Questioning the Up & Comers: an Interview with Shaun Laden, ESP Presidential Candidate

While we at Classroom Struggle are not endorsing candidates we were interested to know more about the candidates running for Union President of both the ESP and Teacher’s Unions in Minneapolis, and are excited to see more dialog and debate about our unions and their role in education. See our interview with Shaun Laden, Candidate for President of the ESP Local of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, below.

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(Shaun Laden and Farhio Khalif Jordan talk about education. Note this is a dialog with Classroom Struggle, not Farhio.)

  1.  What do you bring to the office of president of the Education Support Professionals (ESP) union local?

Before becoming an ESP I worked as a community and political organizer. I learned how to engage in meaningful conversations and get people activated as a field canvasser and organizer with MPIRG and as the canvass director for Congressman Keith Ellison’s 2006 campaign. I learned about the importance of building power as a Campus Camp Wellstone trainer with Wellstone Action for 3 years. I learned about the centrality of relationships to political organizing from Rep. Karen Clark as her campaign chair and manager in 2012 and 2014. I have helped run winning campaigns for leading progressive candidates and causes. I would bring this experience to the office of president.

Today, as a member of our small group negotiations team I have come to understand the level of power that our local has at the bargaining table. We need more leverage in order to achieve a better contract. One way to gain leverage is by signing up new members. To do that we need to be out in our workplaces and communities listening to what issues are important to members and what would move them to be involved. My experience as a political and community organizer means I know how to engage members and organize campaigns to get results.

I also bring a strong commitment to building a social justice union. It is one reason I have been excited to go to the Social Justice Education Fair and the subsequent potlucks. The work of building a new kind of unionism takes getting out into the community to build a coalition that can build power to be used to defend public education, our students and unions and build the schools our kids deserve.

2. What do you think the role of the union should be in our schools and communities? With that, what would your first priorities as a union president be?

There will always be the necessity of our union to protect the basic rights of our members. But beyond that I believe we must engage in coalition politics to grow the role of ESPs, teachers, parents, students and community organizations in education decision-making. The current trend is towards less control for these important stakeholders and that is dangerous to public education.

An example of an increased role would be professional development for ESPs. The quality and relevance of professional development for ESPs in our district is distressing. I’d like to see collaboration between our union and the district to develop meaningful learning opportunities for our members. As ESPs we have many varied roles and therefore need training that reflects that reality. We should play a major role in determining the training we need to get better at our jobs.

My first priority will be to lead a membership drive and listening tour. The lower our full share membership is, the less of a role we will play in decision-making and the less leverage we have at the bargaining table where decisions about issues like wages and collaboration time are made.

My second priority will be to support the work of our ESPs who are organizing members of color. I’m proud to have the support of Vicki Ellis and Sheila Crabbe, two members who are helping lead this effort. Our union must do a better job at developing new leadership that reflects our membership.

My third priority will be to have some fun. We have so many members who view our union as a legal service or an insurance agent. That is not healthy for our union and it is not good for members. We need to get to know one another outside of work and meetings. By building relationships we build a stronger union. Relationships come from shared experiences. Lets have some!

3. At Classroom Struggle we talk a lot about the importance of enacting and organizing for racial justice in our schools. What is your vision for making the union a force for racial justice?

Our members know where and when injustice is happening in our schools. By engaging members in conversations about racial justice and providing a channel for members to become active in pushing back against injustice we will build our union into such a force. I’d also like to see more partnerships with community groups who are working on these issues. Neighborhoods Organizing for Change is a group working on these issues. I believe we can partner with NOC to build awareness and start pushing for solutions to issues like the suspension crisis, pushing for a culturally relevant curriculum and putting more educators of color in the classroom.

Additionally, we have a role to play in raising our own members’ consciousness about racial justice issues our students and staff are facing. There are many conversations that need to happen to start addressing these issues.

4. At Classroom Struggle we talk a lot about organizing in and across our individual schools with parents, students, and the community. Doing so gives us real power to institute change in our own schools, and across them, be it through collective collaboration, action, or refusal. What do you think are the major barriers to building this power in our schools and how would you as union president help empower such efforts?

I believe one major barrier is isolation. Many of our members are isolated in their jobs and have little interaction with other peers or our union. This means many are unaware of what is possible or what resistance looks like.

We need to take care that our buildings are connected to our union. I’d like to see regular site visits from leaders and member trainings for buildings or job classifications that can build a sense of community and a collective awareness of what is happening in other schools or even around the country.

5. Do you believe that a social justice coalition of educators, students, parents, and community should be the ones primarily in control of our schools? If educators and the community collaboratively controlled their schools, how do you think things would be different?

Absolutely. For starters I think resources would fly back to the classroom and you’d see smaller class sizes and more authentic learning taking place. With control of our schools and classrooms being increasingly centralized and controlled by people removed from the classroom on many levels we’re seeing a dramatic degradation of teaching and learning.

We’d also see a move away from excessive testing that is driving our current education policy. I think it is important that what is being touted as a silver bullet for education problems is totally unacceptable for kids who go to elite private schools. Experiential learning, problem solving and critical thinking are the skills we need to be teaching our kids. That is what is done for the most affluent kids. That is what needs to be done for all kids.

A coalition of community members would also champion wrap around services at full service community schools. Community schools are community centers that can bring back a neighborhoods connection to its public school and help lift up families as well as students.

6. Any last things you’d like to say?

If elected, I will lead by listening and seeking answers. I know that I don’t have all the answers for what challenges we face as a union. That is why I think it is so important to be actively seeking out our members and speaking with them and finding out what solutions they have found or believe can work.  I look forward to those conversations.

 

Elections for ESP President are happening now, with ballots due and counted on April 23rd (they need to be mailed in before this date). While Classroom Struggle is not endorsing any candidates we are excited for the increasingly sophisticated dialogue happening among union members, and hope that everyone interested in fighting for a public school system worth fighting for will get together and get things moving. We live in interesting times and that takes all of us stepping up to lead when we’re needed.

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