By Sarah Giddings
My house has recently become muddled with protest signs, event flyers, red T-shirts, and simply, chaos. How it came to this point resides in the story of how I decided to volunteer to be a liaison for the #RedForEd grassroots movement in Arizona.
I decided to move to Arizona from British Columbia, Canada, 18 years ago to teach. My decision would take me on a journey of unforeseeable experiences that entailed teaching on Native American reservations, in charter schools, in public schools, and having a second job as an adjunct professor for Northern Arizona University.
I eventually found myself involved in a powerful, historic, educator-led grassroots movement that has revolutionary possibilities.
I was drawn into this movement at its conception. In my 18 years of teaching, I have experienced low and stagnant salaries, overcrowded classrooms, increasing work loads, deteriorating buildings, and fewer resources and support. The climate worsened after the economic recession hit, and a growing number of teachers, including myself, began to feel overwhelmed, demoralized, and paralyzed in a system that worked to undermine our ability to be the effective and meaningful teachers that we could be. Not surprisingly, we were on our way to a teacher shortage crisis. Although there were efforts to initiate much-needed change, the broader sentiment among educators in the state was one of compliance; we live in a conservative “right to work state,” in which any form of striking was illegal. What could we do? This compliance, however, would soon shift to empowerment and action.
The catalyst, the stone dropped in the pond that had reverberating effects, was the West Virginia teachers’ strike. This strike created a connectedness amongst educators, and through this connectedness it provided a solid platform from which we could share and affirm our struggles, our indignation, our hopes, and the love and commitment we have for our profession and our students. Most of all, however, West Virginia, also a right to work state, opened up our eyes to an empowering alternative reality of what is possible if we collectively organize and come together in solidarity. The Arizona Educators United (AEU) #RedForEd was formed out of this realization, and the movement rapidly gained momentum throughout Arizona. After a decade of severe budget cuts and misappropriation of more than a billion dollars, voucher schemes, and the rising corporate tax cuts handed out to billionaires, educators found themselves backed up against a wall. We were no longer going to be complacent about a system that valued profit over the lives of human beings. We had to take a stand for our students, and for public education as a whole that was under attack.
It started off with wearing red T-shirts as a demonstration of solidarity in our commitment to push Gov. Doug Ducey and legislators to meet our demands to find sustainable, permanent, and equitable solutions to the teacher shortage crisis, and to restore overall funding to where it had been prior to 2008. Utilizing social media, the movement quickly evolved into organizing walk-ins at our school sites, in which educators, parents, students, and community members were invited to peacefully gather before the start of school to show support for increased educational funding. Then it was stand-ups held along major traffic intersections or overpass bridges with educators and concerned citizens holding signs that served to educate the public. Grade-in’s and gatherings at local malls, farmers markets, and Cardinal football games further increased this critically needed awareness and support among our communities and businesses. Although we were beginning to see real, tangible effects of our work, the governor and legislators continued to ignore or trivialize our endeavor, calling our movement “political theater”. Yet, we continued to grow, and become even more organized with liaisons sprouting up in rural school districts.
Our next action was a massive undertaking: having each certified and classified employee in the entire statewide school system complete a ballot initiative indicating whether they supported a walkout. The Arizona Education Association coordinated balloting.
The result showed overwhelming support for a walkout. We had the numbers, and with that, we had a kind of power Arizona has never witnessed before. Within days of announcing our walkout date, the governor quickly shifted gears and abandoned his initial stance of offering teachers a 1 percent raise, instead proposing a plan to boost K–12 teacher pay by 20 percent over the next three years — a plan that would meet one of the five demands of the AEU and AEA (Arizona Education Association). Many educators and the leaders of our movement quickly identified his move as a political ploy, designed to gain public support, while at the same time, attempting to divide our movement by offering a monetary incentive to teachers, yet not to classified employees. His proposal also immediately prompted the critical question about where these funds would come from. We learned that the governor’s unsustainable proposal would shift millions of dollars away from programs such as universities, the arts, skilled nursing care and for the developmentally disabled. This was unacceptable to us. Our movement felt that we had no other choice but to demonstrate our basic civil liberties in pursuit of real, transformative change — by walking out of our classrooms together and into the Capitol on the historic day of April 26, 2018.
This experience has forever changed me. And from the renewed energy and glimmer in other people’s eyes, I can see that this experience has altered others as well. Days before our scheduled walkout, I performed a read-aloud of segments of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to my 7th-grade social studies classes. Throughout my years as a teacher, I have often read Zinn’s chapter on the Great Depression, “Self Help in Hard Times.” This time was different. I read it through a lens that intimately connected the past with the present day dynamics of this grassroots movement. I could discern the striking parallels between the working class people of the Great Depression and the educators and community members of the present day, who all had discovered an essential truth: that power comes from the people. The self-help arrangements evidenced by the Seattle fishermen, fruit pickers, and woodchoppers, who traded with each other for supplies that they needed, can be seen amongst the educators, parents, businesses, daycare and recreation centers, churches, and non-profit organizations, who have come together to provide viable solutions to issues that arose with school closures. Food drives, donations, parents and recreation centers offering daycare, fire fighters helping deliver food to low-income families — all this and more was a testament to the kind of power people possess, and a strong statement that, collectively, we will come together for our students, and our children’s children in fighting for what’s right. We fight for everyone’s right to a quality education.
As I marched the two-mile walk on that sweltering hot day alongside the 60,000 other individuals, composed of educators, parents, children, grandparents, and Arizona citizens, I realized I was not among strangers, I was part of the change, I was part of the movement.
Sarah Giddings teaches 7th grade in Mesa, Arizona.
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