Jim Davis/Globe staff
The most remarkable thing about Jessica Tang’s ascension as head of the Boston Teachers Union might be just how unremarkable it feels.
Tang’s election last week as president of one of the city’s most important unions was anticlimactic: She was unopposed. She’s the first person of color to head the union, the first member of the LGBT community, and the first woman in more than three decades. Since 1983, in fact, only two people, Edward Doherty and the retiring Richard Stutman, have led the city’s teachers.
But Tang, 35, is a brilliant and passionate advocate for public schools and their teachers.She has learned the art of fiercely defending positions without sparking personal animus, and her rise through the union ranks has been so seamless that she was elected to the presidency unopposed.
She takes office at a challenging time for the union, which is locked in a contentious contract negotiation with the city. This is also a watershed moment for teachers unions in general, facing fire from several directions.
“The only organized body standing in the way of privatizing education is teachers unions, and I do believe that’s why teachers unions are under attack,” Tang said last week, the day after her election. “The idea that unions obstruct learning, that’s just not true. That whole narrative that unions are the reason that public schools are bad, that’s just wrong.”
Tang said her interest in social justice led her to become a teacher. That was nurtured early by parents who took her to a food pantry every Thanksgiving to help serve meals.
But she became an activist as an undergraduate at Harvard, where she was involved in an array of progressive causes, from working in a homeless shelter to protesting displacement in Chinatown.
“In college, I really learned about service and advocacy,” she said. “And also you learn about social inequities. And once you learn about them — at least for me — you have to do something about it. You can’t just sit back and do nothing once you know that there’s injustice.”
Most significantly, she volunteered to tutor students at the Mather School in Dorchester as a Harvard freshman. Tang eventually ran the tutoring program. She had found her vocation.
A sociology major, she became a social studies teacher upon graduation. She became involved in the union while teaching at the Gavin Middle School, a pilot school in South Boston. She became convinced that she could have greater influence on policy as a union organizer than as a classroom teacher. She hadn’t gone into teaching with any labor background — her parents are scientists — but quickly immersed herself in its culture.
As for the firsts she represents, Tang said she’s representative of an organization — and a school district, for that matter — that has become increasingly diverse in every way. Her presence, she says, challenges stereotypes about what unions, and their bosses, look like.
“I’m proud to be the first,” she said. “I’m proud to be a woman; I’m proud to be queer. We’re 40 percent diverse. I think it’s a good thing.”
Not surprisingly, Tang was part of the union’s vocal, and successful, opposition to charter school expansion last year. She frames the issue as a matter of draining precious resources away from underfunded traditional public schools.
I don’t completely agree, but there’s a strong case to be made that public schools, and the people who teach in them, suffer from a severe deficit of appreciation.
Fighting for the regard she believes teachers deserve is a driving force for the Boston Teachers Union’s new leader.
“I would like to see the teaching profession get respect,” she said. “I would like for our union to be heard, and to be part of the solution. And I believe we have to rebuild the labor movement. I’m fighting for teachers, of course, but I’m thinking about all workers and what kind of society we’re going to live in.”
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