Erica Nanton on International Solidarity, Class Unity and Uplifting Student Voices

Recently Alex Kogan of the University of the Poor interviewed Erica Nanton. Erica Nanton is a Miami-born and Chicago-based organizer, community leader and activist in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.  She has worked on initiatives in Chicago around education justice, police accountability, and racial and economic justice, as well as national work to hold those in power accountable. She was part of the struggle to raise the Cook County minimum wage to $13 per hour, and marched for 200 miles over 15 days in May 2017 from Chicago to Springfield, IL to fight for a People and Planet First Budget.  A member of the Local School Council at Southside Occupational Academy, her recent work includes registering inmates to vote at Cook County jail as part of Chicago Votes, where she served as a Community Engagement Manager. She works with a coalition of students, parents and teachers from Englewod, IL who are fighting the closure of public high schools in their area. She is currently a co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign in Illinois. At the time of the interview, Erica had just returned from speaking at a conference of the Bermuda Union of Teachers. 

Erica Nanton in Bermuda, where she spoke at the Bermuda Union of Teachers conference.

Erica Nanton in Bermuda, where she spoke at the Bermuda Union of Teachers conference.

Alex: Can you tell us about your organizing work?

Erica: I was organizing students in Englewood (a neighborhood in Chicago, IL) whose schools were being closed down. This activity connected me to the teachers’ union that had been in this fight for quite some time. Fifty other schools had been closed prior to the four Englewood public schools being targeted for closure. So it wasn’t a new fight, but it was a new attack targeting every single public high school at the same time.

I was working directly with students, with a framework that saw them as the liberators who were going to stand up, along with teachers and parents. Before that, work with school closures was very heavily focused around teachers and parents. We didn’t hear students’ voices, though they were the most directly impacted. 

I realized that the students who were being directly impacted by school closings were also the group of students from these different neighborhoods who experienced extreme poverty, who are very much demonized and stereotyped by our society because of the clothes they wear, their hairstyles, things like that. The narrative that was used to justify closures of schools was very much around the idea of their criminality, the idea that they were failing, that they were failures, rather than the fact that they had been failed. So I thought there would be nothing more profound than to have these very students be the ones to speak for themselves and to explain what the ramifications are for them.

For many of the students, this was their second or third school closing, and the studies show that one school closing is the equivalent of losing almost a year of education. It was just very pivotal that they could speak, so that’s really why I was working with them. 

Then I got involved with the Poor People’s Campaign, which allowed me to connect the work I was already doing with the communities that were directly impacted to a movement that was built across the country.

I was also invited to be on a panel with a student at one of the high schools that’s getting closed in Englewood. We were on a panel with teachers from Columbine who were in the building during the school shooting, as well as teachers from the wildcat strike from Virginia. We were discussing what it means to work directly with our student bodies in these big fights: in Columbine gun violence in schools, and here, school closures. [We talked about] what our work is like when we expand beyond the centralized unions, but also the people that unions serve, in this case children, students.

Columbine was a very historic political moment, but it was juxtaposed to the everyday violence that a lot of the students here in Chicago face when they walk out of school. 

A teacher from Columbine admitted that the students that she works with are pretty well off in general, and that neighborhood is a pretty wealthy community over there. Then we started to discuss the connection between the student’s experience in Englewood, trying to just save his school from being closed, and the student work that they’re doing at Columbine commemorating the shooting and how they do work around gun violence.

We talked about why they felt that the voices of certain young people and certain people and their struggles are not being heard in the same way, and how class plays into the issues being taken seriously, so to speak, or at least being seen as issues that should gain national recognition. Most of the violence that this student and his friends are experiencing is directly connected to the lack of education opportunities, directly connected to the lack of schools, mental healthcare facilities, and things like that. It’s just not typically made into a national issue the way that violence in wealthy communities is.

After that, I was invited to the Labor Notes conference to speak on my work with the teachers’ unions, on labor solidarity, and where those directly impacted fit into that fight. In the case of the student fight [against school closures], how do students fit in with the teachers’ union and so forth.

Alex: That’s when you got invited to the conference of the Bermuda Union of Teachers, right? How did that happen?

Erica: Yeah. I was gonna talk about the need for solidarity among unions and a global strategy to fight these inequalities. The ruling class transcends nation-states, and all the ruling classes work in conjunction. Our biggest mistake is that we don’t do the same.

