Mar 29, 2022
Djibril Diop, Director of Government Relations at the Washington Education Association, joins Crystal for a conversation about WEA’s advocacy work to support educators statewide. They dig into how protecting the interests of their members leads to better education, thereby benefiting all students and the future of Washington state. As the pandemic has shown us, schools have an enormous impact on our daily lives and we need to equip them with resources and create sustainable pathways for the dedicated folks who choose teaching as a profession. The two wrap up with what criteria to use when evaluating candidates’ education stances.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
WEA - Washington Education Association: https://www.washingtonea.org/
WEA - 2022 Legislative Priorities: https://www.washingtonea.org/advocacy/2022-legislative-priorities/
“Making huge strides forward for our students” from WEA Advocacy Blog: https://www.washingtonea.org/advocacy/ourvoice/post/making-huge-strides-forward-for-our-students/
WEA-PAC - 2022 Election Endorsements: https://www.washingtonea.org/advocacy/2022-election-endorsements/
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington State through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
So today, I am so excited to have Djibril Diop with us, who is the Director of Government Relations at the Washington Education Association. And just - he is bringing so much experience and capability and political will and passion to this position - I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him on the show and to make sure all of us are familiar with who he is and what WEA is doing. So thank you so much for joining us, Djibril.
[00:01:11] Djibril Diop: Thank you, Crystal.
[00:01:12] Crystal Fincher: So I wanted to start out just helping people understand who you are, how - what your path was to land where you're at now with the WEA, and then talk about what the priorities of the WEA are and what you're doing.
[00:01:28] Djibril Diop: I feel like my past was a succession of accidents, but I feel like I stumbled my way to Washington in a good place and at a good time. I didn't have any prior relationship to Washington State before coming here - spent over a decade working in the California State Senate - various jobs there. And again, the same way I've landed in Washington by virtue of a series of accidents, I feel like I've landed in politics by virtue of a series of accidents. It's been a pretty good path and I'll get into it in a bit - as being someone that wasn't born in America and so familiar with US politics and culture - to be immersed in the line of work that I'm in now, so -
[00:02:16] Crystal Fincher: Okay, so you just were so incredibly modest in your description of your path then, but it really is underselling what you were doing when you said that you worked in the California legislature. You were a Chief of Staff in the California Senate - what was that like? And how did that propel you here?
[00:02:39] Djibril Diop: Well, yeah - there's always that conversation about California being the fifth or sixth economy in the world, and certainly while working in the legislature, we sounded that off quite often - from establishing what was the California economy all about, what did we want to market out? And this is when you kind of see the scope of what is it to be an executive and one of the largest stakeholder in the global economy, certainly. And for me, serving as the Chief of Staff was something that I like to say was - could have been offered to someone who is a former basketball player, an immigrant, and someone that you didn't have potentially the greatest interest into walking into politics - that pathway was offered to me in California. It gave me a lot of life lessons and I've met quite a bit of interesting folks, but I think that one of the things that I took away was - yes, this being a people business - people business for people by the people. And that was the part of the trade that attracted me the most about staying in this line of work.
My colleagues at the time were a lot of folks that had graduated from the Ivy league institutions and they were gunning their whole life to serve as a Senate aide or California Assembly aide. But my path was quite different - I ended up, after graduating from college, I ended up working for AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, under the leadership of one of the very few African-American leaders. He distilled in me a lot of the optimism that I have now about what is politics all about, and what is my place within it? What are the possible outcomes as a result of working in the political circles - a chance to work with him and one of my greatest mentors, Willie Pelote. And then, my first job in the Legislature was working for an extremely strong woman, Carole Migden - back then she was the State Senator out of San Francisco who taught me how to dream in reality. She was part of the cohort of queer legislators on the journey to get through marriage equality. And I thought that was - to me, to see - she was a petite Jewish lady from New York who was highly aggressive and she was extremely strong and - learned so much from her, in her passion for getting to marriage equality.
[00:05:34] Crystal Fincher: Well, that makes sense. 'Cause one of the things that I've definitely noticed about you is the sense of optimism that you bring - coming from a place of hope more than cynicism - and really pushing for what is right and what is possible. And also your strength in forging relationships. You're the Director of Government Relations at WEA. What does that entail?
[00:05:58] Djibril Diop: First off, I want to say how much of an honor it is to me to having stepped into that position. I know there's a lot of talented people in the state - coming here at WEA, you get a sense of how established this organization is - both in terms of the staff that is around me, that is very talented, but also the leadership. So I feel like I'm stepping into a good place - I'm stepping into a structure that is well organized and has had some success in the past. So that provides a certain level of comfort for me realizing I can come in within WEA.
