In six years as a local union, Northeast Houston AFT has been an active voice for employees in three school districts — Channelview, Galena Park, and Sheldon ISDs — in the Houston area.
Through active participation in school board meetings and elections, Northeast Houston AFT is focused on building collective action and becoming a major stakeholder in the district and community.
Throughout it all, Shonda Below has served as president of the local union, having been re-elected most recently in May 2020.
Shonda took some time to share more about her experience as a union leader and the work happening on the ground.
As a union, our power comes from our members, but we also know we need to back them up when necessary. Is there a recent example of when you helped a member facing problems in the workplace?
I have conversations with all three superintendents bi-monthly. This is something that just started this school year, and I’m trying to build a relationship with them and have more of a collaborative approach. We didn’t have that last year at all.
Just the other day, a member sent me a picture of cleaning wipes that they use to clean the desks, that were covered in black residue. She was concerned about what it was, so I emailed the superintendent and told [the member] to go to the principal and ask to be moved to a different classroom. We were finally told what the chemical was by the district and how it’s being used.
I contacted someone from national AFT, and that’s when we were told that the district was not following the correct procedure for deep-cleaning a classroom after a positive COVID-19 case. After spraying the chemical, it needs to be wiped down, and that’s what the district wasn’t doing.
In another district, we recently had a member forward a copy of an email from the assistant principal that stated a mandate for teachers to stay for certain events that Thursday evening, then be expected to work Friday and Saturday. We were able to write a letter to that assistant principal about how that event could be a super-spreader [event] for COVID-19. Not only that, but it would not be best for employees.
What are the biggest issues your members are facing in their districts right now?
Handling three school districts and building a collaborative relationship with three superintendents isn’t the easiest thing to do, but because of the pandemic we’ve been brought together.
The biggest issue with one district is that parents are allowed to change their student’s learning environment between in-person and virtual every week. A parent could decide one week to be virtual, and then to be in-person the next. There is no consistency, and it’s all parentally driven. Some in-person classes have up to 26 kids in them with no way to social distance. It’s a major issue, and teachers are basically doing what they can and hanging on by a thread. Students really struggle with virtual learning, too.
Another issue has been contact tracing. It’s still unclear, to this day, what questions the districts use to determine contract tracing and how they determine which people to notify that have been in close proximity.
Why does this work matter to you?
I have always been an advocate for the underdog. I have eczema, and I was constantly teased all my life. I had to learn how to work through that and not let it bring me down. My grandmother was a teacher, so I grew up hearing how I was going to be a teacher one day. My mother told me about what my career path would be, advocating for people to be treated fairly. It’s all related to the circumstances within my own life.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
I was raised in a predominately Black town. My family was influential — everyone knew who I was. I haven’t ever suffered for basic needs. I’ve always had them met. I didn’t deal with any racism until I was grown and moved to Houston, but I’m confident in who I am. I know I’m Southern — I’m not a city girl — but I can stand up for myself in a crowd.
My degree is in elementary / special education, but when I first moved to Houston, I wasn’t able to teach, so I became a social worker with child protective services for 15 years. I investigated child abuse, removed kids from their homes, put kids up for adoption. It was stressful, but because of my upbringing and my religion, it was easier for me. But then I got married and had two babies, and I couldn’t do the job because no two days looked the same. It wasn’t consistent, so I quit my job, slept for three months straight, [and] then decided to go back into education as a long-term substitute in Channelview.
After that, I got hired as a special education teacher in Channelview. I worked there for almost 15 years, and I was an inclusion teacher when I left. I’ve been a homeowner in Channelview for over 30 years.
I have a strong faith in God. I’ve been married for 35 years. I have two children who went through Channelview High School and were very successful, so I am very proud that I’ve been able to maintain my marriage, raise two successful children, and that I’m still sane.
How did you get involved with your local union?
I got involved because I got bored and because someone I worked with asked me. It was an ask, “Ms. Below, you don’t have anything going on, why don’t you come down and help us at the union?” That’s why asks are so important. I started as a volunteer when we were chartering [our local union].
How many years have you been a local leader?
I’ve been a leader for about eight years. With the volunteering I did when I started, around 10 years. Being the president just stumbled upon me. I guess it was in the cards.
My principal at the time would always come to me because she knew I was active in the union. She was the one who told me to run for president, so I did and I won. She didn’t want me to leave since I was such an asset, but she really encouraged me to do it.
Are there any members or leaders in your area who are particularly inspiring?
This year has been so different because everyone has been so burnt out, but all the members do really well. There is a para, Kimberly Maddox, who has been very vocal. She continues today speaking out. She not only tried to help and recruit support staff but teachers as well. She’s been a great leader, and she is still on the scene.
There are members who inspire me because of their work in the local, and there are members who inspire me because of the work they do in their job. One of my old co-workers, I know she is doing a great job being a special education teacher.
Lisa Dishongh has been an active building leader, as well as an executive board member, for over 10 years. Lisa was able to mobilize her campus to resolve campus issues.
We have a member in Galena Park, Cecia Osorio Peralta, who [was able to vote] for the first time this year … She’s a bilingual teacher who has been active in the union for a long time. On Election Day, she participated in a car caravan with us to a local voting site. It was her husband’s first time voting in a presidential election, so they voted together.