||Volume 26, Number 2, October 2013
Kuehn on international solidarity
By Susan Croll
South Africa, Namibia, Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and no we are not talking soccer. Larry Kuehn has a passion and that passion is working with teachers and teacher unions to extend support and solidarity, especially in the face of repression, prison, torture, and even death.
I began my interview by asking: Larry, what drew you to international solidarity work?
I was BCTF president in the early 1980s and as part of my duties went on a trip in 1985 with CoDevelopment Canada that included teachers from Quebec and Ontario. We visited four Central American countries. I was so taken by the level of commitment of the Central American teachers I met on that trip, especially considering the repression they experienced because they were teacher activists. In 1985, Guatemala was ruled by a military dictatorship and the teacher union, like all other unions, was illegal. The elected union officers maintained an underground network by setting up an insurance company. Because it was an insurance company, every teacher who disappeared had their disappearance investigated. It was a brilliant way to expose the government’s murder of teachers.
In Honduras, the government physically took over the teachers’ union headquarters and installed their own officers. The legitimate and elected officers maintained a separate organization and the BCTF helped them to do that. I was struck by all of these Central American teachers—their dedication and commitment to keeping their collective voice alive was so impressive. They inspired me to continue to do this work when I returned home.
I also became involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. An organization called the International Defense and Aid for South Africa actually got money from the Mulroney government. I helped make sure that the families of activists’ imprisoned received money and resources. All of this was done clandestinely. That was the way it had to work in South Africa under apartheid.
How has BCTF involvement with teachers and their organizations made an appreciable difference?
An example is Membathisi Mdladlana from South Africa who is now the High Commissioner (Ambassador) to Canada. He was an organizer of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU) when it was created as a non-racial union. He attributes BCTF support for allowing him to continue as a SADTU organizer when the apartheid regime had cut off his income. Once apartheid was overthrown, he became Labour Minister for 10 years in the African National Congress (ANC) government led by Nelson Mandela. He came to the BCTF last year to personally thank us for our support and solidarity.
In the case of Honduras, union folks there identify that it was BCTF support that maintained their organizations when the government removed the elected union leaders and imposed government puppets. They have told us they would not exist today if we had not provided financial support.
We also funded Central American teachers to develop their own workshops on non-sexist pedagogy - workshops that break down divisions between genders. The Costa Rican and Salvadoran governments have even accepted this work and El Salvador now has a diploma program on this subject built on the work the BCTF supported.
What other international solidarity projects is the BCTF involved with?
We’re working with Cuban and Peruvian teachers to offer communicative approaches to teaching second languages and to develop good assessment practices. We’ve also completed projects with teachers in Namibia in developing union training.
Can you speak of the importance of this work in the BCTF?
Two responses. One, we are rich in comparison to almost anywhere in the world. We have a social responsibility to share what we have with other teachers. Secondly, globalization is taking place. There are common issues we all face. We need to keep engaged with each other on these matters. Plus, going to another country and working with other teachers, helps us to understand our own situation better. I like to quote Marshall McLuhan who said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but I am sure it wasn’t a fish.” You need to step back and have a point of comparison to better understand your own situation.
What do you see as the most important trend facing teachers worldwide?
Technology. It is not just about having students work with laptops or iPads or computers. Technology has the potential to restructure on a massive level the work teachers do. We need to influence how technology is used in education.
What else do you love about international solidarity work?
Relationship building—that is long term. Also policy-making. We are part of the IDEA Network, a coalition involving Mexico and other countries in Latin America. We’ve discussed trade agreements for the last 15 years and now the Brazilian and Argentinean governments have both agreed with the unions that they will not enter into trade agreements that include education. The teacher activists we work with from those countries mobilized on these issues and lobbied their governments. They won. That is the beauty of solidarity and working together.
Susan Croll is editor of Teacher newsmagazine.