One of my responsibilities is to lead the GR department, which - we have a team of lobbyists. Also, we have a team of political organizers that work and administrative staff. But the real goal is to work with our Board to make sure that we have direction, goals that are consistent with our values, to make sure that we step in with the ability to be culturally sensitive - as judicious as we could in terms of advancing the equity discussion in the state of Washington. So that was a very attractive position for me, which is to work with the largest - one of the largest stakeholders in the state of Washington - and be able to formulate and foster an environment where we can be helpful in this state to be a more equitable setting going forward. So, my role at WEA has been to work with the Board, make sure that my team is well managed - so those are two key components.
[00:07:38] Crystal Fincher: You talk about how important it has been for you to also have talented staff, and I just want to call out Samantha Casne and Emily Hansen - as just two incredibly dynamic and talented leaders in their own rights, who also do excellent work over there at WEA, and certainly are a testament to the entire team. So I guess in terms of just policy and the types of candidates that you want to see elected, the type of policy that you want to see them pass - what are the priorities that you're looking at?
[00:08:13] Djibril Diop: That's a great question. I'm pretty proud of the work that my members were able to do this year, along with the team obviously, in securing some benefit for our membership this year. Certainly, inflation is everybody's problem - the fact that us educators, who have a big portion of the state funding and we are very appreciative of that, but I think that people have to realize that - I work for a union - our union is centering around protecting the interests of our members. But we know, and very well understand, that our union wouldn't exist without the students. We are here to serve the students - making sure that we have policies that are beneficial to our members, for the benefit of teaching the students in the best way possible - because we understand how critical the role of education is not just for this state, but for this country going forward.
That's what we're not bashful about - pushing legislators to continue to invest in our educational system. We believe that this is not only a civil right, but a strategic investment that needs to be continued year after year. And so I think that this year, when we're looking at all the questions that educators have faced, we - this has been a tough two years for us - we had to change the modalities of instruction, tool suites. Our members were not prepared or trained for that purpose - bear in mind, we're not higher education. And I worked with faculty members before and online education is lot more present in higher ed - is doing a lot of technical changes, a lot of additional burden for the membership. And I felt that the members reacted the best that they could. I feel like we have a pretty patient membership. We are in every corner of the state and we have very strong, diverse opinions within the membership. And that also creates additional pressure at this time where we know that COVID created culture wars, community created culture wars, and then politics created culture wars - that ended up blending in the education lab.
Discussions that were started in political offices end up being debated in school board meetings. We can go out to this politicization of our education, but I feel like that I'm very proud of the work that our members have done this year. My union has been strong in making sure that we are not censoring our education curriculum, that we are not whitewashing our history - because that's important, especially for someone like me to be in the position that I am - to be honest about the conversation that we are having - whether or not we should continue to defend education at what level. I don't understand how that is a question - question as to whether we should censor part of our education to make part of our electorate more comfortable? That is just not - that is out of question - that's not going to happen under my leadership. I'm a parent, and I have three kids in school. I want the best for them. And I do think that - me being in this position now, as you said - allowed me to work for an organization that values the same values that I have, where group of members are well-intended, and to be completely real for a huge body of work to be tackling.
[00:11:44] Crystal Fincher: So many of the issues and challenges for society are so present in the classroom in so many ways - how do you negotiate all of that with the members? And when you listen to them and hear from them and talk about their priorities, how does that drive what you're pushing for? What are the biggest things on the agenda right now?
[00:12:07] Djibril Diop: My members are everyday people. They're working families and some of them are seniors. We have some very young members coming in. And I think that for the vast majority of them, they have been put in a situation where we need to help them stay in the profession. One of the main concern that I have is making sure that we continue to shore up educators within the profession - that we provide some incentive for folks to want to join our ranks. This is not an easy pathway - for folks to want to be educators in the long run.
And I think that, as you mentioned before, my members have to do a lot of - a range of services - folks were maybe not understanding what is entailed to be an educator in the classroom. You're going to have to deal with a lot more than just telling kids what they should do. You have to understand them, you're going to have to cajole them, you have to reassure them, you're going to have to help them brush their teeth sometime. And I think that that's a representation of how much time we as parents have. How much can we allocate for our children? And I think that when you're looking at that, then you realize that schools have a much greater impact on your daily life than you could ever assume.
