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Merrie Najimy set to take reins at Mass Teachers Association

Saphia Suarez
Merrie Najimy set to take reins at Mass Teachers Association
When she assumes the presidency of the MTA in July, Merrie Najimy will lead the largest union in New England. Photo: courtesy of Merrie Najimy

Merrie Najimy, the president-elect of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), was inspired to become an educator and later a unionist after experiencing in her own youth that the curricula taught in the Massachusetts public schools she attended felt exclusionary to Arab-American students. Growing up in the Lebanese community in Western Massachusetts, Najimy says she often felt isolated in school. She went on to start a Massachusetts chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), where she served as president from 2001 to 2009. She was also teaching at this time, and became involved in the Concord Teachers Association, serving as president from 2006 to 2017. She then ran for president of the MTA alongside her running mate for vice president, Max Page, and will fill that seat in July.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

How did you become involved in the teacher’s union?

I got involved in my local and in the MTA in the early 2000s, and at the time, both were making concessions. At the local, the concessions impacted the hard-earned benefits that we had won 30 years before, and at the state level, the concessions that the president prior to current President Barbara Madeloni was making compromised our rights as educators and our students’ learning conditions.

I became a building representative in my local, and in 2006 I became the president. Then I ran for a board seat on the MTA around 2011 and won two terms. I came to see that the union is the vehicle through which members deepen our relationships with each other, our parents and our communities, and where we develop our vision of public education and our vision for our community. Then together we organize to achieve those visions.

How did growing up as an Arab-American in Western Massachusetts shape your political views?

Growing up Arab-American in Western Mass is likely a similar experience to growing up Arab-American anywhere else. Those experiences shaped both my views on education and my political views.

Arabs, for more than a hundred years, have been portrayed in Hollywood and by the news media through the lens of Islamophobia. The only somewhat positive image of Arab-Americans that I had as a child was “I Dream of Jeannie,” and she was a white, objectified woman. I grew up in Pittsfield in a very large Lebanese community, where I got my affirmation from my family and community. But still, as an Arab-American child in school I felt alienated by the Dick and Jane reader. I remember scribbling on it because I was angry. Neither that reader nor the curriculum reflected my identity or culture. That’s why I got into education — to bring a broader world view to students. I went through school in the ’80s, when the multicultural education movement was well on its way, so I was schooled with a pedagogy rooted in racial justice anti-bias, which today is coming back in the form of cultural proficiency, or cultural responsiveness. For the 28 years I have been teaching, I have been writing my own anti-racist multicultural curriculum and implementing it, as well as giving workshops to educators.

What I discovered after college as an activist in the Arab-American community shaped my political views, and that was the long history of Arab activists being targeted by enforcement policies and practices. Then the assault on the entire community escalated post-Sept. 11. I opened a chapter of the ADC Massachusetts, a civil rights organization based in Washington. After Sept. 11, I was still teaching, but I did activist work through the ADC in my spare time. The chapter organized the community to respond to hate crimes and to fight against new draconian legislation that was rooted in racial profiling. So, these experiences helped me understand the intersectionality of issues of people from all different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

The MTA is supporting the “Fight for $15” and other progressive causes. Why do you think it is important for teachers unions to be involved in these broader struggles for labor rights?

As the largest union in New England, it is our mission to stand up for all working people, including our members. We have to realize that economic conditions and our students’ learning conditions are directly linked. We know that poverty is the most important determinant of a child’s success in school. My running mate and now the MTA vice president elect Max Page says it best: The best education reform policies are the Fair Share Amendment, the Fight for $15, and Paid Family Medical Leave, because our mission as educators is to foster our students’ humanity and to prepare them to be citizens in a democracy. But our students’ lives and their education, even the lives of some of our members, are undermined by poverty. We can’t fulfill our mission as educators and as labor unionists unless we’re fighting in labor and community coalitions to improve the living conditions of our members, our students and their families. We know that our students bring to school whatever happens in their lives outside of the classroom, whether it be poverty, gun violence, police brutality or ICE raids leading to family separation. These things traumatize our students, and impact their learning conditions and our teaching conditions. So we’re not willing to ignore it. Fighting for racial and economic equality is not separate from our mission as educators or unionists.

Teachers around the country have gone on strike and public opinion is solidly behind them, according to recent polls. How do these strikes affect what the MTA is doing here?

As Massachusetts educators witness the teacher uprisings across the country, we’re all feeling a renewed sense of hope and possibility. We know that the striking teachers in West Virginia have been inspired by our ‘No on 2’ victory [that stopped an effort to expand charter schools], as they watched us build our union power and refuse the narrative of the corporate reformers. So it is gratifying to see the public’s response to the strikes across the country. The ‘No on 2’ victory taught us that the public values the voices of educators and public schools. Across the country, we’re growing a movement of working educators using our collective power for our public schools, and for our students and their families.

Where do you see the teachers association heading during your tenure?

Max and I, and educators throughout the MTA, feel empowered by our recent achievements. But we also recognize that the assaults on working people, on educators, on unions through the Janus case that is at the Supreme Court, are escalating. So the work that lies ahead of us has multiple parts to it. We need to deepen and expand our member activism around the issues that matter to them and to our students and communities. We need to deepen our alliances with parents, students, labor, community, and the fight for economic and racial justice. We also need to create a vision for public education that is not only fully resourced but that re-centers educators as the experts and put students at the center of teaching rather than test scores. So, we need to put a ground strategy together, like we did for Question 2, to win all three of the Raise Up Massachusetts ballot questions — the Fair Share Amendment, the Fight for $15, and Paid Family Medical Leave. Then we turn our attention to fighting high-stakes testing, taking back control of our classrooms, and thinking about what the purpose of education is and who we want our students to be. All of that will then inform authentic and meaningful assessment.