Jessica Tang was elected President of the Boston Teachers Union last summer and has been hitting the pavement ever since, working on behalf of Boston’s more than 10,000 teachers and paraprofessionals. Advocating daily to ensure that Boston public schools are the best they can be for students and teachers, Jessica recently lead the union’s vocal and successful opposition to charter school expansion. She is also the first person of color and the first member of the LGBTQ community to lead the union, not to mention the first woman in more than 30 years. Jessica is fierce and mighty, not to mention kind, and is accomplishing important change despite the nation’s less-than-ideal political climate. I left our conversation feeling ready to act; I guarantee you will too.
How has your own education shaped you and what you’re doing now?
Well, I went to public school growing up, and have always recognized the value of public education. I did go to Harvard and my experience there and with the Phillips Brooks House Association was also really foundational. In college, I took a lot of sociology classes that really exposed me to the kind of social justice that really inspired me to become part of education, but extracurricularly engaging with it was the most impactful for me.
Before this, you were a social studies teacher. How was being a teacher different from your current role?
Well, it’s very different. As a teacher, you are actively engaging with students everyday. In my current role, I’m thinking about education in a sense that’s broader and more big picture. I am working to support those same kids and teachers, but I’m not physically in the classroom on a day-to-day basis. For so many teachers, including myself, it’s really hard to make the decision to transition out of the classroom. I did so because I really wanted to help elevate the voices of teachers and students.
What about education made you realize that this is what you want to dedicate your life to it?
Education really touches so many aspects of social justice from economic security to climate change, not to mention race and class. We can’t ignore that these are forces that affect our students everyday, whether we want to address them or not. So for me, I saw this as a path where I could engage with many aspects of social justice at once and interact with children, which is what I really love to do.
You made history as the first woman of color and member of the LGBT community to helm the Boston Teachers Union. In our current political climate, where we are mostly represented by old, straight, white men; how important do you think diverse representation is, especially in terms of education?
I think representation is incredibly important. Having diverse representation in roles of power is so important, not only for those organizations, but also for others who see us and realize that they too have a voice and can be represented in that way. Especially in our union, which is majority women, it makes sense that we have people in power that can uplift our voices. I am proud, really proud, to hopefully encourage others to make their voices heard in public office.
So many of our readers are curious about running for public office thanks to women like you. How did you decide to run for President of the Boston Teachers Union? What drew you to this role?
It was a really hard decision to run. Running for office really opens you up and welcomes a lot of scrutiny. You’re really putting yourself out there in a public way. But it wasn’t just me, it was a whole team of people. The team is what made it happen; I really couldn’t have done it without the support I had.
What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of your job?
I mean, right now we are in a very difficult political moment and time in history. Not only at the national level, but also at the state level. Constantly working against many of the voices in power can be really really challenging. It’s hard to resist getting burnout when it sometimes feels like things aren’t set up for us to succeed.
What is your proudest accomplishment in this role or otherwise?
I really hope I impart a sense of this union as a energized body with the action and excitement needed to accomplish amazing things for teachers and students in the coming years.
Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.
Thank you so much Jessica! It was an honor to speak with you and we are so grateful for all of the work you are doing on behalf of children and schools. You are an inspiration to us all on what it means to make your voice heard and advocate for others as your life’s work. Thank you! (Photos provided by Jessica Tang)