Thursday, May 31, 2007

Time out for a word on that veto

Today we had an afternoon meeting scheduled with a group of independent Yemeni journalists who were going to talk to us about the political situation in Yemen. Unfortunately (on many levels), an explosion went off north of Sana'a, where we are staying, and they all went to cover that instead. While the rest of Sana'a went about its day, and our interpreter from Beirut, Lebanon just shrugged her shoulders, I had the chance to catch up on news from St. Paul.

I was very disappointed to learn that Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed the statewide health insurance pool bill for school employees (SWHI). The rising cost of providing health insurance must be addressed and our statewide union has been the only group to attempt that. Officials opposed to the SWHI bill, including Gov. Pawlenty, had over 4 years to offer an alternative. Instead, the Governor's only response during that time was to make access to affordable health insurance even harder by kicking Minnesotans off of MNCare.

This legislation was extensively vetted over 4 years, so the Governor (and every DFL and Republican legislator who opposed it as well) had every opportunity to offer solutions or ideas. Instead, one of his primary arguments is that our workforce is aging and the SWHI bill does nothing to address that. As far as I can tell every work force is aging, including the Executive Branch of our state government. Short of discovering a Fountain of Youth, one of the ways I have been told that you can prevent aging is by keeping your mind sharp by thinking. Education Minnesota has been thinking of a solution.

The Governor also criticises the bill for failing to address the runaway cost of prescription drug coverage. I find this criticism the most disheartening of all. Rather than merely complain, this issue could have been the perfect opportunity for the Governor to use the power of his office to partner with this legislation. He could have offered a tandem solution to prescription drug costs and coverage that could have not only dove-tailed to the statewide pool, but possibly enhanced Minnesota Care as well. Instead of creativity he offered criticism. Health insurance in Minnesota will continue to languish from this disappointing lack of leadership.

Of course there was an entire contingency of legislators who also spent 4 years refusing to lead on this issue and instead failed to commit to the intense work of finding common ground for the common good. They measured their votes in 10,000 steps and $6 million subsidies, rather than in the long-term health of crafting a real solution for our state.

We must call on our elected officials to take opportunities to show real leadership. This lesson is not lost on me.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

From conflict to alliance

We landed in Yemen at 2 a.m. on Monday morning and since have had 9 meetings and a couple different tours. Aside from yesterday's powerful meeting with the Arab Sisters Forum, which was run by 2 female workers for SAF, today was the first day that a woman was present at one of our meetings in any official capacity. Jawhara Hamad Tabet was a top official with the Yemeni Socialist Party as well as chair of the Women's Committee and the Civil Society Committee. While she was quiet for quite a bit of the meeting, toward the end the gentleman leading it specifically called to her to answer a question and stated that we "needed to hear her speak." It was the strongest support of a woman by a man I have seen up until this point. She then went on to explain a point about the Socialist party and their strategic alliance with Islah, a strong opposition party, as well as her own history as teacher, principal/director/union activist and social activist.

The refreshing part of this situation is that in at least 2 other situations unfortunately, where we had been in meetings with men professing to work on behalf of the advancement of Yemeni women, no women had been present. Furthermore, when pressed about this by Cathleen, another woman on this trip, or me, we received very evasive or downright disconcerting answers. In one case, when we asked about any women helping to lead we were told that there was one woman in a leadership position, but that she did not want to participate. In another meeting, when pressed, the Islah party pushed back using the struggle of American women to gain the freedoms we currently have and asked for us to have patience. It would take a great deal of time for Yemeni society to advance to a place that American women enjoy now.

I suppose they thought that gave them cover to dodge the question, but it actually points to the larger truth and that is that they don't have the time. Much of the education debate is a fractal of the larger human rights debate going on around the world. It used to seem reasonable to take the time to see if women were up for the pressure of man's work, man's legislative power, or a man's wages; but the world is moving at the speed of a click now and no country can afford to wait for human rights to evolve. We are moving toward greater communciation, greater need for ideas, greater need for education, and a greater need for collaboration and connections if we are going to work together to find solutions to the world's most imposing problems.

A country(theirs or mine) can't afford to write off half of its population. I am so inspired by the work of the Arab Sisters Forum, the leaders who have taken chances, and the verve and attitude I see in my daughter that I am determined to move from isolated conflict with people who don't know they have work to do, to work with the people who want to make a difference, because we don't have the time to do otherwise.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A part of me

I have been in about 3-4 meetings each day here in Yemen with NGOs, union officials, government officials (theirs and ours), and citizens and each meeting gets this country under my skin a little more than the last. Their problems are very well-defined, their hope is very real, but their actions seem extremely elusive. If the story of Tantalus were a country, it would be Yemen. Just when they are getting democracy off the ground, the 1st Gulf war strikes and they get an influx of extreme conservatives re-writing the agenda for women and country. Just when the Clinton administration shines a light on Yemen as an example of how the Middle East can incubate democracy, the Cole gets blown up in Aden, a Yemen port. Just as moderates begin coalescing, the 2nd Gulf war breaks out and conservatives use George Bush's reasoning that he is doing the will of God to claim that they are merely doing the same.

