Remembering Eugenia Kemble

One year ago yesterday, former Shanker Institute executive director Eugenia Kemble passed away after a long fight with cancer. Here we reprint a piece that she wrote on the occasion of her retirement in 2012, in which she reflects on her time in the labor movement.

I hope you will accept a few reflections from an old-timer as I leave the Albert Shanker Institute, which was launched with the support of the American Federation of Teachers in 1998, a year after Al’s death.

I started in 1967 as a cub reporter for New York’s Local 2 and have worked for the AFT, the AFL-CIO, and the Albert Shanker Institute since 1975, so I have been on duty for awhile. I was particularly grateful for the decision to create the Shanker Institute.  It has become a very special kind of forum – directed by an autonomous board of directors to ensure its independence – where, together with a broad spectrum of colleagues from both inside and outside the union, core ideas, positions, and practices could be discussed, examined, modeled, and debated.  Its inquisitive nature and program attempt to capture a key feature of Al Shanker’s contribution to union leadership.  As a result, the Institute’s work has helped many, including me, to reach a clearer understanding of the essential character of the AFT, unionism, public education, and of democracy itself, as well as what about them we hope will endure.

For me what is most inspiring about the AFT community is its fundamental commitment to democracy.  To my mind, it is this that has made the union a genuine representative of its members and, by extension, a beacon and an inspiration for so many of those it has touched. I believe this democratic quality is the source of the excitement the union generates around the ideas for how to better lives, and around the concrete strategies for how to make such ideas work.  It is this excitement that hooked me, at any rate, before I really understood what was behind it.

The way I now see it, this organizational democracy is inseparable from the basic substantive ideals the union has stood behind for its duration. The survival of public education, the right to worker representation on the job, and the importance of free unions to political democracy are the AFT’s core values, but also extend the union’s mission beyond its own internal life to the larger political society.  These have been as paramount and enduring as the union itself – acting as guiding constants that have been ever-present features of the organization’s character.  For as long as I can remember and long before that, they have been an indispensible part of the union’s life.

It has recently struck me that a commitment to the ways of promoting public education, representative unionism, and political democracy are as much ideals as the positions themselves.  To these ends, honing a deliberative operating style, insisting on an open organizational culture, and demanding adherence to high ethical principles are organizational habits of mind and practice that contribute as much to the union’s character as what it says it stands for. They are, in other words, what walks the talk.

So, from nearly 15 years of work with the Shanker Institute, I have come away with this: the way an organization’s people relate to one another and to others – how they do their work as they move toward a goal – will either enrich the goal itself or make it less worthy. In other words, in each case, as the specifics of our ideas and their implementation come and go – as causes are chosen, strategies crafted, and allies found – how an organization conducts itself helps to authenticate what it is trying to accomplish. This means representing members honestly, hearing all views, valuing debate around decisions, insisting on transparency, evaluating results truthfully, and working together openly in aligning member interests with the public interest.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in an organizational culture guided by these values and practices, at a time when the AFT was small and everyone in it embraced or absorbed them early on. People knew each other. They worked together closely and depended on each other just to function. Most shared a common perspective about what to do and how to do it. Beginning with those who were mentored by the union’s late, great leader, Albert Shanker, and moving on through his successor presidents, leaders and staff were pulled together by shared experiences as they worked to develop a democratic, powerful, and effective union with deeply felt commitments to a common, idealistic  agenda.  As many have said, they became, in effect, a working family.

Today the AFT is facing major generational change. Public sector unions are under unprecedented attack, often originating with people who have no real understanding of the American labor movement, its history, or its role in building and sustaining public education, political democracy, and economic opportunity.  Within the union, there are many new staff members coming from disparate organizational cultures. And most of the leaders and staff who built the union, and who shaped its culture and direction, have moved on.

And so, as I walk out the door of the Shanker Institute, I appeal to newcomers to learn the union’s history.  I hope you will try to understand why it has been so special, not only to its members, but also to the larger society.  I urge you to find those who can still explain it to you and read what has been written about it.

There is no union family like this one.  If my experience holds any kind of a lesson, you are lucky to be part of it.  I just hope you will find a way to learn about the best of what it has been and take it into your new world.

- Eugenia Kemble


Genie was a fierce fighter for democracy and independent trade unions. Her passion for democratic ideals was unmatched. She loved the AFT, which she viewed as special organization with an historic commitment to democratic principles that dated to its founding. She viewed public schools — and unions — as incubators of the democratic sensibility that is critical to a healthy democratic society. She was right about that and many other things. I miss her voice in these times of multiple, unprecedented threats to American democracy. And I miss her. There was no one like her.