Brentwood West Middle School Social Justice
Hundreds of students from Brentwood's West Middle School gained new awareness about their role in shaping America's future when Robert Kennedy's daughter, Kerry, and NYSUT leaders met with them to discuss social justice issues in our state and around the world.

Inspired by Robert Kennedy's example, and skillfully guided by their classroom educators, students in the Long Island district used poetry and prose to tell stories about the world they live in and the changes they want to see.

"This was a day to celebrate the great work of our members and their students," said NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi, who participated in the day's events. "It was a very moving experience that reminded all of us that a union has to be a strong voice on social justice. Kerry Kennedy's visit provided the perfect link to the RFK curriculum that sparked the great work in Brentwood."

Students from the classrooms of Pamela O'Brien and Nicholas Scott, members of the Brentwood Teachers Association led by Joe Hogan, took center stage and created a forum for discussions with Kennedy, NYSUT leaders and other educators about the issues they raised.

Scott's students focused on whether universal civil rights are a basic human right. They studied and wrote about the nine international human rights agreements, of which the United States has only signed on to three.

When Kerry Kennedy addressed hundreds of students in the school auditorium, she told them their research on human rights was important because "you have the capacity to create change in your community, country and world. Our world has evolved because people came together and said the way we're being treated is not fair."

O'Brien's class focused on the theme of "Are people disposable?"

"This is an important question in a school district with 79 languages and 149 countries of origin," she said. "My eighth-grade English and elective students researched and evaluated issues of discrimination, tolerance and immigration."

Her students' poetry cut to the heart of the issues faced by farm workers — just one of the groups whose issues they studied.

Eighth-grader Oscar Riquet wrote:

"Carrying 60-pound bags without rest
Because they give animals the best
Means shouldn't I get a day of rest."

His classmate Kevin Rivers wrote on the same subject:

"I feel like a baby trapped in a sauna
I am too weak to do anything
It feels like the sun is tattooing my back forever."

Their poems led to a discussion about the farm workers' rights bill that is currently stalled in the state Senate.

NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler coordinated the visit with BTA leaders as part of NYSUT's goal to raise social justice issues in the state's classrooms.

Social justice is one of the cornerstones of NYSUT's mission, which also includes active communications, political voice, education and organizing.

"The power of the students' presentations is a reminder that these issues open doors in children's academic skills and their understanding of the world we live in," Cutler said. "I applaud these teachers and their local union in making their classrooms vibrant centers of debate and discussion."

NYSUT leaders from Suffolk County, Mel Stern, Nadia Resnikoff and Nancy Close, also attended, along with staff from the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, which assisted with the farm workers' curriculum.
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