Saturday, June 17, 2017

Interview With Keith Benson, Camden Education Association President by Melissa Tomlinson


Recently I had the honor of interviewing Keith Benson, newly elected president of the Camden Education Association. Camden has become the hotbed of education reform in New Jersey and community pushback has been steadily growing. The election of Keith as the association president signals a new sign of solidarity among educators in fighting for what is best for the communities and residents of Camden.

1 - Give us a little bit of a background of yourself
I am a teacher in Camden, have been for 13 years. I live in the city. My daughter attends our schools. My family, my grandparents, aunts and uncles have all worked here in the school district. My parents and a lot of folks in my family went to Camden schools and here I am thankfully, in a position to lead our teacher’s union.


2 - Prior to the election, what role did you play in the Camden Education Association?
I was the Public Relations chair from 2014-2015. But other than that, it was in a very limited capacity in terms of actually having roles and official duties. Most of the advocacy I was doing was on behalf of our schools through community groups.


3 - How about in the state union, did you have any kind of a role?
No.

4 - Why did you choose to run at this time?
After I was able to complete my dissertation and I was able to understand the lay of the land as to why a lot of the reforms that were taking place in Camden were taking place in ways that had very little to do with improving education, but had to do with city-wide development and a desire to see demographic change. Our schools and our community members are just collateral damage in that broad pursuit. With that knowledge I wanted to operationalize what I knew and fight back on a broader scale. Fighting for just school-based things will not save our schools and save this community. Saving our public schools is an effective way of saving this Camden community. That is ultimately what is driving me. It happened that elections came up so I threw my hat in the ring. I had been active for our schools and for our educators long before this election so this is another avenue to increase my advocacy.

5 - Tell me more about your dissertation.
It called “Better for Whom - Camden Resident Perspectives on Recent Camden Redevelopment and State-Imposed Renaissance Schools”. It puts the microphone in front of the residents because a lot of the time when decisions are made they are made from the perspective of folks with power, folks with agency, and folks with a platform. So they’re missing. Typically when you are dealing with privatization of specifically low income minorities they are more dictated to. So what I wanted to do with my dissertation was actually highlight what our residents are seeing, what they’re feeling about all these things that are going on. But their views are often ignored, disregarded and not asked for at all. So with my dissertation I wanted to flush all of that out.


6 - You mentioned something about the role of saving school in saving the community. How would you see the role of schools in creating change?Can we create change in the future by changing the way we see the education of our youth?

What we see happening in Camden is what we see happening in urban areas across our country. This has a lot to do with where housing is now desirable, where millennials now want to live, millennials with greater affluence choose to live. The suburbs that generations before ours found so attractive and found to be an oasis have have largely become less functional and less advantageous to stay in. One common excuse that middle class avoided living in urban areas was because the school system was so bad. People move where the “good schools” are. So largely we see across the country a blaming and shaming of our urban schools and these schools are largely the schools where their serving primarily and impoverished minority piversation. With this continued demonization that really has very little to do with what is actually going on inside of the schools it’s been very easy for education reformers to come in and impose a fake solution. They are able to kill a lot of birds with one stone, like union busting. Corporations have greater access to these huge pots of money in our education budgets and at the same time strip local control of our urban public schools and rebrand what urban public schools look like to make them more amenable to be middle class millennials that might have been scared away from areas with poor schools and poor students. Middle class  millennials are willing to move near charter schools and move near schools that are viewed as better. I think that is what is happening in Camden and in other areas urban around the country. I view this as a broader housing issues. Our schools and our profession are collateral damage. Our kids are collateral damage.

7 - How do you temper the gentrification vs push-out vs what could be really good for the community?

One thing that really drives me as the central part of my advocacy - what happens when one of the last few affordable places in NJ ceases to become affordable for folks. Camden is an area where people aren’t making a whole lot of money. In fact it is one of the poorest areas of the country. What happens when you have a sort of mass demographic change and with it, development and things that coincide with this change. What happens to people’s taxes and rental rates for folks that don’t have this money? Eventually they are not going to stay here any more. One thing that has been really applicable in keeping Camden affordable for folks is the underlying perception that our schools are not performing. That our schools are terrible places to learn when really they're not. There are a lot of great things going on inside our schools and we’re dealing with overall the most challenging circumstances where people are against you. Where our educators and schools should be celebrated and given a pat on the back and more encouragement for doing what we have been doing for so long under dire circumstances we’re now blamed and targeted for closure and that is devastating.


6 - Based on all of these broader issue topics, how did you narrow this down and create topics for your campaign platform?

