NEA Activists Vow to Continue Fight for Social Justice

Like Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged, NEA and its members have a long history of “exposing injustice to the light of human conscience,” said NEA Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle on Sunday — and that work proudly continued this week at the NEA Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women in Denver.

One week after the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration, calling it “disparaging to Native Americans,” Omaha teacher and social-justice activist Tracy Hartman-Bradley stood up at a NEA conference in Denver and called on her NEA colleagues to join her in the “fight against racist mascots.”

Montserrat Garibay speaks at the Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities in Denver, CO. June 29, 2014 ( Photo by Scott Iskowitz/ NEA Today)

“For far too long, stereotyping of Native Americans has been allowed. People need to understand that this is a civil rights issue. We as a nation need to come together and say enough is enough,” Hartman-Bradley said. “We must eliminate the use of sacred objects in advertising, and the use of headdresses and other sacred objects by people portraying mascots. It’s not just wrong, it’s racist.”

Hartman-Bradley was among a handful of NEA activists who shared their commitment to social justice work on Sunday with the teachers and education support professionals who attended the NEA conference, which precedes the NEA Representative Assembly later this week. Others included Bonnie Augusta, a Madison, Wisc., teacher who is helping to start an emergency shelter for homeless LGBT teenagers in her community, and Georgene Fountain, a Montgomery County, Maryland, teacher who is working to shut down the “school-to-prison pipeline,” those school discipline policies that suspend and expel disproportionate numbers of students of color, LGBT students, and students with disabilities.

“I thought, ‘somebody should do something about this,’” said Augusta, of the rampant homelessness among LGBT students, which makes it nearly impossible for them to succeed in school, “and eventually I became that person.” Similarly, said Fountain, “I knew I had to act. I knew I had to act!”

It’s our history

For many decades, NEA members have counted themselves among the ‘somebodies who do something,’ among those who take action when faced with inequity. On Sunday, Pringle ticked off the numerous campaigns for social justice that NEA has participated in, or led. They include campaigns on behalf of voting rights for women and minorities, equal pay for equal work, Title IX, IDEA, and more. In the 1960s, NEA members led voter registration drives in Selma, Alabama. In the 1980s, NEA litigated the first-ever anti-discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a gay teacher.

This isn’t just old history: NEA’s social justice commitment continues in this century with new demands for comprehensive immigration reform; its current work to end the school-to-prison pipeline and provide anti-bullying resources; its ongoing fight for fair education funding, especially for students with disabilities; and its advocacy for “less toxic testing,” Pringle said.

“NEA stands up for fairness, for equality, for respect — often before other organizations do,” Pringle noted. “These battles are ours because injustice often stands in the way of education.”

Calling out the ‘Skins

Stereotypical mascots and team names aren’t just hurtful, they’re actually damaging to Native American students, like the ones that Hartman-Bradley teaches in the Omaha public schools “When you use Native names or tribes, or terms like warriors, chiefs, or redskins, it lowers our self esteem,” she said. “It is not okay. It’s racist.”

For decades, the Washington Redskins team name, in particular, has been the target of thousands of fed-up activists, who recently have been ratcheting up the pressure on NFL team owner Dan Snyder to change the name. More than 20 Native America tribes have demanded a change, as well as more than 50 U.S. Senators, countless former players and sports journalists, and many of Hartman-Bradley’s students, who typically conclude her unit on stereotypical mascots with a letter-writing campaign to the team’s owner.

In an interview earlier this year, President Obama said that if he were Snyder he’d consider a name change because the current name, which a number of newspapers no longer use, offends Native Americans.

“A lot of people don’t realize it is the bloody scalps of the Native people that we’re talking about when we say ‘redskins,’” said Hartman-Bradley. “Millions of Native people were killed. To us, it’s as derogatory as any of the other slurs.”

Video: Native American resource teacher Tracy Hartman-Bradley shares why the names of sports mascots matter and why using derogatory names hurts children.