Where Are My Shanker Knights?

The fourth author in our series of guest posts commemorating the 20th anniversary of Al Shanker's death is Dr. Lorretta Johnson, secretary treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers. You can find the other posts in this series here.

Those of us who had the privilege to work with labor leader and progressive giant Al Shanker can attest to his deeply held sense of justice, his urgency in the fight for fairness, and his composure in the face of both personal and professional battles that would have left many of us undone.

For me, Al Shanker was a friend, a leader and a mentor. Shanker believed every worker deserved dignity, respect and a shot at the American dream. And when it came to paraprofessionals, he used his influence as AFT president to organize us into the union, thus giving us a voice in the classroom, dignity in the school building and the wages necessary to take care of our families. Back then, many paraprofessionals, like those of us in Baltimore, were seen as just the help and weren’t given a voice or chance to work in an equitable environment. Many of us were black and brown mothers, heads of households.

But, thanks to Al Shanker and the AFT’s organizing efforts, paraprofessionals saw better times, stronger collective bargaining agreements, higher wages, more dignity in our workplaces and greater love from the community we served.

I was and still am a “Shanker Knight.” After organizing the paraprofessionals in Baltimore, Shanker took me under his wing. As a result, I got the opportunity to help other paraprofessionals like me. Together, we were able to give paraprofessionals a voice in New Orleans, Detroit, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and other cities throughout the country. And now we are a force to be reckoned with.

As we resist the Trump administration, I find myself thinking a lot about Shanker and our paraprofessional organizing effort from a couple of decades ago. Back then, just like today, we didn’t have the resources our enemies had. They had the money, the position and the ability to write all the rules, but we prevailed. We prevailed because we had the power of the people. We prevailed because we had the courage to stand up and we fought back. And most importantly, we prevailed because we were united. 

Shanker’s secret weapon was unity and solidarity, and with those weapons he believe that justice and democracy would thrive throughout the country. He understood that justice, fairness and equality could only grow in a climate of unity and togetherness. So today, as we celebrate 20 years of the Albert Shanker Institute and his legacy, let’s revive this unity to fight back against the forces that seek to divide and destroy our forward march.

They might have all the money. They might have the White House. They might have the statehouse. They might even have city hall. But we’ve got the Shanker legacy and the power of the people. Today, we are all Shanker Knights, so let’s follow his example by pulling together to begin our fight.

Trust me, this fight will be challenging. But as Shanker would always say, “Lorretta, the fight won’t be easy, but together we will win.” So, if you believe that black lives matter, join us. If you believe that trans lives matter, join us. If you believe teacher voice matters, join us. Together, we Shanker Knights will reclaim the promise of America for every man, every woman and every child, no matter their color, creed or citizenship.


You are one of the greatest Shanker Knights of all.