I said, “You know, one thing that I notice is that when we have an issue, the teachers strike, and that’s great. When we have another issue with the truckers, they’re gonna strike, and that’s great. But if we strike together, we could bring this country to its knees.” The whole room went wild, and in that moment, I thought, “Say it now. Say it now.” So I said, “But, in addition to that, we have to look at our international strategy for rising up together. We won’t win as long as there are workers in Bangladesh making pennies on the dollar. As long as workers in other parts of the world can be exploited beyond measure, there will always be a proverbial gun to our heads to accept exploitation. Wherever we do not care that exploitation occurs, that is exactly where our exploiters will run to justify ours.”

It was awesomely well-received. I didn’t know at the time that there were international unions in the room. The Vice President of the Bermuda Union of Teachers came up after I got done and introduced himself. A month later he invited me to be the keynote speaker at the conference celebrating the union’s 100th anniversary.

He said [he invited me] because of what I said at Labor Notes一that’s what they had been looking to hear for a while. The union’s energy wasn’t where it used to be, especially with a lot of younger teachers coming into the union without understanding its importance.

This is a general pattern. As millennials begin to take on certain careers that have unions, many are not clear on the history of unions or why unions are important. They ask, “You want money for what?” If we don’t pay attention to [the attitudes of younger teachers], there could be a huge hole in what unionized fighting could do.

Alex: So what was the content of the conference in Bermuda? 

Erica: It was the 100th anniversary of the union’s inception, but it was the 35th annual conference. The Bermuda Union of Teachers is the oldest union on the island.

The theme was unity, which was connected to the message I gave at Labor Notes. The unity that we were speaking of was not just amongst the different countries and movements, it was about the unity among the people who are the most vulnerable.

For example, many times in the labor unions, we fight for home healthcare workers because they’re not making livable wages and they’re being exploited. But they are taking care of some of the most medically vulnerable populations. There is an opportunity for a united fight that we often miss. Labor serves the people一that’s what makes labor so powerful and necessary.

In this case, it was the teachers, so I spoke about the unity among the vulnerable populations they serve, students, and how that is where a lot of our power comes from. That is also where our unity, between the service provider and the served, is overlooked. The people who are sick, whom home healthcare workers are taking care of, have a stake in the fight for Medicare for all, for livable wages of the workers taking care of them and their families. What would it look like for us to have a united front? How much more packed would the streets be?

Alex: You mentioned that in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), student voices aren’t prioritized. How does that compare with Bermuda?

Erica: In conversations, it felt like some of the ideas I had about student involvement were new. A portion of the program included a comedy show, in which they mentioned that it wasn’t until the 2000s that spanking [was no longer allowed] in schools. The culture of the Caribbean island schools assumes that students have a place, so student leadership would be new for that culture, period.

Alex: What’s is the outlook of the Bermuda Union of Teachers on the broader labor movement in Bermuda?

Erica: Hospitality for tourism is one of the number one industries in the islands. Almost everybody’s job is connected to tourism. In some places a certain type of industry keeps the whole economy going. On the islands, most likely, a person [in any home you visit] is either a teacher, a public worker, or in the hospitality industry.

So when I spoke at the conference, I mentioned solidarity amongst the different workers here in this country, including hospitality workers and sanitation workers. I said, “If we think there is labor that is less deserving, then we ultimately hurt our own fight.”

I believe I challenged some perceptions. Because on an island, there’s definitely imperialism and colonialism, but it’s different from the United States. People who look the same are definitely a majority, so it’s not about looking a certain way. Most of the time you’re divided by class, because everybody looks similar. So, class and career and title have a lot to do with standing in society. It’s a thing that happens when race is not applicable for division.

So, what’s that look like? It looks like, “Oh, you clean toilets? I work for the government.” So what does that mean for a union, to break free from those narratives that are part of a culture? I think [what I said] resonated, because even if you’re a teacher in the union, you can’t throw a stone without hitting somebody who is a hospitality worker or a sanitation worker. For many people, that’s their family members.

Alex: You said that when you were talking about the need for organizing internationally at the Labor Notes conference, it was well-received, though unexpected. But that’s also part of why you got invited to the Bermuda one. Did the Bermuda Union of Teachers already have a deeper analysis of the need for international cooperation?

Erica: Yeah. The simple fact of bringing me there after hearing that was a big indication. But also when you’re an island that’s 65,000 people on a good day, you tend to understand you’re not the center of the universe. Whereas in the United States, everything around us tells us we’re the center of the universe. [In Bermuda], they gave me a newspaper when I got breakfast, and it was still about stuff in the United States. How often does our newspaper talk about what’s going on in Bermuda? A result of the humility that comes with being from nations which don’t get that kind of prominence is that you know you have to work together.

