By Sabrina Holcomb / photo: Keron Blair at a rally for public education funding.
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As Director of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools (AROS), Keron Blair spends his days fighting to make sure “public education doesn’t die on our watch.” It’s that urgent says Blair: “We’re at war and what I’ve learned about wartime is you can’t operate with the same set of rules.” NEA EdJustice caught up with Blair recently in Boston, at NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice.
NEA: As you talk with public educators and students around the country, what gives you heart?
Blair: When I came to this country from Jamaica 20 years ago, the time I spent at Roosevelt High School in New York was critical in my adjustment to this country, preparing me for college, and setting me up for the life I live now. Public education is the gateway and if we lose that, we’re damming a whole lot of people to a blighted future. I’m committed to preventing that from happening.
Public education is the gateway and if we lose that, we’re damming a whole lot of people to a blighted future. I’m committed to preventing that from happening.
NEA: In the Trump and DeVos era, how do we keep hope alive?
Blair: At NEA’s Conference on Racial and Social Justice, a friend said it’s easier to be brave when you’re surrounded by brave people. When I was there, surrounded by thousands of people who are giving everything to this fight, it made me breathe a little easier and gave me hope that we can win.
NEA: You’ve worked at the intersection of many social justice issues—labor rights, LGBTQ rights, and public education. What do you take away from that experience?
Blair: The reality is we don’t live our lives in silos. I walk in the world as a black, queer, immigrant and my life mirrors this. People want to live their whole lives and be activists as their whole selves. The economy, jobs, schools, legal system all exist in connected ways and we have to run campaigns that reflect that.
I walk in the world as a black, queer, immigrant and my life mirrors this.
NEA: What’s your vision for public education?
Blair: It’s a multi-pronged vision, starting with a deep investment in our public schools. Public schools have been starved, which leads to schools that underperform; then they’re closed and turned over to private business.
Next, if we are going to talk about public education, we have to talk about race—how opportunities expand if you’re white and contract if you’re black or brown.
We also need more qualified, committed educators and teachers of color. We’re displacing certified educators with temporary teachers and young people who spend just a year or two in our community looking to give back. That’s a disservice to our educators and students.
In addition, we need school climates where young people feel supported, welcomed, and respected and the relationship between schools and prisons is severed. Finally, public schools should be hubs where community involvement is supported and not restricted.
NEA: You told a room full of hundreds of educators that you wanted them to consider running for office in their communities—and that no office is too small. Why is this so important?
Blair: Fifty years ago, Bayard Rustin made the argument that as the civil rights movement was maturing, we had to move from protest to politics—not abandon protest, but focus on policy as well. In an era of partisan politics, one strategy for ending the standoff is for everyday people of good will to inhabit the places where we can make change. Educators who are active in teachers’ unions have a certain facility with the democratic process that well-equips them to run for office.
NEA: AROS protests swept the nation last year. What are you organizing for the fall?
Blair: Our back-to-school focus is a coordinated effort around the education budget and the proposed cuts Trump wants to make to public schools. We’ve got to push back on these cuts and advance a vision of what a well-resourced public school should look like.