Saturday, August 20, 2016

My Summer Tour

By Melissa Love Light Tomlinson, Assistant Executive Director of BATs

A quick note to all of my Deadhead friends and family...this summer tour isn’t quite what you would expect, but stick around and give it a may appreciate it!

After NEA RA last year I wrote a post about the parallelisms that I found when attending the 2015 RA in Orlando, Florida. I wrote about how I found the same sense of family and sisterhood from my union brothers and sisters.  (
Again this summer I am reminded of my days spent traveling around following the Grateful Dead, both while Jerry was alive and after his passing. But my tour this summer was not spent listening to the band and dancing my way across the country. Instead, this summer I spent my time on an educational activist tour, doing the work of my union and of BATs.

People always used to ask me, “Why do you spend so much time traveling around to hear the same band play the same music?” I used to try real hard to explain that it wasn’t just about the band and the music. My tour experiences were more about the time spent traveling from place to place, the people I met and forged relationships with, the experiences that we shared.

It’s also about the journey, not just the destination. Thinking about this summer, I realize that this still holds true.

dand co.jpgThe summer ‘tour’ opened up right after school ended with a Badass Teachers Association (also including South Jersey United and NJ 15 Now) table at a concert venue in Camden, NJ. Manned by two local sister warriors that I can always count on, Carolyn Schultz and Kelley Morris. We had partnered with Head Count for their Participation Row initiative that allows local community organizations to table for their cause as a part of bringing about awareness of voter rights and responsibilities. 

First leg of travel on this summer tour took me back to Washington DC, where I spent 10 days. Just traveling there for me was a new adventure, since this was my first time taking the train, except for shorter in-city rail trips. Even standing in line to board the train I bumped into another NJEA member, Mike, also heading down for the RA. We got separated from sitting together on the train, but it was great to have someone to follow when I got off the train to navigate my way out of Union Station.

During the first seven days of this trip, my ‘tour buddy’ for RA was Carrie Odgers. Just as I used to get excited about growing my tour family larger by introducing new friends into our family, I was very excited to bring Carrie to meet the NEA BAT Caucus. They were so welcoming and helpful. (Not that there was a doubt in my mind that they would be anything but!) Just like a mutual recognition that used to be acknowledged when true ‘tour’ friends realized a mutual love and respect for the music and the deadhead way of life, a mutual respect was immediately developed around the recognition that we all hold in our hearts a strong sense of unionism, union family, and the work that needs to be done to value and strengthen it.

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 2.23.19 PM.pngFrom quick morning oatmeal and coffee, to sharing our lunch, then late night dinners with Lebanese coffee, running up and down escalators, making sure we all had everything packed in our bags, bringing extra clothes for nicer dinners, extra water, pens and RA books, Carrie and I were joined by Marla Kilfoyle as the three of us worked through the week.  We created a human rhythm that enabled us to work on NBI’s, attempt to rewrite policy, act to influence the NEA, run the BAT table, fulfill our responsibilities to the BAT Caucus, and still manage to have an amazing time while doing it all by meeting new friends and connecting with old ones that we only get to see in person once a year. We GOT SHIT DONE!
Immediately after the RA ended on the last day it was time to pack and head across the street to the next hotel to get ready for the SOS Rally for Public Education and Social Justice. Somehow, I managed to get lost from one hotel door to the other! (Don’t ask, I have a horrible sense of direction.) After waking Marla up with a phone call, I finally found my way with her staying on the line to make sure I arrived safely. Not the first time that a friend has done that for me.

The next morning was the start of the culmination of nine months of hard work that many people had dedicated time towards. Getting to the Lincoln Memorial moments before the city was placed on an active shooter alert just emphasized the importance of the messages of the day. We are in danger of losing our collective fight to bring an end to institutionalized racism, including corporate control of our schools unless we stop operating in our silos and join together to show the intersectionality of all of our issues and join together to stand up and fight back.

Traveling to shows with a core group of people, we used to develop almost a routine that would make sure we got there safely, with everything we needed, and then on to our seats, relying on these routines to guide us and not allow us to get too overwhelmed with the excitement of what we were about to experience. I realized, after running around the Lincoln Memorial like a madman, trying to help set up that I just needed to trust the routine and get into the rhythm and trust the work system that Marla and I have already set up through our past few years of partnership. Once I remembered to relax and trust, I was able to enjoy the day. So much has been written about the amazing speakers that graced us with their presence that I could not even begin to add more to conversation. But just like a line from every live song I ever heard has touched my heart, each speaker made some statement during their speeches that resonated within me.

Loving when my two worlds collide, I danced with joy up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when the BAT Band hit the stage. I joined hundreds of people as we walked from the Memorial to the Ellipse, interacting with the crown along the way as I walked through them, live streaming on Facebook for others to view a piece of what we were experiencing. We gathered at the ellipse to end in the rain, cooling us after a long hot day in the beating sun, no less of a miraculous cleansing shower than those that would occur suddenly during a long hot stadium show. Returning back to the Memorial, I looked around to see my true brothers and sisters, working alongside of me to clean up and erase all marks of the spectacular day cleaned up and packed up to leave.