They’ve actually said they want to have me back for a conference with all of the Caribbean unions of teachers across all of the islands. It would be a really good opportunity to talk about what solidarity looks like among island nations. I definitely felt more clarity [about this solidarity], because of how we see ourselves. Thinking in the United States that we don’t need anybody, that they need us, as opposed to coming from a country which welcomes foreign people constantly because [the hospitality industry] is their bread and butter.

Alex: Is there a political party there that represents them?

Erica: The current party in power is a new party that reflects the overturning of a lot of the imperialistic rule they were under with the UK. They said that before, their parliament was almost all white people from the UK. Now the government is mostly people from the island. The current party gained power through the struggle against the imperial UK.

Alex: Caribbean immigrants are sort of at the intersection of black American struggle and Latin American immigrant struggles. What’s it like to see both and be in both at the same time?

Erica: You know, Chicago has shown me something about that I didn’t see before. Because Miami is an immigrant-based place. [Immigration] is in everything. The music, the food, the parties一everything. Chicago, on the other hand, is a very highly, visually segregated city. Because there are black neighborhoods, Latinx neighborhoods, and so on, there is a very American-centric view of what black is. Whereas people in Miami don’t assume you were born in America, they probably assume the opposite. That’s where I really got an eye-opener.

I’m in a black neighborhood now on the South Side of Chicago that’s 97% black, and I hear narratives like, “Immigration doesn’t have anything to do with black people.” “If you’re not a black American then you don’t have an experience that’s relevant to the struggle.” And I’m like, “Wow there’s black people that think like this?” Not that there weren’t black American descendants of slaves in Miami, but they are so intermixed with the Caribbean black immigrants on an everyday basis that you know your existence isn’t the only black experience.

In Chicago, though, there’s a lot of isolation, which can be dangerous. It’s the same connection that is behind a lot of gun violence. A lot of these kids have not even been downtown before. So when the only thing that you’ve ever seen is your block, you might be more willing to die for your block, because you don’t realize that the world is so much bigger.

Isolation prevents that level of understanding that can help us break through class struggle. I believe that that is one of the biggest evils of segregation. Not just the narrative of inferiority and superiority, but the isolation. We become the center of our own little mini-universes, and we don’t understand that our experience is not the only lens, and that we must incorporate other lenses to see the full picture.

Alex: What’s the relationship of the people still in the islands and the immigrant population here? A lot of times it seems that the immigrant populations that live here become sort of disconnected from the struggles back in their home countries and conversely, those countries don’t really connect to the struggles of their people that have gone elsewhere.

Erica: Our struggle sure is connected when it’s time to send money! Most of us who come from the islands and end up in the States are here sending money back, because everybody’s really struggling. Often, the struggles in the States tend to be looked at as nowhere near as severe. Particularly I know for my friends and family who are from Haiti it’s like, “Please, okay? Your American problems?” So there can be that element of, “You have no idea what devastation is. You have no idea what poverty is. So please, go sit somewhere with that.”

But then you have people in the Bahamas. In the Bahamas there is a little bit more stability in comparison with Haiti. A lot of people don’t know this, but the Bahamas has a very high Haitian immigrant population that has been there now for some decades. Now they consider themselves Bahamians, and some of the Bahamians have pushed back on that [by defining] who’s a real Bahamian and who’s not. They’re dealing with that in the Dominican Republic too.

There definitely can be a hierarchy about class, too. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. In the Bahamas we have shanty shacks and shanty villages and stuff like that, but it’s still not like Haiti. So there can be an air of superiority that [can prevent] solidarity.

For the most part, people who come from the islands to the United States, typically to Miami, are always in some way still connected to the islands. Everybody usually can’t come at once, so you always have one part of your family in one place and one part in the other. It’s hard to be disconnected.

So you might believe that these are “American problems,” until you visit your poor black family in America, and go, “Oh this is where y’all live? Where’s the pool at?” So some are very clear, but how clear would Americans be about Caribbean poverty if every time they go to the Caribbean they’re at a resort? How clear would Caribbean people be about American poverty if every time they come here, they’re on vacation?

That’s why it’s important to see the back-of-town. It’s not something you want your dignified guests to see. One of the biggest mistakes we make is when people come here we don’t show them the hood. We don’t take them to the devastation. We try to protect them in this bubble, and that keeps us from having that shared class struggle where we can see the similarities.