I don’t always pay attention to every CFT communication that comes my way but the Ben Rust Award caught my eye. As I skimmed through Ben Rust’s biography, it was obvious to me that Cathy Campbell would make the perfect recipient as she is able to connect the daily experiences of the classroom teacher to wider political action.
Cathy Campbell served as BFT President from 2007-2019, after serving as BFT Vice-President from 2005-2007. That is a LONG time to be in such a difficult position. She also served as a CFT Executive Council Vice-President and on the Alameda Labor Council Exec Council for many years. Cathy has been a transformative leader for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and has extended her vision of equity and social justice statewide. She is always three steps ahead in every way possible.
Equity is at the heart of everything that Cathy does. She keeps student needs at the center of any conversation while still fighting for her members. She holds teachers in the highest regard and believes that they are the true experts in the mission of education. When President, she made sure that high quality educators were on every district committee and she elevated teacher voices in every important district decision. She collaborated with the district when they were on the right track, but used the power of the union--along with her own strong and strategic persuasive skills--to push back when necessary. She gave countless School Board speeches to inform the public and win support for union demands.
Cathy developed BFT’s Quality Education Agenda to help our union articulate a student centered vision for our district. Through an ongoing series of conversations within the union and with the larger community, she helped the union to align with community needs and created a touchstone for us to turn to when we had to decide what positions to take. The QEA is a living document that still guides us.
In our Local, Cathy created a Teachers of Color Network and an Organizing Team. Advocacy by The Teachers of Color Network, supported by Cathy, won crucial changes in hiring and retention at the district level. The Org Team ramped up the effectiveness of BFT contract and political campaigns through the use of art and grassroots activism. Cathy was constantly on the lookout for those who could be future leaders. Once she found them, she recruited, trained and supported them so that they could be successful. She increased the union’s capacity by empowering site reps to assist members at their own sites. One key tool in this effort was the creation of a long list of frequently updated FAQ’s that members could use to find the information they need to advocate for themselves and their colleagues.
Cathy consistently sought ways our union could be involved in any progressive issue; for example, raising the minimum wage, protecting undocumented families, advancing environmental justice, rallying for Black Lives Matter and many others during the course of her tenure. When members came with ideas about activism, she never told them she didn’t have time to help. Rather she sought ways to increase union capacity at every turn. I credit her for where I am today. During Occupy Oakland in 2011, she called me into her office and asked how labor could support the movement. All of a sudden, I found myself at the Alameda Labor Council and soon after, an organizer, site rep and now president.
Statewide, Cathy elevated CFT’s role in progressive causes. She has made the case that the labor movement is the vehicle to win healthcare for all, poverty reduction, and increasing state revenue. She has motivated our Local to take on these big causes as part of what unions do. When there is an opportunity to make something happen statewide, she made sure BFT was a part of it. Our entire membership mobilized to the State Capitol under Cathy’s leadership to demand more funding for public education and charter school reform. She takes a controversial position and fights for it. Cathy does not shy away from hard conversations and oftentimes calls each and every participant on the phone ahead of time to prepare for a hard meeting.
Cathy lives and breathes union activism and holds the highest standards for the work she does. Her thoroughness and strategic focus has won us great contracts, successful ballot measures and supportive school board members. She never takes credit for any of her hard work. Even at this very moment, after being thrown into a Distance Learning environment after being away from the classroom for so long, she still joined our Negotiations Team to make sure the transition to in-person education would be in the best interests of students and teachers. She remains focused on the collective efforts of members rather than her own achievements. She is patient but never takes her eyes off the prize--a more equitable public school system and just society with strong, effective and unified teacher voices playing an integral role so our most vulnerable students can succeed.