movement. And from the beginning, it has been a cause to love someone else’s child.

One of the first national actions of the NEA was to stand beside women like Mother Jones and fight against child labor.

When we saw the effect of poverty on families, we saw it specifically through an educator’s eyes. We saw what happened to a child who was plucked out of a desk at school to work in a factory or a in a mine so that their families might not starve. Did you know that Mother Jones—was a teacher in her early life. She saw through a teacher’s eyes: When you destroy the future of a child, you destroy the future of everything.

We both fought and won child labor protections in state after state. One hundred years ago, because we were here, something good happened for children that protects children still today.

Ninety years ago, our country faced the Great Depression.

Many schools were forced to close for lack of funds.

NEA worked with President Roosevelt, for federal aid as part of the New Deal so state and local governments would have the money to reopen their schools.

Sixty-five years ago, NEA lobbied for the G.I. bill, The G.I. bill was a game changer for the U.S. Before that, universities were for kids from mostly well-off families. After that, it was for anybody’s kid. Men and women who didn’t come from wealthy families—but who served their country would have a decent shot at higher education. We helped make that happen.

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court finally ruled that separate is inherently and intolerably and immorally unequal. I remember whites-only water fountains in the playground when my dad was stationed in Warner Robins, Georgia. This is not ancient history…It’s current events. The vestiges of racism live on. It takes on many forms. We see it in which children are bullied at school. We see it in which children have the services and supports that nurture the whole, blessed child and which don’t even get recess. We see it in voter suppression. We see it today in the churches that are burning.

The ’60s were a time of decision for our Association. It was a time that called on us to demand justice in our own NEA house. NEA merged with the black teachers union, the American Teachers Association, and we required our affiliates to integrate. Some refused, and we disaffiliated those affiliates. We lost a lot of members, but we organized and we came back. And today, NEA is one of the largest, most powerful deliberately diverse organizations on the planet.

Fifty years ago, it was clear that even after Brown, states were shortchanging students who lived in poverty—and the face of poverty was still primarily the face of black and brown children. NEA fought for a new educational priority within the federal government. In 1965, President Johnson signed the Elementary & Secondary Education Act as part of the civil rights movement; as part of the war on poverty. A law that would give schools with high concentrations of children in poverty, some extra funding to try to make up for the lack of resources provided by state legislatures. NEA was part of the team that won this victory.

That same 50 years ago, we charged up Capitol Hill again and helped put another pen in President Johnson’s hand when he signed the law authorizing Head Start, a program that I am proud to say hired me as the lunch lady. And as of today, a program that has served over 30 million preschoolers with education, nutrition, health and social services.

Forty-seven years ago the NEA led the charge and won passage of the Bilingual Education Act for the first federal funding to establish innovative programs for students who were English language learners, including Latino students, Asian Pacific Islander students and American Indian- Alaska Native students.

Forty-four years ago, we fought for passage of the School Breakfast Program and we argued what researchers and any school lunch lady could tell you: that kids who are hungry can’t learn.

Forty-three years ago, NEA cheered as President Richard Nixon (yes, we cheered President Nixon) because he signed Title IX—the federal law outlawing discrimination against girls and women in school sports.

Forty years ago, NEA fought for the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and for the first time there were federal protections for the rights of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate education.

Three years ago, with NEA doing a full-court press, President Obama approved an immigration policy to defer action on childhood arrivals. With DACA, children and young people who had been brought to America without the right papers could apply for a temporary visa that would allow them to stay in the country they loved, work and go to school until a permanent solution on comprehensive immigration reform could be found. NEA believes in our DREAMers.

And one week ago—after considering the arguments, including an NEA amicus brief arguing that state discrimination against same-sex married couples deprives them and their children of the fundamental dignity, benefits and rights that other couples and their children enjoy—the Supreme Court decided on our side and on the right side of history. And my son, Jeremy, called me and said, “Ma! Mike and I are no longer living in sin!” My son and Mike are legally married in the great state of Utah.

There’s so much history I’m so proud of. And I know some of you are going to be so mad at me that I didn’t include something really important on retirement security and affordable college and health care and a living wage and so many things we’re fighting for…I could go on and on because I love the sound of my own voice, but…we’re supposed to end in 3 1/2…and if I took up all the rest of those 3 1/2 days, I still wouldn’t be at the end of our list of the victories that we won for someone else’s child and someone else’s family.

Our structure at NEA has changed. The people who sit in these seats will change. But our hearts are the constant. And if that has ever changed, it’s only to grow stronger and more determined and more in awe that in our hands—in the hands of someone who knows the names of their students from preschool to graduate school—in our hands is the future of everything.

The NEA is not our building. It’s not the furniture. It’s not the meetings. You are the NEA.

