2011 NEA delegate Mass

I’ll take a few moments here to write a brief account of the NEA Delegate Mass that we held in Chicago on July 3. A fair number of my music colleagues have expressed some curiosity about this annual liturgy. A few years ago I blogged about the 2008 NEA Delegate Mass in Washington, DC, and an article based on that blog appeared in The Liturgical Singer, an NPM publication for cantors.

NEA’s Annual Meeting is an eight-day gathering of leaders from the largest professional association in the United States, and it incorporates a four-day meeting of NEA’s governing body, the Representative Assembly. The RA is the largest deliberative body in the world, with between 8,000 and 10,000 elected delegates.
The four RA days are grueling: state caucuses begin at 7:00 AM, and the RA meets from 10 AM to about 6 PM each day. The RA meets right through Independence Day (and holds its own celebration during the assembly) and whatever Sunday falls within the four days scheduled for its meeting.
Obviously, this schedule creates problems for those who wish to hold Sunday worship. For decades, some delegates have gathered for Mass and an interdenominational prayer service. Since 1996, I’ve been the music minister for the delegate Mass.
Thanks to the connections of a long-time delegate who is a lay Dominican, our celebrants have included a number of Dominican priests. They have included film director Dominic DeLay, composer James Marchionda, now-archbishop DeNoia, and Emiliano Zapata, a former president of an NEA local in Texas. This year’s celebrant was Father Richard LaPata, a former principal of Fenwick HS in Oak Park, Illinois.
The delegate Mass has a number of unique challenges.
  • We never know just when the Mass will start. NEA provides us a room in the convention center, but only after the RA has adjourned for the day. Delegates have to hoof it there quickly, and this year we started the entrance hymn while they were still arriving. At this Mass, the “processional” is frequently for the congregation, not the priest.
  • The time available for Mass is limited by the transportation schedule. NEA uses a system of chartered buses to transport delegates back and forth between the convention center and their hotels. Those shuttles run only for a limited time, and cabs are expensive, so the Mass needs to be “expeditious” while also being reverent.
  • The room is frequently arranged however it was left by the last session. We can usually set an altar up on a speaker’s platform, but typically delegates sit at tables for the Mass. This year we had a unique configuration: round tables–no aisles!
  • We were fortunate this year that NEA had left directions for the microphone and speakers to be left on..

Other than that, what is the Mass like? Most members of this annual congregation say that it is very moving. We do our best to make it like other Masses.

  • We have a cadre of Eucharistic ministers from all over the country. Usually the first six who arrive are the ones who distribute Communion.
  • Similarly, the first several lectors who arrive are put to work with copies of the readings for the day. This year’s Mass was the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and that’s about where the NEA delegate Mass typically falls in the liturgical calendar.
  • We never have any problem finding a hospitality and ushering ministry: these people are educators, and they’re used to taking over their space, whether it’s a classroom, bus, library, or in this case, makeshift chapel. Collections are put into whatever convention bags we can commandeer.
  • I’ve scheduled pretty similar music for the past few years: entrance hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” “I Am the Bread of Life” and/or “Pan de Vida” for Communion, and “America, the Beautiful” for the recessional.
  • When the convention is driveable, as it was this year, I bring my electronic keyboard and associated gear; when I have to fly to the convention city, I lead with just my voice.
  • We have a worship aid.
  • We have an emailing list to provide announcements and updates.

We typically have a congregation of a few hundred for this Mass, and delegates report that they look forward to it each year. We’ll be in DC again next year, and my guess is that we’ll be celebrating again in a room at the Washington Convention Center on Sunday, July 1.

Now Is the Summer of Our Discontent

I’ve attended sixteen NEA Annual Meetings. Two seem to me to have been more important than the others; both took place in New Orleans.

  • In 1998, NEA delegates rejected the “Principles of Unity,” which would have set us on a path toward a merger with the American Federation of Teachers. Along with a majority of the Ohio delegation, I supported the Principles, and it’s possible that the RA’s failure to adopt them helped set the stage for the second.
  • This year, RA delegates finally began to confront three uncomfortable truths that we should already have known. First, support of any candidate is a marriage of convenience: any office-holder will sacrifice virtually any ideal if it means being re-elected. Second, many Democratic officeholders have accepted the three basic tenets of Republican doctrine on public education: accountability, school choice, and the obstinacy of teachers’ unions. Third, public educators can rely on no one but themselves to understand and support their issues.

