Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

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Violence Against Women and the Oppression of Women is not a “Woman’s Problem”

The following are my remarks made at a rally and vigil for the 8th Anniversary of the women who were murdered on Imperial Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio. 

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. I am honored to have this time here with you today, and sickened by a society that allows for the repetitive horrific acts, like those of Anthony Sowell, to occur at all.

I am here today because as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that our need and desire to nurture each other is not a hindrance but a redemptive strength.

When we join together, our real power is rediscovered and bolstered. It is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those in power in our system of electoral dysfunction.

Let us be clear. Violence against women and children, the oppression of women and children, is NOT a woman’s problem. It is the problem of a patriarchal capitalist system, which benefits from the oppression and exploitation of women, children, and people of color.

It is a patriarchal, colonial, racist, and imperialist system that profits off of treating others like they are less than human. It is not a “woman’s problem.”  

I am here today because interdependency between women, and collaboration with our male allies, is the path to dismantling a system that promotes or allows subjugation, violence, poverty, and oppression to exist.

Within our alliances and our interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, we can demolish houses like the one that used to stand here on Imperial Avenue. And we can disassemble a system that still allows for unaccountable police chiefs, mayors, prosecutors, and other elected officials… a system that allows for men like Anthony Sowell to exist and perform unspeakable acts.

Audre Lorde said “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change…”

Well, women here today and the enlightened men who join us, know the strength and power among us. Education and the creation of community are the tools of liberation.

Systematic oppression is not an accident or illusion. It is a tangible design evident right here, right now. And now is always a time to do what is right.

So I stand here today calling out all of those not here. It is time for those enjoying the privileges of safe communities and safe water and safe housing and safe schools, and with police forces who protect and serve, to stand up and speak out.

We already know the instruments of justice. We’ve even named them: unity, empathy, equity, compassion, love, peace, and a dialectical ability to seek and discover the humanity in every person’s story. There is no excuse for apathy. Liberation and justice are too long overdue.

No justice. No peace. Know justice. Know peace.

*Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007. Print.

Do Your CTU Dues Benefit You, or Just A Lucky Few?

Do your CTU dues benefit you, or is your money going to a lucky few?

And Social Justice for AllCTU could be a union of social movement seeking social justice for all, but the current corporate model it espouses under AFT seems to be only benefiting a few.

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. ~ Lord Acton

     Let me begin by stating that I am a strong supporter of unions as a movement to create greater equity and opportunity in our society. I believe in the collective power of the masses to initiate changes that will benefit the greatest number of members in our society. The way unions were organized amid dire threats and violence to improve the lives of workers as they fought for living wages, limits to the workday and workweek, and safer conditions in the workplace was heroic. I appreciate the sacrifices that teachers before me made to improve working conditions and student learning conditions. I also believe that hard work outside of contracted hours deserves fair payment. However, as I review the 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 budget for the Cleveland Teachers Union (CTU), it isn’t pride or admiration that swells within me.

     While my net pay is less than it was before our recent two-percent increase, the latest budget proposal approved at the CTU May 2017 delegate assembly shows a 7.89% increase in the CTU President’s Salary from $38,000 to $41,000 (line item 70190). This is in addition to the President’s Second Salary and benefits reimbursement (line item 70195) that increased from $100,000 to $108,000. Those line items do not include the annual expense account for the president of $2500 (line item 70200), and the president’s automotive stipend of $3600 annually (line item 70201). Combined, being president of the Cleveland Teachers Union provides a benefits and salary package of $155,100. Plus, the president no longer has to teach in a classroom under the stressful and oppressive mandates that everyone else is subjected to (TDES, TBTs, SLOs, SGMs, etc.) because CTU work is a president’s full time job. I am not advocating for less for anyone, but I am questioning why all of us are not seeing a similar increase in benefits. I am questioning why the CTU president has an additional union salary that is higher than what our paraprofessionals make for an entire year of work. I am questioning why the Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s Chief Executive Officer, Eric Gordon, has declined an automotive stipend in his past two contracts, and has agreed to increases in his salary that are comparable to what teachers receive, yet the union president has a car stipend and a union salary increase that is almost four times what teachers received.

     Here are several other line items that members may ask about in the latest budget, since our dues have increased to almost $1000 per year:

  • Why is there a 43.75% increase for the 5 trustees (line item 70235) from $3840 each to $6000 each?
  • Why is the telephone bill $26,000/year (line item 70125)? Is that what it costs to provide all of the union executives union-provided iphones?
  • Where are the receipts for the committee expenses? How do the two or three parties that the Social Committee (line item 70250) has each school year cost the same amount as workshops provided a few times per year by the Salary and Benefits Committee (line item 70255) or the Civil, Democratic and Human Rights Committee (70260)?
  • How much money and how many resources could we save by providing online digital versions of publications instead of paying the full $9600/year (line item 70280)? Why are we paying a retired CTU member to run the Critique instead of hiring an active member?
  • Why did the amount for AFT/TEACH conventions double from $15,000 to $30,000 (line item 70320)? Are we questioning why AFT is spending more on these conventions when membership is lower?
  • Why did OFT go from 0 to $20,000 (line item 70325)? How does that one convention within our state cost 66% as much as the AFT/TEACH national convention? In a state in which teachers, public schools and unions have been under a barrage of attacks, will spending this much money on the convention produce results? Will attendees leave with more than OFT party favors? Will they leave with skills and strategies to fight the decimation of public education that they can share with members?
  • How does sending union executives or other union members to professional development conferences for $29,500 benefit students or rank-and-file members? What do those who attend bring back from these professional development conventions that we do not already have or cannot already obtain from members in CTU? (line items 70335, 70336)
  • Why are we paying so much for parking (from $16,000 to $18,000 line item 70217)? The residential rate is $150/month at the Halle Building. It costs $1800/person for 10 people to have monthly passes year round, so who gets monthly passes? Do our offices have to be downtown, or could they be in a less expensive neighborhood that needs some revitalization?
  • Why are we paying so much for rent and electricity ($200,000/year line item 70120)? We could purchase a $750,000 dollar building for that amount in Cleveland over the course of five years, employ local union laborers for repairs and upkeep, and not have to spend money on rent or parking ever again.  Would a financial adviser recommend an upfront investment that could save money for members in the long term?  
  • Why is there a 3% increase in Staff Salaries (line 70215)? How are there still union salary steps and levels when this sort of system has been destroyed for everyone still in the classroom full time?
  • Does the financial incentive (line item 70215) of being a union executive (with allowable hours away from classroom assignments) contribute to a climate of corruption within our union? Remember when there was a suggestion by union executives to stop mailings to members’ homes, even though those mailings cost our union absolutely nothing? Luckily, the idea was defeated because the alleged complaints about receiving home mailings were not more fierce than the complaints by members concerning other AFT mailings (I’m really sick of AFT trying to sell me insurance and credit cards, but welcome alternative perspectives from rank-and-file-members in my mailbox).
  • Why are CTU members paying more in dues than ever before, and paying higher salaries for union positions than ever before, yet our membership has dropped over the past 15 years by approximately 40%? Shouldn’t less membership mean less work to be done, less salaries to be paid, and less positions that need filled?

     Over a century of political and economic attacks on teachers, teacher unions and public education are also an attack on women, children, and the working class. Huge pay inequities between men and women and women’s suffrage were driving forces among early social movement unionists and activists like educator Margaret Haley, and social justice activist Susan B. Anthony in 1853. Those early activists recognized the connection between protecting teachers’ rights and students’ rights when it was time to negotiate contracts and working conditions. Currently, an evolution in large urban teachers unions, like Chicago and Milwaukee, has reclaimed the social justice roots of unions, aligning themselves with community groups and other unions to improve the communities in which they work, and the lives of their students as part of a comprehensive strategy to improve education for students. AFT President, Randi Weingarten’s, continued support of charter schools, which were formed to decimate unions and undermine public schools, is a strong indication that we cannot rely on top leadership to guide us in a shift back to social justice unionism. It must begin from within our local unions by rank-and-file members who recognize the union as a medium for democracy and social justice activism, not as an entity that suppresses dissent in order to maintain the power and benefits of a few.

Link to May CTU Approved Budget Documents

 

 

Organize, educate, agitate, must be our war cry. (Susan B. Anthony)

The following is the speech I gave as a (very honored to be included) speaker at the International Women’s Day Rally & March in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 8th, 2017, on a very windy day at Willard Park. 

International Women’s Day March & Rally Cleveland, Ohio, 2017

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing 100s of local education activists, 1000s of education advocates statewide, and hundreds of 1000s of education activists & advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and public schools, you better believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

We know that education is essential to human liberation.

In this spirit of liberation, we fight to dismantle oppressive practices in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practice be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking, and that these practices be based on research and the input of educators, not based on the whims of politicians or the profit margins of corporations.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for who is on the district’s school board.

We demand an end to high stakes standardized testing, a system rooted in eugenics and racism that has done nothing to improve teaching and learning for our students, but has created a false narrative about “failing public schools” and “bad teachers.”

We want community schools that are provided with funding and resources to offer the wrap around services that families surrounding those schools need.

School reforms should meet the needs of children in classrooms, not corporations.

All children deserve prepared, experienced and fully licensed teachers.

And all children and all schools must have equitable access to resources and adequate funding.

I plead with all of you today to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools.

Until the government ends the test and punish system, tell your child’s school that your student will not be participating in the state’s punitive system of  high stakes standardized testing. Refuse the tests!

No more of our tax dollars to millionaires and billion dollar corporations, so that they can sell our kids developmentally inappropriate tests and then call our kids failures.

Hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration.

We must fight this battle not because education is called a civil rights issue, but because education is an inalienable human right.

Our children need us too much to get tired of being in this battle.

They may have demolished and neglected the buildings we use for education, but they cannot decimate our desire to educate & be educated.

They will continue to wage this political and corporate war on educators: the Liberators.

But they cannot  liquidate our aspirations for liberation.

Education is liberation. Education. Liberation. Education. Liberation.