We are trying to focus going forward - as I mentioned, having a student-centric approach - because my members, my Board understand very well that putting our best foot forward to make sure that the children have the best experience will allow us to have the best working condition, will allow us to do our job in the best way possible. We've invested quite a bit of energy this year in supporting a great investment in mental health supports for our children - that was a big part of our agenda this year. We're going to continue to push for that going forward because we realized that this is not just a post-COVID situation - this is about creating the level of wraparound services around our kids that will give them the tools to be successful. The ability to communicate well with parents through the ability to serve the students with the type of services that they need - we feel will equip our schools for the 21st century.
I see personally our schools as being community leaders, but they need to continue to work for - work hard to make sure that we create those community alliances and that we maximize our members' work by making sure that they have the tools needed for them to be successful. We started the pandemic without computers and without broadband, so it was not where we needed to be.
[00:14:57] Crystal Fincher: So you talked about making sure that it's a student-centered environment that educators understand and have support to do their job well. And that we need to retain teachers and make sure that we keep the professionals who are currently in those positions in them - and that they don't leave the profession - that it is a supportive and rewarding environment. What kinds of things can we do moving forward to help with that?
[00:15:25] Djibril Diop: Well, thank you for the question. I think that there should be - an educator - there is a certain pathway that you take. And so . Part of that pathway, we felt was not needed - or creating, or preventing access. We feel that there is some need for increasing access for BIPOC groups within the profession. And I think that there's a host of assistance that can be provided - as you know, to become an educator, you have to have some level of residency, which is costly for folks to be able to do without getting paid. So just like what we are doing, like apprenticeship for certain trade job, the thing that you can point to is that we create an easier pathway for folks to join the profession. And provide some financial assistance so they can, in fact, look at the possibility of becoming an educator when you have very little means.
WEA is working with OSPI right now to try to figure out ways to accentuate the number of subs through the certification process. We hope that we can be part of this effort to help train more educators and certify them so they can be in the classroom. I need to give them time, but I think that it's more for societal discussion - post-COVID, what do you want to invest your tax dollars for? Our discussion is that certainly you do not want to give tax cuts to the rich - we want to make sure that we have a tax system that is progressive and I think that the state will come out in a better light - just saying that it's about using that same progressive strategy to make sure that we are in fact investing in places where we are helping people. And we feel that schools - when you're looking at the relationship between the worker, their kids, and what the kids are learning in the school, there is a multiplier of benefits there.
And we also, from a competitive advantage standpoint, we know that a well-educated population will lead to better economic results. In it all, I've heard a lot of discussion about - especially in my time in higher education - about when I was younger, I used to work two or three jobs and be able to make ends meet while being a student. This is not the same conversation that you're having in 2022 - you have to work like 12 jobs to be able to make ends meet at our current level of tuition. And I think that looking at that, you realize that there's a lack of empathy for the students that are going through these very expensive, higher education process that we have now.
And when you're looking at K-12 - it's the same thing - we have to find empathy for the students that are going to our schools today. When we talk about empathy, we're saying that - invest in the resources that are needed so those kids can be successful. This is - there's no greater investment than making sure that those kids get a chance. My members have chosen to work in that profession - bear in mind that this is not the most rewarding profession from the monetary standpoint - in a society that doesn't really value making a professional direction that is not - where you cannot capitalize as well. You have to understand that my members want to be there. So I do find sometime that WEA, as a union, is one of the few organizations actually advocating for your kids.
[00:18:55] Crystal Fincher: Yeah, and that they're so closely tied. And sometimes there are - there are groups, certainly, some extremist and anti-tax and anti-public education groups who try and call that into question - and whether advocating for teachers is advocating for students - and how you separate those. There is no real rational justification for that. There was just a new study that came out, earlier this week, showing that higher paid teachers - districts with higher paid teachers - produce better results than those that don't. And it's really, really similar to the conversation that we're having in a lot of other areas where - people do better - they're healthier, they're more enthusiastic in their jobs, they perform better - when they don't have to struggle in their own lives. And we are asking so much of educators, and we're relying on them to do so much for our kids - they really are such a significant part of the foundation of our kids' lives and their future - that we have to invest in them and we have to be vocal and definitive about - teaching is a profession. These are professionals, these are highly experienced and capable and educated folks who are teaching our kids. And that's not something anyone can do.
One thing that was really striking to me, especially throughout the pandemic was when schools were closed, just the call to open them, oftentimes without full regard for the health and safety of the teachers and kids in the classroom. And as teachers were not able to come because they were sick with COVID and that was spreading throughout classes and lots of students were having challenges - just the call for parents to cover classrooms and then sometimes police to cover classrooms - and they're not educators. And certainly a lot of feedback from that - that that is not an ideal situation. We certainly are not serving our kids by throwing anyone else there, and not doing their education any favors by having people who are unfamiliar with educating to do that.
