Neeru holding books related to feminism
Photo by Christine Cousins
FEATURE

Feminism as an Ethical Orientation: Practicing Hope and Tracking Collective Action to Fight for Public Education and the Public Good

Neeru Sekhon

On Sunday, May 1, I joined local ETFO educators and fellow workers, students and families in Brampton at one of many May Day actions in support of workers across the province. Celebrated internationally, May Day is an opportunity to come together to mark victories in support of working people and forge commitments to organize for the public good, including improving public education. Called “Justice for Peel,” a united coalition of workers and allies in Brampton rallied and marched together. We spoke candidly about the toll of the pandemic and austerity on our community – one of the hardest hit jurisdictions in the country. We reflected on the many actions we took to care for our communities in the face of political neglect and shared what we needed to do as a community to fight together for the working, learning and living conditions we all deserve. Experiencing fellow workers’ and community members’ stories of activism reminded me of what is possible when we use our collective power to seed connections, strengthen solidarities and make change.

Of all the feelings associated with the past few years in education navigating a global pandemic, hope has been a challenging one to access. I was angered by cuts that forced workers and caregivers to do more with less. I was exhausted by multiple pivots to unsafe school settings and the labour required to fill gaps in underfunded public services. I was worried about the health and safety of racialized, precariously employed, low-wage family members, neighbours and students’ families whose labour and lives seemed disposable to the one percent’s corporate greed. Given the reality of the gendered dimensions of these demands on work and home life, women peers and I experienced many pandemic and political hardships intensely. I had to dig deep to reactivate my agency. As the impacts of the pandemic continued to disproportionately burden the already marginalized and the election approached, I reflected on how activism is a core part of my politicized identity as a woman and an education worker. I knew I needed to do something to help ensure a just recovery and rebuild a social ecosystem that works for fellow workers, students and community members.

Looking Back and Seeding Change

The COVID-19 pandemic has made our interconnections clear. As I write this in spring 2022, it’s evident that the people in power failed to prioritize us all and favoured a few. We felt the Ford government’s public education cuts in classrooms this past school year as it diverted funds from public education, fractured vital student-educator connections through hybrid learning and wasted resources that could have been marked for mental health supports and staffing. Instead, it burdened educators and learners with standardized, impersonal learning via EQAO.

On top of defunding public education and other essential services like public health, the government downloaded responsibility for each successive wave of the pandemic to the very institutions it destabilized. The result? The public good suffered. We felt the effects of an anti-worker agenda when the government failed to invest in paid sick days and implement adequate supports, leaving caregivers, precarious workers and frontline workers, many of whom are women, scrambling to make the impossible work. When we consider the intersections of gender, age, ability, housing status, employment, class, citizenship/migrant status, geography, Indigeneity and race, we see that women who hold multiple marginalized identities have been deeply impacted. As educators, we have seen these impacts in our classrooms and our communities. Abandoning publicly-funded services, including destabilizing public education, in favour of a privatized, every-person-for-themselves approach has undermined the public good and will have lasting consequences if we do not organize for well-funded, anti-oppressive, equitable systems and services that work in favour of all. Looking back on these years, it’s clear that whether, as educators, we see ourselves as activists, we are materially implicated in struggles to improve working, learning and living conditions for all.

Activism is Women's Work (And the Best of Ours Too)

We all have the power to act in the struggle for public education and the public good. Intersectional gender justice principles challenge us to centre and work in solidarity with women and all those facing oppression and to use our skills, strengths and solidarities to organize for social, economic, racial and climate justice. In the midst of such pervasive inequities, it can feel overwhelming to know how to begin.

We can start right now by mapping our power and having conversations. I connected with my colleagues about issues we felt were affecting our working conditions and students’ learning conditions. With a lens on intersectional struggle, I also thought about how I could activate my connections with parents, neighbours and local grassroots groups who were advocating for causes I had an interest in. When I connected with others over our shared commitments to key issues such as education, decent work, migrant justice and racial justice, we deepened our relationships and came up with goals. We began strategizing about what we could do, including influencing the people in power to make the changes we sought.

We can get active! As a woman front-line educator working in a neighbourhood acutely impacted by the pandemic and government cuts, I knew my perspectives mattered and needed to be shared. I joined my local political action committee, participating in actions such as phone zaps and letter-writing to speak out against hybrid learning and in support of safe returns to school. I reconnected with community allies who encouraged me to join workers’ rights advocates on the local labour council. Action begets action and we co-planned a rally and march to activate community members’ agency to see themselves as part of a collective with power.