I don’t think it was really narrowing down as much as it was explaining the broader context of what it is we are dealing with. If you go in there and focus on school-side stuff, contract issues and professional development, those issues aren’t going to keep our schools open. The fight to maintain our profession and to grow our imprint in the community can’t happen absent of connections and authentic relations with the community. What my campaign sought to do was to actually make those connections of where we are at, what we need to fight for, and how we have to go about fighting for it. Linking with the community is paramount. It has to happen. We need the community alongside of us just like the community needs it’s public schools right alongside of them. The things that are going on inside the Renaissance, the takeover schools - and I call them takeover schools because that is what they are. In other cities, like Philadelphia, that is what they are actually called and I refuse to use the fluffy name of Renaissance schools - that are horrible if you care about education, individual growth, creativity and self esteem in children. Our public schools are a place that can continue to grow a student's creativity and sense of individuality in a way that the takeover schools can not and will not and not interested in doing that stuff at all. it is in the community’s best interest to have our public schools here to serve their children as well.


6 - Why do you think were successful in winning the election as opposed to your candidates?

I think a large part was because of the advocacy that I was doing alongside of the union, as really a part of the union, but long before I decided to get into the election. This was not on my radar four months ago, this election. I was going to try to continue to do the fighting that I could with the community groups that I was in. But I was approached with the idea that this might be a good way to forward my activism and benefit the community and benefit our schools and that influenced me to run. Those are the connections of people seeing me at board meetings and op-eds I have written. I have been posting some of the presentations that I have been giving at national conferences to professors and others. So the work was already there. I think that resonated with voters. The community also worked with me a lot to get out the vote, to convince the educators.


7 - Long term - as a whole, we are looking at some supreme court decisions that may affect how we deal with unions in this country. At this moment we seem to have a higher rate of member apathy - what are your thoughts and suggestions on dealing with that?

Honestly, I would like to be able to strategize about how to deal with that possible eventuality but the concerns I have are so current and so right in front of my face. How do I keep our schools open and keep our educational providers in our schools and keep our schools in our community? I can’t necessarily look that far down the road, which is unfortunate. I hope somebody else is strategizing and developing a contingency plan. But my main mission is to work with any entity that is willing to keep our schools here, to keep our school open, to keep our schools serving our children. It is in the best interest of our community is the best interest of our kids and they attend our schools. I can’t say enough that the things are going on inside these takeover schools are not what you would subject your child to if you cared about their development, if you cared about what is best for them. These folks that are touting them, these are not the type of schools that they would not send their children to. I went to private school from 10th to 12th grade. This is nothing like what I experienced. There was much more creativity, individuality and freedom of expression. These schools are just test factories, no excuses focus on discipline, what color sneakers your kids are wearing, how they walk down the hallways. I think it is focused in racism and classism as well. I have very little interest in seeing those schools serve our kids here - any kid, any where for that matter. Anyone who cares about children and their educational experience, you don’t treat a child the way these children are treated. In the best interest for our kids here, in the best interest of our community, our public schools have to stay. It is my goal to try to find a way to do whatever I can possibly do to make sure our profession lasts and our schools last here as public schools.


8 - The way that your discussion continued from union, right back to the community - I think that’s important. People don’t always make that connection. If we start winning victories that the communities want to see, the communities will support the unions and that will make the member feel good in the long run.

You see instances where the community and the union are working together like in New York, Chicago, and Newark. They are out there in the streets. The communities are right there alongside of the teachers because there has been very strong, lasting relationships that have been built through what Dr. Lois Weiner calls social justice unionism. That approach of not only being concerned with our members, but we are actually concerned about what goes on inside of a community; that resonates and showing the community that when they need us we’re there and when we will need you that you will be there for us. That sort of partnership is strong and it needs to be fostered and grown.  


9 - Do you have any plans to educate your member about the bigger picture of national ed reform?

Maybe informally. It might look like a workshop at a rep council meeting. I might take some time to show how all of these things are connected, but nothing formal. We have a lot of members that are really good at a lot of different things that will benefit our union, in terms of messaging, in terms of their perspective, in terms of their willingness to work on behalf of moving our membership forward. My goal is to empower them. I want them to feel free - if they have an idea that they want to move, if they have something to offer - do it. Let’s make it happen. I think then we will have more engagement and depth. We will have more people willing to come to meetings and creatively find ways to bring us together once you activate their different skill sets. There are people that know a lot more about union mechanisms than me. There are folks that know a lot more about public relations than me. We have a lot of very talented members. It’s a matter of simply just giving them the freedom to go ahead. Let’s try this and see if it works.



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