But I think it's so important to recognize that it's a profession and that there is an organized opposition who is extremely well-funded to try and paint the picture in the opposite direction. And so the question I have for you moving forward is - one, in that environment where there is so much toxicity coming from extremists - a lot of times, Republican corners - in regards to education and teachers, trying to have conversations about privatization and lots of proposals to move money out of the public system and into other systems, and the need to - as you say, support our teachers. Lots of times we're only discussing this - sometimes in the well - Republicans versus Democrats, we believe in and support public education versus people who don't. And certainly, I think it's really fair to say most Democrats believe in and support public education, but there are so many issues within that - whether it's charter schools - and there's a robust conversation to be had about charter schools. But I do think it's fair to say that whether or not you are a proponent of those, I think we can still agree that the primary concern and responsibility is to make sure public education, a free education, is accessible to everyone and prepares them to thrive in their lives.
So with that in mind and looking at not just the - is a public education good or bad? And do we say we support teachers - yes or no? What are the issues where, even if we're talking about just among Democrats, where we need to make sure people are pushing? Or as we talk with and evaluate candidates for the Legislature and a lot of positions this year, what should we be looking to hear from people, even in those Democratic versus Democrat races, to say - you know what, this is the direction that people need to be moving on education. It's not just good enough to say that you support teachers. What should voters and people in the community and parents be looking at in terms of candidates to say - you know what, they're on the right track? What are those issues?
[00:23:48] Djibril Diop: Well, thank you, Crystal - this is a great question. And I think that for us, we've - this is not a new thing for folks to - to try to beat on the teacher, right? This is a national sport in this country for quite some time, and I'm providing historical reference about how educators were viewed in your history of this country. It was pledges that educators had to sign during the Cold War to make sure they were not Communist. There was always a question of what level of legitimacy can an educator have while providing education to my kid, right? And I'm saying that this is kind of like the things that we see nowadays, which is the resurgence of not trusting your local educator, and I think that you've seen that from multiple angles - from conservative parents or progressive urban parents might not see - might have concerns about how education is dispensed.
I think that for us, when we're looking at a candidate, we try to understand a little bit better what are their perspective on equity, what are their perspective on being pro-labor, what are some of the ideas that they have regarding education going forward? 'Cause for us, it's not about being public against charter school - it's about making sure that we foster in an environment that created public common for everyone - that fostered that asset that - the asset that the state of Washington has - that serve all in the best possible way possible. And I think that we don't want to deviate from that - we don't want to, we want to work with legislators, upcoming legislators, that seize the ability of making sure that we protect and defend, as opposed to escape or diverge from one of the few and most important public common that we have here, which is our educational system.
So when you start from that standpoint, you are saying that there might be some differences of opinion regarding how - what would you do specifically, Legislator A, regarding our education? We're not saying that we know all the answers, but we are trained to - my team and I, and along with our local council to do this - to make sure we identify folks that have a respect, that have an understanding about what takes place in the classroom, and that do not see the schools only from an individual standpoint. This is - schools help us as a collectivity - when I drop my kids to school, I get a chance to say hi to one of the parents, and I get a chance to see the teacher there, and I get a chance to see the bus driver - it's a little village, in fact. And so if you have no issue, don't think this is valuable, then it will be difficult for us to work with you.
I think that all Democrats and the vast majority of Republicans say that they are supportive of education, which - when you peel the onions, it's not quite there, you understand? I think that many folks would want to utilize public education dollars for many of their pet projects. And then therefore, I go back to the foundation of the discussion which is - how do you value public education? Because really, like we said, during COVID there's not that much that happens without that. So I think for us, it's about making sure that we have an equitable way of looking at things, that we are reflective of the community in the environment, and that we are able to serve the kids - all kids - in the best way possible. We feel that if we do those three things, we are achieving our mandate - we are helping this state in the best way that we could.
[00:28:24] Crystal Fincher: Well, that certainly makes sense. I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us today. We will be paying attention to candidates and these issues as we continue throughout this campaign season and beyond. But this is so critically important, and so just thank you so much for joining us today.
I thank you all for listening to Hacks & Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. The producer of Hacks & Wonks is Lisl Stadler with assistance from Shannon Cheng. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. Now you can follow Hacks & Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in. We'll talk to you next time.