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Q & A: Get to Know the 2016 SJA Finalists - Bryan Proffitt

Bryan Proffitt is President of the Durham Educators Association and a founder of Organize 2020, a social justice caucus of NCAE as a way to activate educators around the central understanding that justice and equality for all students is essential for winning the schools we all deserve. Between the pro-public education Walk-Ins, rallies, protests and mobilizations, the NEA team was able to catch up with Bryan and spend some time talking about organizing in NC, his passion for developing social justice leaders within the union and the community and his commitment to education and social justice. Below we’ve shared some of our conversation.

NEA: What spurred you to become an educator activist?

Bryan: In college I became active in a variety of movements that changed the course of my life. I fought against corporate globalization and the resulting environmental destruction and shift of wealth from the world’s poorest to the world’s richest. I also worked with the Black Liberation Movement to end mass incarceration, police brutality, and confront ongoing institutional racism. I also became involved in the movement of men working with other men to end violence against women because I knew a number of women who were survivors of sexual violence. Whatever happened from there, I was going to be an activist.

Teaching integrated the most important things in my life. I became a history teacher so that I could help young people understand why the world looks the way that it does and how the conditions that shape their lives were created. I could also help students understand that changing the world is possible, and that people just like them have built movements that shifted the course of history. I could also organize other teachers to both teach from this angle and fight for the schools and communities that our kids deserve.

NEA: Why should social justice activism matter to educators?

Bryan: Our students’ lives don’t end at the classroom door. Neither do ours.

The majority of students in public schools in this country are poor and the majority of students in North Carolina’s public schools are young people of color. Even if my only goal was to be an effective classroom teacher, I must fight to remove the social and economic barriers to my students’ success.

I see every day how institutional poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia promote instability and trauma in the lives of my students. These young people come to our classrooms immersed in life’s struggle and their likelihood of success is diminished unless educators, who are with them every day and understand the challenges they face, lead the fight to improve their lives.

The fight to defend and transform public schools is a social justice matter. The same people that pass policies that hurt our students’ communities are now trying to privatize and dismantle our schools. If we don’t start shifting things soon, we won’t have public schools worth working in, or we won’t have public schools at all.

NEA: What role do students play in movement building?

Bryan: Young people have always played important roles in movement building. They question authority and status quo. We battle against that development stage in our classrooms every day. Why not use it? So many of them can see, and clearly articulate, the contradictions that surround them. It is hard for them to make sense of the barriers that they face, or that their classmates face, when they are being told that all they need to do is work hard to succeed. They are energetic. They are creative. They are willing to take risks. They build the future.

NEA: What is the role personal stories play in SJ activism?

Bryan: Personal stories are the center of the organizing work that I do. I was trained, and I train people, to understand that through our stories we connect to one another’s visions, values and desires. In the same way that teachers should constantly work to connect their curriculum and pedagogy to the lives of their students, organizers should do the same.

Our stories communicate who we are and why we do what we do. There isn’t any clearer way to engage people in activism than to hear their story, connect with their longings for something better, and offering up a vison and a strategy to get them there.

NEA: What are the most important elements of movement building to you?

Bryan: Vision. Strategy. Relationships.

It’s important to identify the problems, but it’s more important to work collectively with a group of people to generate a vision for what we want, for a community that we could feel proud of. A provocative vision orients you and it helps you get through the moments when things are really hard and you feel hopeless. It’s the North Star.

Strategy is how we get to that vision. It is about how we get from where we are to where we want to be, and it is broad and expansive and deliberate and detailed.

Last, but definitely not least, are relationships. They are the glue that helps us construct teams and networks. They are the place where we can learn and grow and challenge and support each other to do our work better and more boldly. They are the foundation that keeps us engaged when things get hard. So many people are willing to fight because of the people that they love. Teachers fight for our kids because we love them.

NEA: What is the most creative way you have found to engage people on your issue?

Bryan: When I was in college, the University began closing the previously-open-24-hours-a-day library at midnight. They were responding to budget cuts. Because it was a public school, so many of us held down jobs that prevented us from getting to the library until late at night. On the first night of the early closing, a group of 500 students or so had a read-in, where we just sat down at tables and started doing our homework. When the Chancellor wouldn’t meet with us for an hour, we marched to her house and had a meeting on her lawn at 1:30 in the morning. The library was back on its regular schedule the next day.

NEA: What is the biggest issue facing public education today?

Bryan: Privatization. Privatizers want to find one more place to suck profit out of the economy, and they want to do it at the expense of our young people’s lives. They are dismantling our schools at a slow drip. A budget cut here. An attack on teachers’ rights there. Charters and vouchers and more market-based reforms. Testing and data companies driving the bus. They are all dangerous on their own, but the vision that they add up to is the most troubling.

The last 40 years of economic and policy in this country have led to the privatization of almost every public institution, which makes it harder for poor people and people of color to get access to the resources that they need to improve their lives. Public schools are just about the only institution left mitigating that inequality. Our students are fed. Our students can receive (nominal) health care. Our students are safe and loved and have the opportunity to learn.

NEA: What song gets you fired up to do this work?

Bryan: I really like Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”.

NEA: What message would you most want to tell educator activists just starting out?

Bryan: Get yourself a team. It is impossible to stay in the profession of teaching on your own. It is even more impossible to be an educator and an organizer without people to hold you while you cry, cheer with you when you celebrate and strategize with you as you tackle obstacles. My team is what has gotten me through. No questions.


Sample resolution and district policy that can be used as a template or guidance for local school districts to create their own Safe Zones resolutions.


Learn more about the work of educator activists in the fight for racial, social and economic justice in public education:

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