Representing approximately 5,000 members, Alliance-AFT is the largest educator organization in Dallas ISD.
Alliance members include teachers, support professionals, teaching assistants, cafeteria workers, custodians, nurses, counselors, and all other non-administrative staff.
As its president, Rena Honea, says, “If they have the ability to hire and fire, then they aren’t eligible for Alliance-AFT.”
“We are what we call a wall-to-wall organization, meaning we have a strong organizing department, we have a legal and grievance department, we have an educational center where we do professional development with our members, we have a very strong retiree chapter, and all of our elected officers are all graduates of Dallas ISD,” Honea said. “We also have a political PAC where we’re very involved with school board races. We work hand-in-hand with our state and national organization for legislative seats as well.”
Rena sat down to tell us more about her story and her role leading Alliance-AFT.
Rena is one of our many exceptional leaders and members across Texas. Check out our past leader spotlights to hear from more of them.
Tell me a little about yourself and your background.
I grew up in Dallas. My first through 12th grades were in Dallas ISD. I graduated from one of the high schools here, went to college in Lubbock at Texas Tech University and came back to Dallas. I applied at all kinds of school districts around the area. My initial thought was that I didn’t want to be in a district as big as Dallas, but I ended up teaching here. I taught for 26 years, and all my teaching experience was at the same campus. I taught different grade levels and different subjects while I was there, and I was an active union member all that time.
Our former president taught across the hall from me, and she’s the one who actually encouraged me to join the union. I was a new teacher at the time, but I knew about unions because my dad was a truck driver for his career and was a member of the Teamsters. I learned early in my life that employees could get a lot more done with a collective voice than individually. I looked at the organizations that were available. I was getting info and paying attention. I felt that Alliance-AFT was by far the strongest and most visible, with a structure that had building leaders if you needed assistance. They were active at the school board, making sure our voice was heard. I realized I needed to be a part of that strong voice and have my views shared in a collective way rather than fighting things on my own.
If I had continued in the classroom, I believe that this would have been my 43rd year of teaching. In the summer of 2004, I resigned, left Dallas ISD, and went to work for Alliance-AFT as the Education Center Director. I served in that capacity for four years, and then when our president decided that she was retiring, it took me almost a year to say yes to the offer of taking over as president, and I finished out her term starting Jan. 5, 2009. I’ve been re-elected three times since then. Having been a classroom teacher I know where a lot of our members are coming from.
I never would have run for president on my own. I was never interested in an administrative position at all, I wanted to be working with kids, and then when I came to the union, I wanted to work with teachers and support staff because you never know where outreach is going to land, who it’s going to touch, and what they’re going to be able to do. I’ve always considered myself an instructor, a teacher, and an encourager.
The Executive Board did a training on what a president should look like — what the skillset is — and our former president had gone to each board member asking who they thought it should be, and the majority said it should be me. When they approached me with the idea, I was floored. I never saw myself in this position at all. It took almost a year because I had to do a lot of praying and soul-searching to see if that’s what I should be doing, and I decided yes through that process. I had some fears, just like everybody else, but I decided to give leading the organization my best shot.
Do you have an example in which your members’ collective action showed the true power of their union?
At the beginning of this school year, when there was still a question about if school would be virtual or in-person, our members strongly felt that our teaching staff and students should not be in the school buildings and that we should be at home doing remote learning. COVID cases were really rampant in Dallas, so with our members and our organizing department, we organized a car caravan.
We had probably 200-plus cars in that caravan, held a press conference, had helicopter and media coverage, and then we went to the school board meeting and advocated. There were around 20 speakers talking about the need for safety first. As a result of that, the superintendent and the district decided that the first four weeks of instruction would be remote learning. We felt that was a direct correlation to the work and the advocacy that we had done. It was a lot of fun, too.
With our press conference, we had a member that had made body bags, and each one of the body bags had a category like a teacher lost way too soon, or grandparents gone before their time, a student forever remembered, poignant things like that. It was really powerful and was a big draw for media coverage.
What’s the biggest issue you are facing in your district right now?
Gosh, I could go on all day about that one. I think one of the most significant is the expectation from the district to carry on as if nothing is happening. The amount of work that continues to be put on the employees in all categories–the number of meetings and trainings they’re required to participate in, the time before or after school, for virtual and face to face, all are huge issues that looms over everybody.
We’ve had some good, strong members who have made school board presentations advocating for mercy and grace. There are a lot of inconsistencies across the district, and where we’ve been able to intervene is in terms of them using planning time for meetings. We’ve sent a letter quoting the law saying that that time can’t be used. It causes a lot of stress for the educators and their assistants to have that really valuable time taken away. People are still trying to do it anyway, so we are continuing to address it at the school board meetings through presentations, through leadership, and going through consultation. We are making them aware that this continues, it’s been a problem for years and we’re just not letting it go.
Why does this work matter to you?
It’s important to me because over the years I’ve seen the education field change because we have non-educators trying to dictate what happens in classrooms, schools, and universities in a business way. They don’t understand education, child development, or all the things that go into teaching and learning that make it such a great experience. As a result of that, so many of our educators and professors and support staff work in fear because they’re made to feel inferior, and there’s a fear of termination. I’ve always been of the mind that it’s not right for people not to be able to have a voice. I’ve always been one for the underdog, always had a calling to work on behalf of people who need encouragement to speak up for themselves until they can do it on their own. Bringing people together for the common good to stand up for what is right. That’s been my thinking all along.
The members and leaders I work with are just phenomenal. We’re not just colleagues, we’re friends. We are supportive of each other, and we don’t move forward without making sure we are all on the same page. I’ve worked very hard at bringing people together to have conversations to see what the issues are, find solutions and strategies to put our members first. For education and for kids.
I love the work I do. It is a job that doesn’t have time limits on it — work happens at all hours of the day and night — and I try to respond personally as much as I can to every member by call, or text, or voice message. I make sure to get back to people because when it becomes personal for people is when they move [on an action]. I try to make sure they know they are important. I try to build a team spirit where we work together and help others understand that all of us are a valuable part of that.