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The Journal Gazette


Sunday, September 02, 2018 1:00 am

Labor's asking about education

Picnic survey seeks people whose views seldom sought

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

If you go

What: Labor Day picnic, featuring free food and drinks, bingo, live music and children's activities

Who: The local AFL-CIO chapter and the Workers' Project are among several organizations that sponsor the picnic; United Auto Workers Local 2209 and Teamsters Local 414 are among the others

When: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday

Where: Headwaters Park East

Admission: Free and open to the public, no union affiliation required

This year's Labor Day picnic will offer all the usual freebies: food, drinks and fun. But it's another annual tradition that organizers hope will have lasting impact on the community: the survey.

For about the last decade, volunteers with the Workers' Project have asked picnic attendees to respond in writing to open-ended questions related to the economy. The local nonprofit wanted to record the experiences of people not usually given a voice, including the unemployed, poor and immigrant populations.

The survey is back again, but with a twist. This year's theme is public education.

Emily McKee, a teacher and an officer in the Fort Wayne Educators Association, said her peers realize they need to rally community support if they want to improve local public schools. The association is a labor organization that represents teachers working in Fort Wayne Community Schools.

“We want to create some change, and teachers can't do it alone,” she said.  

McKee is among those who are helping organize the Education Workers' Circle within the Workers' Project. A circle is a group of people with similar interests and concerns. The Workers' Project also has a Burmese Workers' Circle, a Hispanic Workers' Circle and is interested in forming more, based on local interest.

This year's survey will again be translated into Burmese and Spanish, allowing residents who are most comfortable using those languages to participate.

Tom Lewandowski, executive director of the Workers' Project, said teachers aren't the only ones whose opinions are critical. He wants to hear the concerns of custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, classroom aids, parents and other taxpayers.

“We want to hear the voices of everyone,” he said. “We just think that we need to have kind of a comprehensive look at this.”

The organizers are seeking both positive and negative observations about public education from kindergarten through postsecondary institutions. Students, parents and taxpayers in general have a huge stake in the system's success, Lewandowski said.

Interest in creating the education-related survey was sparked in June after some unionized Chicago teachers visited Fort Wayne and talked about grassroots organizing they had done.

McKee said a parent's comment made during that event stuck with her. That person said: “We are not educating children to their potential because of poor decisions made by politicians.”

She stressed that the Education Workers' Circle is open to anyone concerned about local education, not just people who work in schools.

The survey will be launched at the Labor Day picnic but will be distributed in various locations for a few weeks afterward to ensure diverse participation, Lewandowski said. In years past, as many as 500 people have participated in a single year.

After the responses are gathered into a report, members of the Education Workers' Circle will decide how and when to share them with the public, he said. They will also chart a path forward, deciding which issues to pursue.

Lewandowski's ultimate goal is to “give voice to particularly difficult problems” and for education workers at all levels to gain the respect he believes they deserve.

McKee wants to learn which issues resonate with the local community. She hopes “to get those talking points and find out what people really want.”