You are the future of everything. And the future is calling on you to act the day you go home from this Representative Assembly. I wish I could give you the day off, but that’s not the way the world works. We will adjourn when business is over on July 6th. We have just received word that on July 7th, the bill that passed out of the Senate committee to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—or No Child Left Untested—will be brought to the floor of the Senate for debate.

Because of you and your state and local leaders and everyone who signed up on—we flooded senators with our stories of what the insidious, obsessive, obscene focus on a standardized test bubble sheet has done to shortchange our most vulnerable students.

We demanded an end to the toxic testing produced by AYP that limits what it means to teach and what it means to learn to what fits on a standardized test. We told your Senators: Replace that failed one-size-fits-all bubble sheet with a dashboard of multiple indicators of success. On the dashboard in my car, I’ve got lots of indicators. I can tell if the tank’s full. I can tell how fast I’m going. With No Child Left Untested, I’ve got a “check engine light” blinking—and they tell me to put air in the tire.

We want a dashboard of indicators that can tell us if we’re driving in the right direction. We want better information in the hands of a caring, competent educator so we can maximize the Opportunity to Learn for every blessed student. And we told that Senate committee that we wanted something that’s never been in ESEA, although it was the essence of civil rights: We want schools to report on that dashboard evidence of resource equity for all students. What kind of programs and services do the kids in this ZIP code have compared to the programs and services that the kids in this ZIP code? Shouldn’t the public know which kids have access to a school librarian; AP classes? Health services? Counselors? Reading tutors? Recess?

A minor miracle occurred because of you. One hundred percent of the Democrats on that Senate committee and 100 percent of the Republicans on that Senate committee voted to end AYP, include a dashboard of multiple indicators of success beyond the standardized test and require states to report indicators of resource equity—and they passed the bill out to the floor. The full Senate will now debate and vote on the committee bill.

Again, 3 million members are being called on to act to improve the lives of someone else’s child. A generation of students has already suffered 13 years of Test and Punish. We have the opportunity to end the federal nightmare of toxic testing.

Parents are with us. Researchers are with us. Enlightened business leaders are with us. But we must lead…as we have led for 158 years. Now is our moment.

You have a circle of influence waiting to hear you. One in every 100 Americans is a member of the National Education Association. Mother Jones did it without a Facebook page. Without a twitter account. How can you reach 100 people with the truth? You can speak in a way no one can silence you. The people who know you, trust you. They will listen to you. That’s the power that’s already in your hands. Imagine 3 million NEA members simply telling the truth to people who will listen to them and trust them.

I was sitting right there 28 years ago as a new delegate. Twenty-eight years from today, it may be a first time delegate sitting in this room right now who stands up here. Twenty-eight years ago, no one would have picked me. I was so annoying to my delegation. Now I’m annoying to the Koch brothers.

We are what democracy looks like. We are what power looks like. I am an empowered sixth grade teacher from Utah and it wasn’t my superintendent who empowered me. It wasn’t my governor or the Secretary of Education. It was my union…My union saw me as a leader and it was this Representative Assembly that put me on this stage. As it will do for the next generation of leaders. And the next. And the next. For another 158 years.

We are the circulating blood and the beating heart of the cause of public education. We believe in ourselves. Not out of a sense of arrogance. If you don’t believe in yourself, you have not earned the right to ask anyone else to believe in you.

And 28 years later, I still believe in you as much as I did the first time I walked into this room. I’m still electrified by the power waiting to be unleashed. I still get that feeling that nothing can stop us. Nothing can stop the mission that’s written in our hearts the way it’s written in my favorite poem:

Give me your hungry children,
Your sick children.
Your homeless and abused children.
Give me your children who need love as badly as they need learning.
Give me your children who have talents and gifts and skills.
And give me those who have none.
Give them all to me, in whatever form they come,
Whatever color their skin,
Whatever language they speak,
Wherever they find God.
And the people in this public school will give you.
The doctors and the engineers,
and the carpenters.
We’ll give you the lawyers and ministers
And the teachers of tomorrow.
We’ll give you the mothers and the fathers,
The thinkers and the builders,
The artists and the dreamers.
We will give you the American Dream
We will give you the future.
Will you take the power on our hands and fight for that future?
Will you unite our members and the nation?
Will you inspire them to see that we are being called on to act now to end the toxic testing that has poisoned what it means to teach and what it mean to learn?
Will you lead to a future that respects the whole child, the whole community and respects the men and women who know the names of the students and who know what we’re talking about?
Órale pues. ¡Adelante!
Let’s get to work. Go, fight, win!
Mil gracias de mi corazón.

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The National Education Association is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing nearly 3 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, educational support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers. Learn more at

Staci Maiers, NEA Communications
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