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In Keynote, NEA President Garcia Strikes Populist Tone


Orlando, Fla.

In her first keynote speech to the National Education Association's governing body, President Lily Eskelsen Garcia spoke passionately about her own journey up the rungs of the union.

It was the most populist speech we've seen in years at this assembly, emphasizing not programs and prescriptions from the national union, but rather, the collective power that being in a union confers. Her speech focused both on unionization empowering educators to improve schools, and how the NEA collectively helped to give birth to Head Start, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and a host of other education legislation.

As if to underscore the theme, she started her speech on the floor of the assembly, rather than on the stage.

"I was the lunch lady, the salad girl. Not up to hot foods yet, really cool hairnet," she said. "Now, I'm the president of the National Education Association."

At her first Representative Assembly 28 years ago, "I thought it was my job to speak on every issue. I did not have an unexpressed thought for four days," Garcia said. "That makes you so popular. But I had this sense of urgency, this sense [that] we're going to do something important to the people in this room, they're going to come together and be better for someone else's child. I've never been disappointed on that."   

Garcia connects well with delegates, partly a result of her ability to good-naturedly make fun of herself. (Example: She says she first really got involved in the union when her colleagues elected her building rep. while she was in the bathroom.)

Not until the end of her address did Garcia get to explicitly political matters. She encouraged delegates to keep the pressure on the Senate, which next week—for the first time since 2001—will be debating legislation to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The NEA is optimistic about how that bill is shaping up. 

"Because of your actions, everyone who signed up on Getting ESEA Right, we flooded senators with our stories of what the insidious, obsessive, obscene focus on standardized tests has done to shortchange our vulnerable students, we demanded an end to the toxic testing brought on by AYP," she said, referring to the "adequate yearly progress" accountability system at the core of the law.

And to wrap up, Garcia noted the things that have held constant over the union's history.

"The history of NEA, our structure at NEA has changed, the people who sit in these seats has changed. Our hearts are the constant," she said. "The NEA is not our beautiful building, it's not the furniture, it's not even our meetings. You are the NEA, you are the future of everything, and the future is about to call on you to act again."

And as for herself?

"28 years ago I was annoying the delegation. Now I'm annoying to the Koch brothers," she quipped.

Photo: NEA President Lily Eskelsen García delivers her keynote address to 94th Representative Assembly.—Scott Iskowitz/NEA.

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