We can build and share our skills and strengths. Organizing need not be all spreadsheets, documents and emails. Consider what you can offer to energize your collective and give your campaign momentum. As a multilingual arts educator, I shared my skills to make multilingual signs, chants and music at local labour rallies and workers’ rights actions. I took professional learning on assertive public speaking through ETFO’s Women’s Programs and felt more empowered to connect with the public and media and to make direct asks when canvassing and planning actions.

We can deepen our engagement. After the May Day rally, I wanted to build on the momentum and continue conversations. I worked with my school steward and made direct asks to my colleagues and community allies to join a local multi-coalition canvass about education and labour issues. On the neighbourhood block and at the local transit terminal, I shared my experiences and heard first-hand stories that deepened my resolve.

We can work in solidarity. At the May 1 rally, in addition to calling for stronger investments in public education, I joined fellow workers in calling for a $20 minimum wage, paid sick days and status for all those holding precarious immigration status. Having these demands met would materially improve living conditions for my family, neighbours and for our students and their families. When we show up and give support, we build power to win.

We can celebrate our victories. Though it hasn’t been easy to fight, educators have made hard-fought gains; we won a walk-back on hybrid education in my local’s school board, secured upgraded PPE and forged stronger coalitions with allied groups. There is still much more to be done and we will need to draw on the strength of our past victories to stay engaged and get active.

Practising Hope as a Discipline

Activist and writer Harsha Walia’s vision of feminism as “not an ideology but an ethical orientation” makes space for us to consider sustained action and solidarity as embodied practice that helps women “make sense of their lives.” It has certainly been a challenging time to make sense of our lives. Mariame Kaba, abolitionist activist, organizer and educator, affirms that “hope is a discipline.” I consider each action I take when organizing for the change we need for ourselves, our students and our communities a part of this disciplined practice of hope. As a collective of 83,000 individuals, we can take action to seed possibilities and strengthen solidarities grounded in hope. There is so much we can do to fight for and win a stronger public education system and equitable learning, living and working conditions for all this upcoming school year, next political cycle and beyond.

Ten Ways Educators Can Strengthen Solidarities and Take Action

Use knowledge as power: Read op-eds, articles, letters, position papers and reports from progressive sources that centre a just recovery. Sign up for your local’s newsletter, ETFO’s e-newsletters, as well as BuildingBetterSchools. ca. Importantly, prioritize learning from experts with lived experience, including students, families, neighbours and community members, when building your awareness about issues.

Situate yourself in your community: As educators, we work in schools; however, we are also workers who have much to learn in solidarity with our students and their families. There are many issues that impact our learning communities. When we show up for struggles in our communities beyond our school walls, we can become allies grounded in shared purpose and build relationships that sustain us for the struggles ahead.

Identify your issue(s) and join community allies: We can self-reflect on our core values to identify what matters to us as education workers. Then we can reach out and connect with groups who are also fighting for the same causes and join campaigns to take action. We can stay in touch to work together towards shared goals and build sustained, authentic partnerships.

Share your stories and make space to listen: As education workers, we have first-hand knowledge about the issues that affect our schools and communities. Speak up! Personal stories often have a more lasting impact on others than numbers and facts do. Listen to others’ experiences to learn. This is especially true for those of us whose unique perspectives on the margins need to be centred in policies and actions.

Map your power: What is needed for strong public education where we live and work? Who is most impacted by inequities? Who has the power to make changes? How might we make change? Answering these questions can help us build a strategy for action.

Build your educator-organizer skillset: Being neutral and passive will not improve our working conditions, students’ learning conditions and our communities’ living conditions. Make learning organizing skills part of your professional learning. Get in touch with your local and community groups about opportunities to join and plan campaigns and actions. ETFO offers skill-building programs that can help you learn transferable skills that will strengthen both your teaching and advocacy practice.

Elevate your engagement: There is an entry point for wherever we are at and whatever capacity we have. Find your level on the ladder of engagement and get started! From signing petitions to attending rallies, writing letters, making calls and having one-to-one conversations about issues that matter to us, a just recovery will require us each to do our part.

Have one-on-one conversations: Personal conversations are powerful tools – and listening is critical. Listening helps us to identify mutually important issues and find common ground to build connections that can unite us with potential allies so we can act together.

Practice hope as a discipline: Push back against narratives normalizing the status quo, apathy and scarcity. We can and must operate from a space of possibility. We can build our power with each action we take. Having organized to win before, we can do it again and again until we win what we deserve for ourselves, our students and our communities.

Neeru Sekhon is a member of the Peel Teacher Local.