We all encounter injustice. So, find your strength, fight it!
BY SHERRY HALBROOK
Hard truths, encouragement and inspiration rewarded the delegates to PEF’s 41st Annual Convention, held in Albany in September, who attended the Multi-Cultural Event — presented jointly by the PEF Hispanic Committee, Indo-American Committee, Jewish Committee, and Women’s Committee — were treated to two strong speakers and a poem, written and recited by PEF Vice President Sharon V. DeSilva.
They all addressed a central theme of how injustice is experienced and how to counter and rise above it.
“Everybody suffers injustice. What’s important is how you handle it and get over it,” guest speaker diversity consultant Yvette Donado told the delegates.
She is the former chief administrative officer and chief diversity officer of Educational Testing Service. She is also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Pan American Development Foundation, an affiliate of the Organization of American States, and is on the faculty of the Student Success Institute of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education.
Co-guest-speaker and teacher Evelyn DeJesus told the delegates to see value in their experiences, because even suffering hardships and injustice can help you relate to others going through the same things.
DeJesus talked about her experiences as a teacher in New York City and how her activism on discrimination issues continues in her current role as executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and as vice president of the United Federation of Teachers in the city of New York. She also chairs the AFT Latino Task Force.
DeJesus said she considers it an advantage that she began her career in education as a teachers’ aide while she was finishing her teaching degree, because experiencing the public education system from the bottom up to the top helps her understand and relate to the union’s members at all job levels.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood taught her to stand up for her rights and the rights of others, DeJesus said. As a teacher, she found herself fighting for her students and her co-workers. Soon she realized, “I was the advocate for the voiceless.”
She also learned that discrimination isn’t always in your face. Sometimes it’s subtle, but just as hurtful.
“Did you know that only 50 percent of those who file discrimination complaints receive relief?” she asked. “People are afraid to file a complaint because they are so afraid of retaliation. They know a supervisor’s attitude can make you or break you.”
Fighting discrimination can be especially challenging for immigrants, people who speak English as a second language, and those who have few connections and little experience dealing with legal matters. It’s extra hard for them to find a lawyer, obtain the correct forms, complete them and provide compelling evidence to support their complaint.
Working in the schools she has seen these situations play out. “These practices silenced teachers and drove them out of the system.”
DeJesus praised PEF for reading its Code of Conduct aloud at the beginning of the convention. “It’s so important for us to agree to disagree without being disagreeable,” she said. “It’s important that we embrace diversity and look on it as an asset. We must raise awareness of all the things we have in common. “
In response to a delegate’s question about how to deal with stress in the workplace, DeJesus said the union must empower people to speak up. “If you let your lunch money be stolen today, what’s going to happen tomorrow?” she asked. “If you don’t do something, what do you think will change?”
Bring YOUR voice
If you are treated differently because of your race or skin color, take heart, Donado told them, because your days as a minority in America are quickly winding down.
“Brown will be the majority in a few years,” she said. But making people with a different skin color the new majority doesn’t really solve anything, she said, because the real issue is inclusion of everyone. That is the goal to fight for.
She cited the example of Asian workers at the nail salon she visits for manicures. “No one has a monopoly on pain. The women who do my nails have terrible working conditions. Everyone suffers.”
As she was speaking out on these issues at her workplaces over the years, Donado said she was sometimes told that someone else would convey her concerns to those with the real power, and then inform her of their response.
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be informed. I want to be consulted!’” Donado said. “’I need to be in the room. You can’t bring my voice.’
Real inclusion is when you are in the room.”
Donado offered some “best practices” to consider when you organize to get that voice you need.. Among these tips were:
• Keep the group small and be sure to include someone from the organization’s top administration or leadership. “If the right people aren’t in the room, you can’t accomplish your goals.”
• Set goals and set metrics for assessing how well you are achieving them. “Unless you treat it like a real problem, it isn’t going to get done,” she said.
• Great ideas are only great if they are really getting done.
Donado stressed the importance of seeing problems clearly and honestly. “We have opportunity gaps, not achievement gaps. We live in a dark time, but we can be the light. Embrace everybody.”
She shared some basic principles with the delegates that can help dispel the problems they face. Believe in and respect yourself, communicate clearly, always do your best and learn to listen. Most important, she said, is to approach life from a position of love. And follow the advice of former First Lady Michele Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”
You’ve got this!
DeSilva shared a poem she wrote while in college when she awoke in the middle of the night. Earlier that evening, DeSilva had been shocked and disheartened when a roommate said that she was assured of an A because she was having a “relationship” with the professor.
The brutal realization of how unfair and unethical the competition would be had hit DeSilva hard.
But she awoke feeling strength, courage and confidence to face that challenge welling up in her from her African ancestors.
Titling her poem “Africa,” DeSilva wrote:
“I feel the smooth drums of Africa.
The dark drums pumping a beat in my heart.
Its rhythm makes me want to run, jump, leap
like a wild lion hunting its prey.”
She writes of how the drumming continues until it reaches a crescendo:
“I hear it stronger now…
‘Go on my child,
fight for what is yours and
the things you believe in.
Child, fight and don’t ever lose
the roots of your ancestors,.
the roots of you.’“
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