As I became more of a tour veteran from having attended many shows in different places, I began to grow an appreciation for the different venues in which I saw the band perform and the histories of the different places and buildings. Nothing could compare to the sense of awe that overwhelmed me during the day we spent as guests at Howard University. This was underscored by my recent reading of Ta-Nehisi Coates's book, Between the World and Me. This day is marked in my mind for the fact of where I was, along with the friends I met and new relationships that were formed. Speaking with (Dyett) I could feel the inner strength she posses that must have carried her through the days of the Dyett Hunger Strike to save her community’s school. I was honored to walk away with a piece of glowing aura from Bishop John Selders. I was hugged by Faya Rose, and
recognized by Barbara Madeloni. But it was in the moments that I snuck in during lunch break, alone, walking around the green, visiting the trees of the different fraternities and sororities, that I realized the significance of our day. It was the short walk I took off of campus to follow the music I was hearing from the live radio broadcast down the street, interspersed with messaging of people coming together to stand strong, coming together to stand up for what was right and the DJ interwove his thoughts with the music.

True to the deadhead sense of ‘all things happen for a reason” and that the universe provides what is needed when it is needed, it was really no surprise that a #BlackLivesMatter march started outside of the Busboys and Poets that we had convened at for dinner that evening. Weaving our way to the front of the line of marchers, it was great to be greeted by the smile of a new friend, Jeff Canady, as we joined the chants of “No Justice...No Peace!” Walking through the crowd with Kathleen Jeskey was reminiscent of the days when I would grab a friend’s hand and we would weave our way through the crowd to get close to the stage. 

Screen Shot 2016-08-17 at 2.45.27 PM.pngJoining Jamy Brice Hyde and Marla Kilfoyle In Minneapolis for the AFT Convention was like going back to a familiar show at a place you might call your second home. The three of us have traveled often and experienced many things together in the past few years. The comfort of traveling with old friends allows a person to feel very comfortable in one’s surroundings, where they may be, and gives you a chance to open up to new experiences. In Minneapolis, just like when traveling to shows, I reconnected with old friends that I had not seen a while and loved every moment that we spent catching up and hearing about life events that shaped the paths that we had travelled to get there. As always, Richard Franklin had a heartbreaking story to share, one that reminded us about the importance of focusing on the bigger picture as we face and conquer the smaller battles. We were honored to walk with him and hundreds of other teachers, parents, and community members in a protest that called for an independent investigation of the death of Philando Castile. Hanging out with Chicago Teachers Union and UCore, two groups that greatly showed their appreciation for the presence of the newly formed AFT BAT Caucus, renewed and revitalized our feelings of union solidarity. Much like discussions that I used to participate in that compared different shows on the summer tours, now I was participating in conversations that compared the NEA RA (less action oriented, lacking in union mentality) and the AFT Convention (less democratic).
Returning home to work for a week, i sat and watched facebook and Twitter 
for posts from my friends and acquaintances, live from the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. Much like I used to wait to hear about setlists and special moments of shows that I was unable to travel to, I viewed their pictures and comments to keep abreast of events that the media was not reporting about at the convention, pop-up rallies on the parks and in the streets, walkouts from disgruntled Bernie supporters, direction cards passed out for the convention attendees to drown out crowd calls that were not on point with Hillary’s messaging.
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The next trip took me to Raleigh North Carolina and was a surprise bonus for me because I had originally thought that I was not going to be able to go. Going to the UCORE National Conference was like being witness to the sweetest show of the tour - the one that all of the fans say “That was the one to be at!” It was the conference that filled me with hope about what still could be - if we are ready to face the work that we need to do. Friendships were formed and relationships started as we discussed how we can help each other reach a common goal - to fight for the schools that our students deserve. The one thing that made this trip even more special was the car ride to and from North Carolina - what is said in the car, stays in the car!

Returning to NJ, I did not even get to go home as I immediately left for NJEA’s Summer Leadership Conference. I always approach these conferences with some hesitation as they have not been exactly what I was looking for in the past. But circling back to end my tour as it begun, with Carrie Odgers, I had the pleasure of also spending the time with some members of my local association and members of the support staff local in my district. More relationship building.

It’s not just the moments of the big events that drift through my mind as I think back about those this summer, it is those moments in between, when you sit and have a real conversation with a person, when you join a friend for a quick quiet moment and a chance to catch your breath, when you participate in a small group discussion with like-minded people that end up staying with you.

It’s the ability of a friend, like Carrie Odgers to know what you need before you do. It’s friends like Carolyn Schultz and Marie Corfield that are prepared to stand up to the mic to speak at a moment’s notice. It’s the surprise gift from Marla Kilfoyle which is now your favorite item of clothing. It’s the response that Michael Flanagan gives you, without hesitation, when you ask him to bring his guitar to the social because you feel the need for music. It’s the calming hug that Michelle Gunderson gives you when you finally have a meltdown about the violence that our country was exposed to during the week. It’s the late night patio conversations with Denisha Jones that help you see someone else’s reality. It’s the development of the understanding of union sisterhood you experience when around Becca Ritchie. It’s the lunch invitation extended by the Washington BATs as you wait for your time to go back to Union Station. It’s the time spent getting to the station with Roberta Reid that make you feel honored for knowing her.

It’s the familiarity of traveling with and bunking with the same people over and over again. Yet, it’s the excitement of building new friendships and growing ones that have just begun. It’s the welcoming kindness of a group of people that have labored together for a long time that ask you what they can do to help you. It’s the mutual appreciation and respect we all have of the work we are all doing and the accomplishments we have all fought hard to win.

It’s the little, in-between moments, the journey and the travel, that become so much more important than the actual destination.

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