Being Informed is Not Enough

An interview with Madison CEA President George Williams
Email: GELOWIMS@EARTHLINK.NET 

George Williams doesn’t just believe in being an active part of his community, he lives it. In the North Florida community of Madison, George is the head custodian at Lee Elementary School, where he has worked for 25 years. He’s also the president of the Madison County Education Association, which represents teachers and education staff professionals (ESPs). He’s a member of the Executive Cabinet of the Florida Education Association, as well as being actively involved in other committees and councils, including the ESP Program and Policy Council. He is active in a similar council with the American Federation of Teachers and also serves the National Treasurer of the American Association of Classified School Employees (AACSE), where he is also the Chair of the AACSE Legislative Committee. And for nearly two decades, the ordained Baptist minister has been the pastor of the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Madison.

We wanted to learn a little more about his activism and get some of George’s thoughts about the importance of ESP members becoming more involved in the political process.

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Do you find that your work from the pulpit is compatible with your role as a labor activist? And how do you blend these two worlds?

Yes, most certainly, they are very much compatible. For the church, my work is to inform my brothers and sisters that God has a plan and a purpose for every man’s life, if only they would believe according to what the Scripture teaches us from the word of God. In the field of labor, my work is to inform my brothers and sisters that our lives can be so much better when we become a house united for the betterment of all workers. There is a need for workers to be treated humanely and fairly when they give the best of their energies in the service of others. And so, my work in both places is compatible because I give out a lot of information. I give people the opportunity to make informed decisions, whether it’s about religion or whether it’s about the union activities. My job is to inform them and to help give them the guidance that they need to make the appropriate decisions.

The professionals who work in our public schools are often reluctant to get involved politically, but the political process is a key component of so much that goes on in our schools -- from funding to curriculum to selecting the people on a local, state and national level who have an impact on our schools.

What do you do to motivate members and potential members to become more active in the political process?

I think I have to do is to do all within my power to make sure they have the understanding that any decision that are made by those whom we send to Tallahassee or to Washington, D.C., to represent us will eventually have an impact upon everyone of us. Each one of us are affected by those decisions. Today at a time when so much weight is being put on the quality and the deliverance of public education, it is now more important than ever that we the people become involved and help shape the structure of education, which is the great equalizer. Who knows the schools where our children learn, better than the people who work in them. So that is the reason that we have to become more politically active. We’ve got to help the decisionmakers understand what schools really ought to be and what they ought to look like.
Often lawmakers have no idea what kinds of roles ESPs have and their absolute importance to the smooth operations of our public schools.

How can we can better education lawmakers and decisionmakers about the roles ESPs have in our schools?

The only way we can significantly change that is that the ESPs have to become politically active, they have to become involved in the political process. They have to be the ones who introduce themselves to the legislators by saying “I’m George Williams, a custodian from Madison County. I’m an ESP.” And I believe that when we get enough ESPs involved in the process who can do it on a continuing basis, I think legislators will begin to know who ESPs are. We have to make sure that ESPs are involved in that. And I think the ESP-Program and Policy Council here in Florida is making great inroads in that. We are growing and getting stronger and helping ESPs understand the importance of us being politically active.

Are there similarities with the members you represent and your congregation?

In the church, they often don’t find themselves involved in politics because. for some reason or the other, they don’t believe that politics really affect them. And in the workforce, many people don’t believe politics has an impact on them. For whatever reason, many just choose not to be an activist for a strong and just political system. Being knowledgeable of the measure of weight that the political system has on us as citizens of this great country is a must. But being informed is not enough. We’ve got to move on to become active in the politics of their respective communities, state and nation. That’s the real challenge. In every newsletter I send out, in every piece of information I send to my members as a labor activist, I’ve got to make sure I include something about politics and its impact on us as individuals. I’ve got to impress on my members in our schools – and in my congregation – the importance of making sure their voices are heard. Because if we don’t speak as the people, there are those in other places who will speak for us. And their view, especially in public education, is not the same as ours and you tell that from things like No Child Left Behind and FCAT and the decimation those things have had on public education. If we allow people who don’t know public schools, who don’t teach in the classroom every day, who do not drive the school buses, who do not prepare the food, who do not clean the buildings, make the decisions, we get results like what we have right now.

What would you tell someone who says that they're simply not interested in politics?

This is what I would have to say: If you go to sleep tonight and dream that you really do not have an interest in decisions being made every day by those whom we elect and send to Tallahassee and Washington. You better wake up and apologize: Apologize to our children; apologize to our senior citizens; apologize to our small businesses; apologize to our teachers and support staff professionals. And then apologize to yourself for giving up your voice and allowing someone else to make decisions for you.

It’s important that our Education Support Professionals know that it’s critical that each of them get involved in the political arena. Start small, start in your local community. Visit your representative’s office. If the representative is there, go in and see him. If a staff member is there, go introduce yourself. Make sure you leave your contact information, so that they will know who you are when you call. And call frequently. Make sure they know you by name when they talk with you. Because that’s how we’re going to change the attitude of the Legislature about recognizing the importance of ESPs. Any time we’re in the presence of political leaders and staff, we give ourselves the opportunity to build relationships.

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