This RA was the least hopeful and the most angry of the ones I’ve attended. The delegates’ discontent is fueled by two realizations.

  • We are politically alone. The Democratic Party uses us and the Republican Party hates us.
  • We have so far been unable to energize our enormous membership base and realize more than a fraction of its political potential.

I don’t believe for a moment that we are wrong. Accountability and school choice are disastrous doctrines that, left unchecked, will destroy American public education. The teachers’ unions, far from blocking their members’ desires for reform, are accurately voicing concerns shared by the overwhelming majority of public educators.But I do believe that wishful thinking has dominated our internal dialogues and delayed our actually doing anything about the critical issues I have outlined here. In the weeks ahead, I am going to post an analysis of the issues I have raised here. I invite interested readers to come back from time to time and to post their own comments.

Thoughts upon Leaving San Diego

I returned Tuesday from eight days in San Diego, scene of the 147th Annual Meeting of the National Education Association.

NEA, with 3.2 million members, is the nation’s largest union. It holds its Annual Meeting over the Independence Day holiday every year in a variety of cities, returning to Washington in Presidential election years. The Annual Meeting typically brings together 15K-17K people; as a staff member, I am part of that number, but I am not a voting delegate.

The most remarkable feature of the Annual Meeting is the Representative Assembly. Every local within NEA is eligible to send a delegate to the RA, either on its own or (in smaller locals) by clustering with other locals, and members also elect some at-large delegates. The result is that the Representative Assembly typically runs between 9K and 10K voting delegates, making it the world’s largest deliberative assembly: think of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions combined, and then add 50% more delegates.

Unlike those venerable conventions, however, where state delegate chairs control who speaks, every NEA delegate is free to speak on any issue. (Fortunately, most do not. If every delegate spoke for two minutes even once, we’d be there for 300 hours!) So in addition to being the largest deliberative assembly in the world, it is also among the world’s most open.

(Although NEA is frequently painted as a liberal force, its members are far more evenly arranged along the political spectrum than its critics consider, and the delegates reflect that. Virtually every ideological movement is represented at the RA: at least two educators-for-life groups had space in the 2009 exhibit hall, and the wacky creationists had a booth there. Every year the Peace and Justice Caucus collects liberal social issues as if they were rare shells and then shows off their collection by advocating those issues as New Business Items and Legislative Amendments. Like the educators they represent, most delegates are more pragmatic than the extremes; most proposals from the ends of the spectrum lose.)

This year, NEA made an attempt to modernize its proceedings with some technological advancements. Many of the proceedings are posted on YouTube, and one of my favorites (which I had to miss because I had some NEOEA business to do during the RA) is the farewell speech of Bob Chanin, NEA’s longtime General Counsel. Chanin’s work with NEA began just as teacher unionism was heating up, and his 25-minute talk is an entertaining look at the past, present, and future of that movement. I recommend seeing it, and if I’ve done it right the YouTube version should appear here.

Some great quotes: on NEA’s decision to become a union, “NEA concluded that teaching is not akin to the clergy, that it is not unprofessional, unethical, or immoral for teachers to make a living wage, for teachers to have adequate fringe benefits, and most importantly, for teachers to have a voice in determining the conditions under which they spend every day of their working lives.”

On the opposition that NEA attracts from public-school critics: “The bad news (or, depending on your point of view, the good news) is that NEA and its affiliates will continue to be attacked by conservative and right-wing groups as long as we continue to be effective advocates for public education, for education employees and for human and civil rights.”

On the balance between education reform and union issues: “NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power, and we have power because there are more than 3.2 million people who are willing to pay us hundreds of millions of dollars in dues each year because they believe that we are the unions that can most effectively represent them: the unions that can protect their rights and advance their interests as education employees. This is not to say that the concern of NEA and its affiliates with closing achievement gaps, reducing dropout rates, improving teacher quality, and the like, are unimportant or inappropriate. To the contrary, these are the goals that guide the work we do. But they need not and must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, and collective bargaining. That simply is too high a price to pay.”