When Community and Labor Join Forces: Parent, Student and Teacher Partnerships

Partnerships have the potential to build power. On March 31, Schott hosted a webinar, the penultimate of our 25th Anniversary series, “When Community and Labor Join Forces: Parent, Student and Teacher Partnerships”, to highlight lessons from the successful Chicago Teachers Union Strike in 2012, and the partnerships that carried the movement to victory. The story of the Chicago strike provides many lessons for public education advocates, particularly in how to build the kind of cross-sector relationships and alliances that find common ground.

Building Movement Project Co-Director Sean Thomas-Breitfeld moderated the online discussion between Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Action Now Executive Director Katelyn Johnson.

Lewis explained what it was like to head the CTU and realized that their strategy needed to change. The union shifted its focus to listening to others: they conducted needs assessments and spent more time listening than ever before. “The key is finding your common interest,” she explained. “You build the movement by finding common ground.” When asked what is important to know about the tale of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union Strike, Lewis claimed that the some of the most important aspects can’t properly be told in books, because in the end “it is about relationships.”

Johnson echoed the urgency of relationship-building. “You can’t build a movement without building power; You can’t build power without building trust; you can’t build trust without building a relationship. The root of all good organizing is that one-on-one relationship.”

The idea that partnerships don’t work without relationship-building seems straightforward – so why is it easier said than done? Johnson recognized the importance of being transparent and humble, and of admitting mistakes made in the past by both sides so everyone can move beyond them and create a vision together. The kind of parent engagement that Lewis and her fellow organizers engaged in is an example of “walking the walk” – the union wanted parents present at press conferences and media events so that their voices were heard. To ensure that all teachers had accurate and sufficient information, the union made sure that flyers were in every single school, in every single teacher’s mailbox. Building authentic relationships took work and time: there are no shortcuts when building strong, lasting movements, and often the most important work is done far away from TV cameras and the press.

When these kinds of alliances are strong and genuine, people will show up for each other no matter the issue. An example Johnson gave was after the strike, when Action Now started organizing to fix the problems presented by a large group of abandoned buildings near a CPS school. They were a neighborhood blight, magnets for crime, and kids who had to walk near them were put at risk. “It didn’t necessarily pertain to ‘education’ per se, but the CTU joined with us and we were able to get a vacant property ordinance passed,” Johnson said.

Organizing and mobilizing for change – especially in the name of public education – is a constant battle. On this front, Lewis advises, “the key is to constantly re-energize people so that their morals are not crushed.” She also emphasized the importance of youth leadership, and how a crucial role for adults in movements is to create space for younger organizers and activists. “We really have to step aside and let the young people lead,” she said. “We want to make sure we're not guilty of adultism.”


Like what you've read?

Then don't miss a thing. Join the thousands of students, parents, educators, and activists who already receive our latest updates and resources!