Is This America's Youngest Organizer?

By John Rosales

March 16, 2010 — It was hard times for Brett Hansen, 8, and his fellow second-graders at Aldo Leopold Elementary School in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The unforgiving cold of another Wisconsin winter had set in. School days were long. Homework never-ending. The price of cereal had skyrocketed.

As if this were not heartbreaking enough, school administrators announced that only fourth- through eighth-graders could use the gym during indoor recess. Not fair, Brett thought.

“I wanted to use the gym because we usually have recess in our classroom and it is too small,” Brett says. “I wanted to run around and play football in the gym like the big kids get to.”

Brett recalled hearing his teacher explain that if the younger students wanted to use the gym they could write a petition asking for gym time. So that’s what he did. Brett signed 82 out of 92 rank-and-file second- and third-graders.

Administrators agreed to give the gym schedule another look. There is still a time crunch for gym time during indoor recess, but the facility is now available during set times to the younger students. Brett is now a hero to his classmates.

“The other students thought it was a very good idea,” he says. “They were all excited to sign the petition because they wanted to use the gym during indoor recess.”

Collective action is in Brett’s blood. His mother, Dayna Hansen, is a first-grade teacher at the school and member of the Green Bay Education Association. His grandmother, Kay Hansen, is an NEA Board Director (ESP at large) and member of the Denmark Education Support Professionals, Wisconsin.

“When I heard what Brett did, I smiled from ear to ear,” says his grandmother, a paraprofessional for special needs children at Denmark Elementary School. “I was so proud and happy. I said, ‘Yes! That’s my little activist.’”

School administrators and staff are “very much about students having a voice in their learning, so we were supportive of his efforts,” says his mother.

Administrators were impressed with Brett’s petition and how well written it was, says Brett’s mom. Apparently, the eighth-graders didn’t do as good of a job as Brett when they tried to petition for use of iPods at school. They were denied.

Kay Hansen says she doesn’t know how her work with NEA may have influenced Brett, but her husband and friends tell her that Brett usually listens when she talks about organizing, bargaining, and recruiting members for the Association.

“I would hope that he will be a part of the next generation of organizers,” she says. “He already has the courage to put himself out there and take action when he feels something is unfair.”

Photo: Second-grader Brett Hansen reviews paperwork with his grandmother and role model, NEA Board of Director Kay Hansen. Brett learned from his teacher, mother, and grandmother about how to change school policy through collective action.
  • Youngest? Possibly, but definitely not the first! Back in the mid-70s when my daughter was in 5th grade at Wooddale Elementary in Edina, MN (demolished in 1982 and now a city park), she complained that only boys were allowed to play baseball in the field during noon-hour recesses. After exploring options with her, she decided a petition was the way to go. Soon, the principal asked my daughter to the office, and after hearing her out, agreed. From then on, it was girls only every Friday.

    That Friday, I asked her how she’d enjoyed playing. “Oh, I didn’t play,” she said. “I hate baseball. It was just the principal of the thing.”

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