National Education Association Oral Histories at George Washington University Libraries

National Education Association Oral Histories at George Washington University Libraries

Vakil Smallen, National Education Association Project Archivist, George Washington University Libraries

The National Education Association (NEA) and the libraries of the George Washington University (GWU) formed a partnership in 2008 to process and house the Association’s archives and library at the Gelman Library within the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC).  Following the official opening of the archives in 2011, it quickly and enduringly became the collection most utilized by SCRC researchers. I was hired as the NEA Project Archivist in 2010. In 2015, as a way to add depth to the collection and fill in knowledge gaps, I leveraged my relationship with NEA’s representative organization for retired staff to conduct an oral history project. Between January and May of 2017, I conducted four oral histories with former NEA staffers.

As the archivist in charge of the NEA collection, this was my first experience with an oral history project. I took a course offered by Baylor, get certified in behavioral research and sought and received approval from GWU’s Institutional Review Board. Once the project was approved, I had to find interviewees and prepare questions. Those efforts led to this project, which I hope will be a seed for further oral history interviews in the future.

For the first century of its existence, the Association saw its role as promoting the image of teachers as professionals and deserving of the benefits that come with professionalism. Teachers were dependent on the benevolence of administrators to improve working conditions, but were often left disappointed. Starting in the late 1960s and culminating in 1972, an internal revolution shifted the NEA’s priorities and the organization became more willing to use collective bargaining and support work stoppages by educators to achieve their goals. This shift in priorities fostered internal divisions and resulted in conflicts with political figures, school administrators, and competing unions.

The oral history project includes interviews with four retired NEA staff members, including a lobbyist, the Director of Collective Bargaining, a convention organizer, and the Assistant Executive Director for Advocacy. These four men had front row seats to the NEA’s shift from a professional association to a union, and the interviews focus heavily on this time and the effect it had on the Association. One interviewee described how he introduced collective bargaining to a North Dakota school district:

 “I started teaching in 1958 to roughly 1966, and I left Fargo to become the manager of the field operation for the North Dakota Education Association, [where] all [of] the teachers had individual contracts, and so you could have a person teaching social studies and next door somebody doing exactly the same thing and having considerable different contracts as to how much they were paid. That didn’t seem right to me and a few others, so…we put all the contracts in an envelope and said to the school board no one will sign.”

When the project is completed in February, 2018 the recordings and transcripts will be available on the Internet Archive, described in the ArchivesSpace record for the NEA, and highlighted on a projects page on the GWU Libraries website .