anti-bias-stories

FINDING OUR PEOPLE: THE CASE FOR MORE ACTIVIST PROFESSIONALS

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Posted by Martel Menz, Vice President Early Childhood Australian Education Union Victoria, Australia on

In Latin, advocacy means “to call to one’s aid.” I like this. It evokes images of collectivism and unity, of people standing side by side working together for a shared cause. Collectivism is a core principle underpinning social justice movements, but how well do we do this in early childhood and why does it matter? It matters a great deal if we actually want to achieve long-held goals for the sector, and the issue dearest to my heart is fairer pay and conditions for the early childhood profession.

If we conceptualise the work of delivering early education within Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological model, teachers and educators working with children are at the centre. Their workplace conditions facilitate their best work (or otherwise). It would be naïve to argue that industrial conditions don’t make a difference. They do. So how do educators get what they need to do their very best work? I propose that we need to shift beyond advocacy and towards activism. But what shifts an advocate towards the space and experience of activist professional? This is the question I’m particularly curious about at the moment. I can stand with you for a cause, for an issue I feel passionately about, but what prompts me to take action? What will cause me to take a courageous leap into activist territory where I have to walk my talk? A space that can feel lonely and isolating. Where I am vulnerable. Where I could risk my credibility, my relationships, my livelihood. What interests me the most is how can we encourage more early childhood professionals to advocate FOR their profession?

This question has driven my work for the past ten years as a union official and its origins go back to my initial days as an early childhood teacher. Two things stand out in my memory: day one and I kept looking over my shoulder for my supervising teacher. They’re not there! It’s just my colleague and I and I’m in charge. Heck, who let this happen?! Then at the end of my first fortnight I receive my first pay cheque. Yes, it actually was a cheque and I had to cash it in at my bank. $16 an hour. Whoa, real money for a grown-up job! But when I start comparing notes with my friends who went into primary teaching, all of us with four-year degrees, they’re earning 30% more. How does that happen?

A year later and a colleague has invited me to a sector council meeting at the Australian Education Union. I start joining the dots. Unions bargain agreements with employer groups. They negotiate for better pay and conditions because that is what makes the education system better for our children. Unions run strategic campaigns. They lobby governments to secure the funding necessary to underpin industrial entitlements. The cornerstone of this work is the people: the union members, the activists who do the hard campaigning work, who engage with their local parents and communities, who speak to politicians and the media. This became a lived experience when I participated in my first campaign and stop work rally in 2005. As the profession gathered as a collective, as we marched through the streets of Melbourne, our power was palpable. I had found my people! This activism was far removed from the stereotyped “nice ladies” of early childhood. We were angry, we were determined, we were articulate in putting our case. We were facing an injustice and we had to do something about it. Wage disparity with school teachers was significant. Conditions like paid maternity leave were non-existent. We were not even considered real teachers, we fell under the Department of Human Services. When you look at issues with a social justice lens you cannot ethically turn away (and it is our ethical responsibility to advocate for the profession as per the Early Childhood Australia Code of Ethics (Early Childhood Australia, 2016)).

Whilst this type of big, collective action in one place is a rare event, we have done it enough times to make a real difference to our industrial rights and entitlements, and we have been successful at moving our profession forward. It is also the many other smaller actions that deliver change. Perhaps not fast enough, or significant enough to our liking at times, but significant gains have been achieved by the activist professionals of our sector who have acted in the face of injustice. They have sacrificed days of pay, they have articulated their worth to colleagues and community, they have lobbied politicians, they have been unpopular with employers and colleagues who would rather they keep their head down and not rock the boat. All in the name of achieving something better, something fairer for the collective.

If I had one wish, it would be for more people in our profession to understand the connection between people power and outcomes for our sector, whether it is fighting for better industrial conditions or decent policy and investment – while we’re at it, let’s go for the lot! Anne Kennedy’s chapter in the Anti-Bias Approach in Early Childhood (2016) is an inspiring read on this issue. She cites Dahlberg and Moss (2005):

“Becoming and being an advocate and activist requires understanding the politics and the power inherent or embedded in ‘local’ and ‘big picture’ issues” (p. 298). Anne asserts, “While there is evidence of advocacy by educators within their settings or community, there seems much less awareness or action in relation to broader but equally important big picture political issues (p. 298).”

As an eternal optimist I believe we are making some excellent progress in this space and we are becoming the activist professionals that we need to be. My work with AEU members demonstrates this every day and it is a joy and a privilege. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing someone speak out for the first time in the face of injustice. To take up a campaign action in their workplace or network. To make contact with a politician or the media and advocate for the sector. To organise and gather other educators for a meeting. To lead and engage parents and community members in taking action. The reinvigoration of the Anti-Bias movement has a beautiful synergy with this work because it is a movement of people dedicated to making the world a fairer, just place for all. It is the reason we have provided all our AEU Sector Councillors (our state-wide representatives) with a copy of the Anti-Bias book. We hope the stories and history will further inspire their activism.

At the end of the day, our capacity to make progress and lasting change is only possible through collective unity and strength. When people work together to fight injustice, we have a far better chance of success. These activist professionals are courageous, tenacious, patient and determined. They’re also a great deal of fun and I am honoured to work with them. Next time you meet one, thank them and then ask, “How can I stand and act with you?”

References:

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Dahlberg, G., & Moss, P. (2005). Ethics and politics in early childhood education. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Early Childhood Australia (2016). Code of ethics. ACT: Early Childhood Australia.

Kennedy, A. (2016). Looking back, looking forward: What have I learnt about becoming and being an advocate and activist? In R. R. Scarlet (Ed.), The anti-bias approach in early childhood (3rd ed., pp. 297-302). Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.

Scarlet, R. R. (Ed.). (2016). The anti-bias approach in early childhood (3rd ed.). Erskineville: MultiVerse Publishing.