Brandon Johnson and Randi Weingarten at AFT Convention 2018

Brandon Johnson addresses the delegates at the 2018 American Federation of Teachers Convention

I became a teacher because I wanted my students to have more opportunities than I had, and I wanted our neighborhoods to reflect those opportunities. The challenge of teaching was not the standard set for myself and my students, because the expectations we had of ourselves were actually higher than others’. The challenge for us was—and continues to be—a political system that refuses to embrace our dreams, and adds injury by actively working against us, favoring austere and cruel policies that ruin lives and communities.

My students traversed a small desert of poverty every day, even as they were only steps away from oases of wealth, complete with glistening towers and gilded homes. The same cranes tearing down my students’ public housing were building new luxury palaces in the sky for our city’s 1 percent.

The present concentration of economic power in the hands of a select few—a condition that has worsened over time—is eviscerating the working class and the poor. If we are to survive this moment, we must seek a new political economy—one that rejects the cruel, inhumane, sexist and racist outcomes of austerity budgets and seeks equitable investment in all communities.

Although this particular moment might seem especially cruel, we have witnessed this before. Every generation before us has battled the U.S. Supreme Court and a judicial system used to protect the privileges of some and marginalize the lives of others—Dred Scott v. Sandford, Plessy v. Ferguson and now Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. But like the generations before us, we must speak life into this moment and be prepared to act, for there is no life with words alone.

Our actions must not be merely conscripted from the past; they must be actions that fit the uniqueness of our challenges and opportunities. Today we face extreme poverty; Great Depression-era unemployment in minority communities; police violence; racial and economic inequality; privatization of our public education system; financial exploitation of our government; intracommunal violence, and the destruction of the labor movement.

Over the last several years to the last several months, many of us in this room have spoken truth to the powers that be to make the demands that our moment demands. We have taken streets, strike votes and arrests.

Our union genuinely holds progressive values. Therefore, we must take on the influence of the ruling class within all political parties and financial institutions and organize at our work sites. We must continue to build organic relationships with the communities we serve and push a political agenda that calls for the protection and expansion of public services—and the protection of those who do the work and demand that large corporations and those at the very top pay their fair share.

We will not be afraid to exercise power in our schools, at our worksites and throughout society. Education is a force for social regeneration. As a union of professionals, we must bridge the gap between school and society, and be the tie that fastens the two together.

We know that around this country, our foes have used their words and actions to secure power. Because it will occur amongst the wrong people, at the wrong place and with the wrong goals, our deeds in this moment are essential to both the present and generations to come. This is the right place, with the right people and at the right time. Today, with our own words and our own deeds, we will prevail because our cause is right!

I ran for public office to fight for the expansion of public services, to protect workers and demand that large corporations pay their share. For far too long, we’ve elected political leaders beholden to the rich and powerful. It’s time we elect political leaders who won’t explain away our rights, but will fight for them.

Having done all…we must run…
Run to secure our political power.
Run ’til the water in Flint, Michigan is safe to drink.
Run ’til the housing in New York and Los Angeles is affordable.
Run ’til the neighborhoods in Chicago are safe.
Run ’til the schools in Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma and are fully funded.
Run ’til immigrant families seeking opportunity in America are re-united.
Run ’til the rights of workers are protected.
Run ’til our schools are no longer target practice for guns no one should have.
Run ’til the assaults on black workers, women and women of color are no more.
Run ’til women’s reproductive rights are protected, respected and guaranteed.
Run ’til there’s a livable wage for every worker.
Run ’til health care is universal and free.
Run on the dreams my ancestors dreamed.
Run ’til Black lives truly matter.
Run ’til our political system reflects our values, and every level of government is loaded with members of the American Federation of Teachers throughout all chambers.

Dare to build a movement!

Brandon Johnson is a CTU organizer and Democratic nominee for Cook County Commissioner of the 1st District, having defeated incumbent Richard Boykin on March 20, 2018.

This article appears in the September 2018 issue of the Chicago Union Teacher.