Their education issues (2 million students with no access to education--the majority of them girls, corruption is rampant, teachers have no uniform training when there is training offered at all, 100-150 students per class, 95% of the schools have no laboratories, 42% have no drinking water, 70% have no electricity) look insurmountable until you have seen where they were before. Fifteen years ago there were 4 boys attending school for every one girl, now there are 3 boys for every 2 girls. That is progress. Fifteen years ago about 70% of Yemen's women were illiterate, now that has fallen to 59%. That is progress. In 2006, 4 organizations cooperated to train 400 Yemen women to run for political office. Ultimately 140 actually ran, and 38 won (out of 7000 local elections country-wide). That is progress.

From at least 2 of the meetings I was in today (one with the Arab Sisters Forum, another with Islah opposition party officials) there is great determination to keep improving the condition of education overall, and specifically education for Yemen's girls. This determination is borne out of the realization that it is more than a human rights issue (which it has been acknowledged to be) but that is is an economic vehicle for a country that is going to run out of oil, run out of water, and run out of friends outside of the Middle East if it does not prepare for the 21st Century.

At our final meeting, I had an exchange that sums it up well. If the AFT is going to come in to Yemen to offer assistance to educators, the idea has to come from Yemen and they need to know what they need in an educational system that prepares this country for the future. If any one of us comes in and begins to offer something without listening first, or forcing the conversation among Yemenis first, then it is just a form of educational colonialism.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Not so much Likert as Maslow

The discussions between the Palestinian teachers from their teachers’ union and the Israeli teachers from their union couldn't have been more different.

The Palestinian teachers talked about not being paid a full salary for 18 months and having to strike for over 100 days in order to finally get one month of a full salary just this month. They did not separate the lives they lead, concerning the wall going up, the police, politics, their salaries, etc. with the conditions in which they teach.

The Israeli teachers’ union discussion was much more focused on professional evolution. They talked about pushing back reform efforts that were bad for education, how they found negotiating empowering enough that they didn’t have to resort to a strike, and how they were rolling out a plan to increase teacher pay by 30% largely by creating a salary schedule based on education and experience. The discussion included international standards, pensions, and governance. It makes me wonder if Maslow could create a hierarchy of teacher needs?

Blood mixed with ink

Getting a first hand account of the state of Baghdad after 4 years of war, completely undistilled for the first time, was sobering. The 5 teachers we met with, while very appreciative of being taken out of Iraq and brought to Jordan to meet with us thereby allowing for a few days of reprieve, could not stop thinking of their colleagues they left behind. Thousands of teachers and professors have left Iraq because they have seen their colleagues killed or terrorized. Parents are afraid to send their children to school because of the danger in getting there and the danger in staying there. Iraqi men are in prisons, killed, or afraid to leave their houses for fear of arrest. Teachers on their way to school are turned around by American soldiers and told to go back, which means that the children who have gone to school that day, have no teacher. One street in Baghdad named after a poet had many libraries “people’s blood was mixed with the book’s ink” as Abdul told it. They don’t have music, they don’t have art, and they don’t have theatres.

They are struggling to rebuild. They would like recognition in the international labor community as well as help rebuilding their domestic stature.

An injury to one...

There is a lot of work to do. I say that with the realization that all of us in the labor movement are on a continuum from complete oppression on one side to absolute social justice on the other. It is like a worker's Likert scale, because even thought there is much work to do here, that doesn't mean we abandon the improvements we want to our working conditions in the United States. We need to continually evolve and move forward on the continuum, or risk sliding back. Just because we can say "good thing we don't have to teach in a war zone" that doesn't mean we give up trying to earn meaningful staff development time. We do not use the abysmal working conditions of someone else to shrug our shoulders and say "I guess I have nothing to complain about." We use it to organize around the idea that we can and will simultaneously act as inspiration to others on the continuum and push the boundaries of where we are as professionals as well. That is what the labor movement is about: improving peoples' lives. Otherwise there would be no continuum; instead there would merely be a series of individual and independent experiences. The labor movement worldwide is a single experience for all of us still.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Reform Fatigue

Although in my briefing this morning we had a strong discussion on the fate of immigrants who work in the textile industry in the Middle East, obviously much of my learning here is taking place around education. Fascinating and vexing facts have my thoughts in constant motion, like how it is illegal in most Middle Eastern countries for public school teachers to join a union, but it is okay for private school teachers. How the attitude toward immigrant populations in most countries here closely resembles some of the same sentiments expressed in the United States. Also, learning how women are struggling to be represented in the trade union leadership of industries where they over-populate the rank and file. While I will wrestle with all of those things, I think the thought that capivates me most today is the idea of "Reform Fatigue." The phrase came out today while I was at a briefing about Jordanian education at the US Embassy. We got a very thorough description of the educational reform movement in Jordan, and some anedotes that the reforms were not only overdue, but promising as well. Parent involvement, standardizing the curriculum between public and private schools, higher quality teaching standards (it has been common for college graduates with no education training to be hired in the past), more engaging ways of delivering material, and a new investment in 4-6 year olds seems to be the new black for Jordan, too. While all of these reforms seem to be met with enthusiasm, the professional briefing us said that so much is happening that teachers are suffering from "reform fatigue."

