It Is About All of Us

A union leader speaks out against the injustice in New Orleans

By Brenda Mitchell

The following is an excerpt from a speech Brenda Mitchell gave in Rochester, N.Y., at the convention of the New York State United Teachers, May 4–6, 2006. — the editors

When I left home, I never would have thought I would never be able to return. Not for anything I did. So just imagine for a moment, not only what I am going through — and I am going to be all right, because I am tough and the union has toughened me even more, and I am resilient — but for the thousands of people in the city, the thousands of members of United Teachers of New Orleans who will never be the same again. And, oh my God, the children.

Oh, we hear stories about how bad they are in Houston. Well, have they ever thought about the fact that these kids have been traumatized? I have been traumatized. It wasn’t until December that I even could think. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t read a book. I was overwhelmed. The devastation is so great.

I was in New Orleans on Tuesday, and around my home and my neighborhood there are miles and miles and miles of dead grass. No utilities, no drinking water. All that is left standing of my home are the brick veneer walls, the studs, the cement foundation, and the ceramic tile that I just finished paying for before the storm.

There are many people like me. At least I had insurance, but in the lower 9th Ward, where the barge broke, where 54 percent of the individuals in that community are homeowners, African Americans, many of the them elderly — I don’t know whether or not they are going to be able to recoup. Eighty percent of the people are gone. And you know what the feeling is? They don’t really want us back.

We were a 68-percent African-American city. Sixty-eight percent. We had most of the seats in government, and we thought we were doing a pretty good job. Now, mind you, our school system had some problems, but this year for the first year, all of our elementary schools met AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress].

This is not just about Louisiana, you know; it is about all of us. It is about breaking unions, it is about breaking the spirit of working-class people.

It is about denying them their rights. Because when the waters rolled back from the storm, in my home, for 17 days there was six feet of water. Seventeen days. But when those waters receded, they uncovered the racism, the hatred, the disdain that we thought we were working through.

They have treated us like we weren’t Americans. And you know, I am a child of the South; I was born in California, the daughter of a Pullman porter and a teacher’s aide. My grandfather raised me; he was a minister. So I know about struggles, and I marched, but I thought having to sing “We Shall Overcome” was over in my lifetime. But I want you to know it is not.

The right to a quality public education is a civil right that should not be denied children because of the color of their skin.

The right to form and be represented by a union is a right that anybody should be afforded, not be denied. But in Louisiana, we do things differently. Now that they were tempted to break the largest union in the state, where we have 4,700 members, we now have fewer than 200. But what they don’t know is, we refuse to lose.

We refuse to lose the right to have our voices heard anywhere and everywhere they ought to be heard. We refuse to allow them to take away the opportunity for us to have regular public education in the city of New Orleans.

Brenda Mitchell is the president of United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), which represented 6,800 teachers, paraprofessionals, and clerical workers in the New Orleans schools prior to Katrina. She was elected in May 1999 after serving for 18 years as the founding director of the UTNO Health and Welfare Fund Center for Professional Growth and Development. Prior to that, she worked in New Orleans Public Schools as an elementary teacher, guidance counselor, and staff development teacher.