Tragedy struck during Jessica Tang’s third year of teaching at Gavin Middle School: A promising student perished in a South Boston house fire while trying to protect her little sister, exposing cracks in the state’s social service system.
The 2008 death of Acia Johnson would turn into a defining moment in Tang’s career, revealing the painful limits of what teachers can do to help students. The tragedy also inspired Tang’s work as a union leader, galvanizing teachers, students, and parents to advocate for more social services in schools.
Now, at age 35, Tang, who is Chinese-American, is poised to become the first person of color to lead the Boston Teachers Union in its 52-year history — and the first woman in more than three decades. She is running unopposed.
The teachers union president wields considerable power and can influence major education policies and budgeting decisions that directly affect the working conditions of union members, from the length of school days to the size of pay raises to job protections.
“I know this won’t be an easy job, and that’s part of the reason why I stepped up to it,” said Tang, who spent eight years as a classroom teacher. “We are in a tenuous time. We are in a fight for the future of the union and labor unions, and it’s a critical time for the social justice movement.”
Tang’s ascension to the post will represent a generational shift in power, ushering in a millennial at a time when young adults tend to be apathetic about unions. She will replace a retiring baby boomer, Richard Stutman , who has been in the job 14 years.
But her election is not expected to result in a philosophical shift in the union’s policy positions.
For instance, Tang, who campaigned against a lifting of the charter-school cap last year, supports less standardized testing and more money for public education, and she has vowed to fight aggressively for the union’s proposals in contract negotiations, which are heading to state mediation.
“It’s frustrating,” said Tang, who is a member of the negotiating team. “Our teachers want to know why we don’t have a contract.”
Many sticking points remain, such as the size of salary increases and extra staff for classrooms that serve students with disabilities, according to recent updates by the union. The average teacher salary is more than $90,000. About 75 percent of Boston teachers are women, and 62 percent are white.
In running for president, Tang is working with a diverse slate of candidates vying for other positions who are stressing inclusiveness in the 10,000-member union. For Tang, that builds on her work over the last four years as the union’s founding director of organizing.
Tang has emerged in that position as a go-to person for teachers who have issues at their schools or want to spearhead an effort to seek social, racial, and economic justice for the students and families they serve, such as creating environments in which undocumented students feel safe. Teachers describe her as an accessible and tireless advocate who is willing to listen and take action.
“It’s about time our leadership reflects the student population we have and our community,” said Susan Trotz, a retired guidance councilor who also appreciated Stutman’s leadership. “Jessica’s emphasis on engaging membership on social change is something all unions have to do.”
Tang’s election also means that two of the city’s most prominent education posts will be held by Asian-Americans. The other is Superintendent Tommy Chang, who said he is looking forward to working with Tang.
“If you ask her what she cares about, she’ll tell you she cares about kids. So, I think that is foremost — beyond race and culture, we care about the same values,” Chang said.
In the time since the union’s first female leader, Kathleen Kelley, stepped down in 1983 to end a four-year run, the union has had only two other people in the post: Ed Doherty and Stutman.
Kelley said she was thrilled another woman would be in charge.
“There are a huge number of women who are in the union and to have them recognized in this way says something: Women are intelligent and important and can do any job they want,” she said. “That kind of thinking, unfortunately, has not always been the case.”
Tang, who is a member of the LGBT community, said she hopes to serve as a role model for students, especially those who are coming to understand their own sexual orientation.
Stutman has thrown his support behind Tang.
“She is smart, articulate, and caring,” Stutman said. “She understands our issues, both locally and nationally.”
Tang also is interested in working with teachers, administrators, and the School Department on creating “community schools,” which bring in health services and community partnerships, and she calls for creating personalized lessons for students that emphasize real-world learning and problem-solving.
Her interest in community schools was sparked by students like Acia Johnson, who confronted a number of challenges at home that prompted repeated interventions from the state’s social service department. Despite that, Acia was excelling for the most part in classes and on the basketball court at the Gavin — until the fatal house fire took her life, and that of her sister. The girls’ charred bodies were later found clinging to one another in an upstairs closet.
“It broke my heart,” said Tang, who was also Acia’s basketball coach, as her eyes welled with tears. “At the end of the day, there were other factors I couldn’t help her overcome. That certainly was one of the life events that impacts you.”
Tang was recently reminded of Acia when she lost her own home in Dorchester to a fire. One of the few items she was able to salvage was a small green pillow with a white clover that Acia made and gave to her.
Tang, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard University, had an unconventional path into the union ranks. As the youngest daughter of two scientists who bounced around the country, she did not grow up in a union household.
She admits that when she joined the school system in 2005 she knew little about the union and occasionally found herself frustrated or confused by some of its positions. So she decided to get involved, becoming a union representative for the Gavin in 2007. But initially it was awkward.
At the time, she was among a group of teachers who were advocating to convert the Gavin into a pilot school, which would allow it to operate with some autonomy from central office mandates and union contract rules, in an effort to prevent it from closing.
But the Boston teachers union was aggressively fighting the expansion of pilot schools because they give principals more freedom to push out teachers. Gavin teachers voted down the proposal.
“We were in between a rock and a hard place,” said Tang, who eventually was elected to the union’s executive board. “In hindsight, it’s not great to be put in a position where essentially they are going to close your school if you don’t make that change.”
The Gavin closed in 2011, a year after Tang left.
Natalia Cuadra-Saez, who is in her third year of teaching, praised Tang for making new teachers feel like they are part of the community, recalling when Tang tapped her to serve on a committee for new teachers.
“I think a lot of people feel like when you are new to an organization or district that you feel overlooked, but Jessica is the one plugging people in,” Cuadra-Saez said.
Malikka Williams, co-chairwoman of the Citywide Parent Council, said Tang also seeks to draw parents into discussions about education policy and advocacy work.
“Jessica is the type of person who knows what needs to be done and figures out a way to get it done,” Williams said, “and she also knows how to get players to play nicely in the sandbox.”Meghan Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.