In an exclusive interview, new Baltimore Teachers Union Diamonté Brown talks with TRNN’s Jaisal Noor about her stunning victory, her plan to bridge divides within the union, and the many challenges facing Baltimore’s schools
JAISAL NOOR This is The Real News and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN On May 15th, the highest number of Baltimore Teachers Union members in twenty years participated in our internal elections. It was a powerful affirmation of our union as a democratic organization. And over 17,000 members stood up to have their voices heard. Today our national union, the American Federation of Teachers, upheld this election.
JAISAL NOOR That’s Diamonté Brown— activist, teacher, and the new President of the Baltimore Teachers Union. She scored a narrow victory over incumbent, Marietta English, who was seeking her ninth term. Brown’s victory was recently affirmed by the national union, the American Federation of Teachers, after English refused to concede.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN While some may see a contentious election as an indication of disunity within the union, it actually shows how important the union is to so many people. And the challenges reaffirm that we are all committed to the democratic process.
JAISAL NOOR The AFT examined claims of voting irregularities against both sides, and ultimately rejected the calls for a new election. The AFT did find the electronic ballots used in the election did appear to favor the incumbent because it made it harder to vote for Brown and her Union We Deserve slate. Well, now joining us for her first in-studio interview since her victory is Diamonte Brown. She’s the President of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which represents more than 7,000 teachers, paraprofessionals and support staff. Thank you so much for joining us.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Thanks for having me.
JAISAL NOOR So this isn’t your first time on The Real News. You’ve been on here talking about the drug war and the impacts on Baltimore, about public education and what’s needed to really make it a central part in uplifting the city, which faces so many challenges. Talk a little bit about why you decided to run for president of your union, and how you pulled off this stunning victory. You know, you knocked off this incumbent who was running for her ninth term and had been in office for almost two decades.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Well, I decided to run because I live based on the mantra: “Don’t talk about it. Be about it.” And that’s something that goes all the way back from when I played sports in high school. And I apply that same mantra to everything I do in my life. And it started to become cumbersome and disappointing to continuously just talk about the issues, the challenges, and eventually I got to a place where I needed to shift from talking about the issues to being about fixing the issues or addressing the issues. And I felt that having a leadership position in the Baltimore Teachers Union would give me some of the access and resources I need to address some of the issues that I felt like I couldn’t address as a classroom teacher.
JAISAL NOOR And it wasn’t just you. It was a whole slate of candidates.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Exactly.
JAISAL NOOR Talk a little bit about your coalition and why they were so successful in this victory— which, you know, a lot of people counted you out.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Well, this journey started with me being a member of the BMORE Caucus, which is a caucus of the Baltimore Teachers Union. We consider ourselves an organizing caucus because we are all organizers in addition to being educators, and we believe that organizing is a key tool in obtaining justice for our students. We started off organizing within our union and through advisorship and leadership and guidance from other social justice caucuses from around the nation, we were urged and actually there was an obligation put on us to run for leadership. And so we took the charge, and we took the challenge, and we immediately employed our organizing skills as our main campaign strategy.
What that means is we used one-on-ones, and we went door-to-door, and we called people. And we made people feel informed and we made people feel appreciated. And most importantly, we made people feel heard. We wanted to run as a slate. Unfortunately, some of our slate members were disqualified. And to be clear, we did not just run as the BMORE Caucus. We joined forces with the CEDE Caucus, which stands for Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity. We thought this was important because otherwise we felt like we had the potential to split the vote, and that will lead to neither of us taking leadership. So instead of us competing, we became one team. And that led to the victory that we are living right now.
JAISAL NOOR And so, you know, as you addressed in your press conference, this was a very contentious vote. Your opponent, Marietta English, initially refused to concede. And after the AFT’s report was released, she put out a statement on Facebook which says, “The report released by the AFT today clearly lays out the egregious violations that took place during the election process and I strongly disagree with the conclusion that even with these violations a new election would not be held.” And she’s still the President of the Maryland Federation of Teachers.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Yes.
JAISAL NOOR And to be clear, you know, we got the report. We read through the report. It doesn’t really back up what she’s saying there, but you guys still have to work together.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Yes.
JAISAL NOOR What’s your plan to do that?
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Well, as an organizer, my plan is always to meet people just on a one-on-one basis and get to know who they are. I know that people prefer me to have some big monumental plan like I’m going to have a town hall meeting or something like that, but I think it’s important to get to just know people as humans. And so, that hasn’t been the easiest task for me because even though that’s my value, that’s not necessarily the value of all the people that I’m working with. Some people prefer to meet in groups. Some people prefer to meet in a more formal basis. Some people prefer to just skip over all of that and just collaborate on a mission. And so, right now what I’m doing is I’m figure out what is the best way to bring people together because I have my ideas on ways to bring people together, but sometimes my ideas are not always well-received by the people I’m trying to bridge the gap with.
Another way that I’m working to build the union, in addition to just meeting with people on a one-on-one basis, is we’ve executed a listening tour so we can hear the concerns of our members. Our executive board has a retreat coming up, so I hope to use that as an opportunity to get to know and familiarize my executive board members with each other more. And I think that—I think that the work itself is going to unite us as a union. I think that right now there are some people that have the courage and they have the support and they are willing to risk new leadership because they want change. And then, I think there’s some people that they want change, but fears—But change is scary because when you ask for change, you’re also going into the unknown, and that’s understandable as well.