I was struck by that and I have carried that thought around with me all day because I think I know the symptoms. I have seen them in St. Paul teachers: an exasperated look in your eyes, surfing, self-medication with caffiene/chocolate/fill-in-the-blank, taking your cousin up on his invitation to come sell insurance with him, the occasional mental health day on a Friday, and a call to the union about yet another after school meeting. I think it is up to us to find a cure. We, as a collective group, should be able to say "Enough!" We need to be able to finish what we start before embarking on something else. The Indy 500 is won by driving one magnificent lap at a time. Support us to tune up, drop in that new engine, warm up those tires, and we will take it from there, but don't ask us to drive 5 cars at a time.

Vote for Petra!

It has been at least 2 months since I have worked on a campaign, so I was due and this is not only worth it, but I think the educational opportunities around this one are virtually limitless. The timing couldn't be better either. The UNESCO has a campaign to vote for the New 7 Wonders of the World, and Jordan is pulling out all the stops to get everyone who visits to vote for Petra. ( There are about 20 finalists vying for a place in the new 7 wonders and I am so captivated by their enthusiasm for Petra (as opposed to the wretched excess that is an Olympic bidding campaign) that I told a Jordanian today that I would send a note home encouraging all my friends to vote for Petra. He looked at me, got a big smile on his face, and said, "You will? That is so wonderful. Thank you very much!" So here is my pitch: Vote for Petra. If you are a teacher of any sort, then get your students into it. I have got to believe that learning about the finalists, diving into the arts/culture/literacy associated with each, running a school campaign to vote for the final 7, and posting the results all meet a host of standards. Certainly some national standards from various disciplines. The activity might be a little too rich for the mile wide, inch deep Minnesota Academic Standards. If you can work in some door knocking or a fund raiser, it's icing on the cake. Nonetheless, Vote for Petra!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

14 hours later

Flying along the sunset the plane tipped so that I could get my first glimpse of Jordan as we approached Amman. The land is the rich brown of cocoa spilled on a counter top. It looks peaceful as it glows with the last warmth of today's sun, while I am busy anticipating my landing in the desert. Fourteen hours of flying: reading guidebooks, briefing books, travel books, conversations brief, polite, powerful, and mundane; travel full of cute, curl-haired children; the bitter rest that is sleeping on a plane, and I find myself thirsty.

Right-handed dominance could be a problem for me. As someone who has been known to say, "I am so left, I'm left-handed" I think I am going to have to work extra hard to just remember to use my right hand, let alone master it. Luckily I am in good company as another woman is left-handed, too. We joked that it will be just one more offensive thing to add to the list of offensive things that may be expected of us as Western women. Let's hope not.

I was told at our briefing that as a Western woman I would be treated like an honorary man anyway. That's great, but until that comes with a US Senate seat, I would just as soon dress and behave in a way that helps me organize, gets me maximum access to people so I can learn about them and then figure out what, if anything, I can offer and what I can learn about myself.

We had a surprise and brief introduction to the Iraqi teachers we will be working with on Friday this evening. Although I am looking forward to our work with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center tomorrow, it is our time with these teachers I am most anticipating at this point.

Monday, May 21, 2007

I'm going to Yemen!

I wanted to let you know about an exciting opportunity in which I have been invited to participate. I am going to participate in a study tour of the Middle East as part of the Albert Shanker Institute mission of promoting democracy through democratic trade unions throughout the world. Learn more about the Albert Shanker Institute at I was invited as part of a 12 team delegation made up of AFT leaders and Institute staff. We will work in tandem with the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in Amman, Jordan, have the opportunity to meet with the Palestinian Teacher Union, Israeli Teachers Union and Iraqi teachers in Jerusalem, and then travel to Yemen for organizing and classroom instruction work with the Yemeni Teachers Syndicate.

As I meet with these teachers and union leaders, the members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers will never be far from my thoughts. The goals we have in common, the struggles we share, and the reason we chose education as our profession lay a common ground from which to begin a discussion of how to leave our profession and our world a better place because of the work we do. I am committed to bringing my experience back to benefit the members of SPFT and our state and national unions. I am also eager to have a meaningful impact on the goals of the Albert Shanker Institute because they are goals I share as well. I ask that you wish me luck in this journey and in meeting these goals as we all do the work of supporting and promoting public schools and our profession.


Mary Cathryn