Q&A with Rick Kumar and Marilyn Ricketts-Lindsay, recently elected to the BCTF Executive Committee, about navigating union spaces as BIPOC members
How did you get involved in union work? What motivated you to get involved with your union?
Marilyn: Every stage of my union involvement started with an invitation. Four years ago, I was working at a school that didn’t have a staff rep. I invited the local vice-president to come for a school visit and share information about what was going on in the union. The local vice-president invited me to sign up to be the staff rep at the school. At that time, I knew nothing about what the job entailed. When I started attending union meetings and learning more about union work, I connected with colleagues who later invited me to join committees. From there, my involvement in the union grew. Layer after layer, I kept getting more involved, but it all started from the staff rep role. I don’t think I would have gotten involved if someone didn’t invite me in. I needed someone to show me that this is my union as well; it’s not just for a select few—it’s for everyone.
The reason I keep signing up and volunteering is because I’ve learned so much over the years. This is my 17th year of teaching; I feel I’ve experienced the most growth during the years I volunteered with the union. There is so much to learn, and I believe union work is the best professional development. I’m more confident as a teacher and a professional, and I feel more empowered within my profession.
Rick: I had very limited, and negative, experiences with unions before I became a teacher. But during my practicum, there was a teacher across the hall who, over the course of several lunch hours, shared what union work can look like. She encouraged me to find ways to get involved in the union. The day I signed my contract to work as a teacher in Surrey was the same day as the Surrey Teachers’ Association Annual General Meeting. I decided to show up and I was so impressed. There was free food and a whole bunch of people who were really friendly and wanted to invite me in. I remember thinking, “Wow, people are asking my opinions on things.” I felt listened to.
What are some challenges in putting your name forward for union leadership? Why did you decide to do it?
Marilyn: Unionism is a very steep learning curve for someone who is not familiar with the structures and processes. Initially, I didn’t understand how the union worked, but I leaned heavily on my colleagues to navigate union meetings, and it took a while for me to start feeling confident in my own understanding of the union. Even when I felt I understood the structures and processes, it took time to get comfortable in union spaces, and sometimes it’s still uncomfortable.
BIPOC teachers, especially Black teachers, are under-represented in union spaces. I didn’t think I would be welcome. But now that I’m active in the union, I want Black teachers to see themselves represented and feel motivated to pursue union involvement. I want them to know they belong, and that they can take on leadership roles within their union too. I want to encourage BIPOC teachers to take up space, use their voices to amplify their lived experiences, share their stories, seek collective care, and advocate for their rights. You don’t have to know everything to participate. You just have to be willing to learn, make mistakes, and have a strong will to protect our collective agreement, advocate for social justice, and defend an equitable public education system.
Rick: Unions can be very intimidating spaces. I remember attending a Representative Assembly and not understanding what was being talked about. There were acronyms I had never heard of, and people would go up to the mic and captivate the audience for three whole minutes. I didn’t think I could ever do that. My peers encouraged me to put my name forward, and when people start saying over and over again that you can do it, you start to believe it. I think about my students a lot when I do this work too. So many kids in my school are trying to figure out their lives. If they see me take a risk to do work that I really believe can make a difference, then they can do it too.
One of the biggest challenges for me is understanding that I’m working in a system that wasn’t made for me. I meet so many people who have very different ideas than me. Building connections and reshaping people’s thinking doesn’t happen when I’m yelling at them. It happens when we’re shaking hands and creating mutual understanding. I absolutely feel there should be no space for racism, but I can accomplish the most when I meet people where they are and pull them as far as I can my way.
The pressure of representation is also a big challenge. Every-one has a different idea of how they want to be represented. I’m a BIPOC teacher; I’ve experienced the racism and the struggle. But all I know is my own story. It can be stressful to navigate the pressure of representing BIPOC teachers in this space. I want to honour all their stories and fix the whole system, but it’s tough to include so many different perspectives and experiences in my work and advocacy.
Do you have a concluding message for BIPOC members?
Marilyn: If you want to feel connected, and if you want to develop professionally, getting involved in the union is a great pathway. You also get to make a big impact on improving public education in the province. It’s amazing to witness how the decisions made by members at governance meetings directly affect schools; I can see our collective voices having a positive effect on teachers and students. It doesn’t happen right away, but there are a lot of positive changes that happen because of teacher advocacy locally and provincially.
Rick: I use this phrase a lot, but it really resonates with me: your existence is resistance. Being you and being in this space is showing others that it can be done. You are allowed to be here, no one can hold you back on that.