And I think to meet both of those people where they are, what they need to see is that the work gets done. And that work being, making things better for our students, making things better for our teachers, our PSRPs, and our Baltimore City community at large. And I think once people see that our current union leadership is making strides to make those things better, then it will bring people together.
JAISAL NOOR Speaking of the conditions in the school system, that’s something that frequently it seems thrusts Baltimore into the spotlight when there’s freezing classrooms in the winter or ACs broken in the summer. That’s, you know, that gets national attention. But I wanted to turn to a clip of a public school student, Deshawna Bryant. She’s 18-years-old, describing the conditions in her school. She’s also a plaintiff in the ACLU of Maryland and NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s two-decade-old lawsuit against the State of Maryland seeking more funding. They were victorious 20 years ago, but they’re coming back. And they’re arguing the state hasn’t fulfilled its obligations to adequately fund schools in Baltimore. As you know, the state’s own studies have found Baltimore schools are underfunded by between a quarter of a billion to about $370 million every year. So here’s this clip of the Deshawna talking about why this is important to her.
DESHAWNA BRYANT It has a terrible impact on Baltimore City Public School students because everyone wants to judge us— how they don’t think we’re the best students, how we’re not up there in test scores, and everything. But we can’t, we can’t have the best test scores, we can’t be the best students if we’re not put in the proper environment. If we had to leave every single time it’s cold, if the building has to be let out, or if we had to leave every time it’s too hot to stay in the building, or if our teachers don’t have enough materials to teach us the proper things, it makes it hard to be these students that everybody wants us to live up to be.
JAISAL NOOR So that’s a public school student in Baltimore. One of, you know, almost 90,000—
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Oh, yeah.
JAISAL NOOR That face these conditions. Talk about what the union is going to do to help uplift students like Deshawna.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN I think the first thing that I would like our union to do is to bring students to the table in the beginning of decision-making. I’ve been to a lot of meetings where people are talking about education, and I have seen maybe two students at all of these meetings, and I think that’s a problem. I think it’s a problem when we continue to make decisions about education without our students, our most valuable resource, being a part of that. And I think if we continue to do that, we’ll continue missing the mark. And so, I think the union can be a leader in making certain that when decisions are being made, when infrastructure is being put into place, when anything is being discussed that has to do with our student population, that there’s a representative from our student population at that table telling us what it is that we need to do to accommodate students.
And I know there’s some people that feel like, you know, they’re young, they don’t know the big picture. And they may not have the big picture, but without them in the picture at all, we’re not painting one that fits their needs or that meets any or that addresses any of the challenges that they’re facing. And so, you know, I just want to reiterate that the union is committed to making certain that our students are at the table.
JAISAL NOOR And you mentioned how you were an activist and an organizer before you became a teacher.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Right.
JAISAL NOOR Talk a little bit about how education fits into this larger picture of the issues that the City of Baltimore faces. You know, we have the murder rate, we’ve got a housing crisis, lead poisoning is still an issue. How can uplifting education uplift the city overall?
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Well, I think that when you go into your school building or your classroom, what you hope to get, what you hope to leave out with is motivation and inspiration. And a feeling that you matter in the world and that you can change something in the world. Or even if not the world— your own community, your street, your house. And I think that if we cannot give our children that small glimmer of hope, or just that basic foundation that they can do something, then that in turn leads to a whole city of hopelessness, a poverty of desire. And it’s not just a place of hope, but it’s a space.
You know, we talk about schools being used a lot for academics, but we fail to realize that our schools could be used as a space to convene people, to convene stakeholders in our city, to be used as a resource to bridge a gap between some of the things that our community members don’t have. Something as simple as getting the new driver’s license ID, I know there are some teachers that are helping community members figure out all the documents they need to get, because for some people that’s a really cumbersome process. And so, you know, education needs to be the—It’s kind of like the focal point or the home that everybody can come to when they need to get rejuvenated, re-energized, where they get the resources, where they get the research they need to then go out to do whatever they think needs to be done in their community. But that’s where you get the basics.
We have a lot of people that are activists, we have a lot of people that are fighting for their communities, but what they don’t have is the backing of the school community. We hold the majority. We have a lot of people in our city. We have the majority of the youth right in our hand and we know that youth change the world. Youth have led all of the biggest movements, the most transformational movements, and we are responsible for cultivating them to be those people that can go out and make these changes that we need. And so we need to take that responsibility very seriously, and make certain that we are living up to being pretty much the water that plants the seeds for all of these changes that we want in our city to happen. The youth is where it starts and we need to take care of them. And that’s what our school system is supposed to do. That’s what education is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be for making sure our kids are okay so that they can then make sure our world is okay.
JAISAL NOOR All right. Diamonte Brown, the new President of the Baltimore Teachers Union, thank you so much for joining us and we’ll certainly keep following. You know, we know there’s always different events and actions happening around the school system.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Yes.
JAISAL NOOR There’s going to be a big fight in Annapolis this year because the Democratic leadership, sort of, punted on this issue of the Kerwin Commission and how to pour these billions of dollars the school system needs. We know that’s going to be an issue. We know there’s a whole slew of other issues that are going to be unfolding, especially when the school year starts.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Yes.
JAISAL NOOR We hope to have you and other members of the teachers’ union in as part of our Real Talk Tho series.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Yes.
JAISAL NOOR So we’ve already reached out to you about that, so stay tuned for that. That’s going to happen later this summer or the early fall.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Okay.
JAISAL NOOR And we’ll keep everyone posted on what’s happening with the schools in Baltimore. Thanks so much for joining us.
DIAMONTÉ BROWN Thanks for having me.
JAISAL NOOR And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.