AFT Pilot Projects, Including Two in Texas, Promote Community Engagement

Immediate challenges and long-term opportunities framed the discussion when state and local affiliates from nine states gathered in Washington, D.C., on November 10 for the launch of a pilot project designed to forge sustainable AFT ties in the communities where members live and work. Texas AFT’s two largest local affiliates—the Alliance-AFT in Dallas ISD and the Houston Federation of Teachers in Houston ISD—are participants in this project, and teams from each local were fully engaged at this week’s training sessions, along with Texas AFT President Linda Bridges.

The training, which follows through on a 2010 AFT resolution that puts coalition-building at the heart of AFT’s national, state, and local mission, drew more than 80 elected affiliate leaders and staff. A mix of small-group discussions and presentations provided information, expertise, and tools affiliates would need to build and nurture ongoing, mutually beneficial relationships with community partners, stakeholders, and allies when they returned home.

“This is a very important call to action,” and it comes at a time when public education unions and the labor movement are under assault and unfairly targeted for blame in the public arena, AFT Executive Vice President Lorretta Johnson told participants.

A two-way street paves the road to success in the public sector, stressed Johnson, who urged affiliates to engage with community groups around the community’s priorities as well as the union’s.

“It can’t only be about us and our issues. We have to be there when they have problems—be a part of their campaigns and give back,” Johnson said.

Johnson promised that every AFT department stands ready to assist pilot sites “as they set the tone for the rest of our affiliates” in this arena. The work begins with a concrete and organizationally supported plan, crafted by individual affiliates to fit the particular circumstances and opportunities in the communities they hail from.

Building effective community relationships is about as “old school” as the work gets at AFT, a union that put a premium on community engagement more than half a century ago, AFT President Randi Weingarten reminded the audience. Our challenge, she said, is to adapt this proven tool to challenging new terrain—a society where economic anxiety is driving the agenda and our first partners, the private-sector unions, have seen their ranks diminished after decades of attack. Today, the union must expand its reach and find common cause not only with the AFT’s long-standing friends in labor but also with parents, civic leaders, religious groups, local philanthropies, and community groups.

Communities genuinely want what AFT has to offer, Weingarten said–a membership committed to quality in the public services they provide, and a future for their children through schools made strong by hard-working, talented professionals “who are doing their damnedest to help each and every kid.”

Texas AFT’s Linda Bridges, who also serves as an AFT vice president and member of AFT’s executive committee, said the plan is to take this effort beyond the pilot locals and extend it to locals union-wide. “This coalition-building work has always been important, and in the current political climate it is more important than ever for all of us,” she said.

Besides Texas, the pilot states are Alabama, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia.