Supporting the supporters
Put some 30 Education Support Professional (ESP) WEA members from around the state in a comfortable room filled with warmth, wisdom and wonder-filled stories about the work they do every day; add compassionate veteran leaders, expertise from WEA staff and precious time to reflect, refresh and relax. Add that up and you end up with ESP Sparks, two and a half days to connect with WEA and to learn, laugh and linger with new friends.
Sparks is a program aimed at newer WEA members with the goal of making a positive connection with their union. Developed in 1998 in Washington state, the program has evolved in many iterations — all of them enabling members to learn more about their union while also connecting with like-minded people who share similar (and sometimes dissimilar) experiences.
The basic idea is to give members the opportunity to spend time together learning from one another and learning that they have collective wisdom and power to make positive things happen for our students and for themselves.
Naché Duncan, WEA's coordinator for Student Programs, ESP and Early Career Educators, says she enjoys the energy she expends and receives when facilitating Sparks.
“I love to see how quickly our members build community coming from different demographics and different parts of the state.”
“This is my first exposure to union,” says Seattle EA Student/Family Advocate Brittany Sampson. “I love the information I am getting and the dedication I see in people advocating for what’s right for paraprofessionals, office staff and for teachers.”
“My experience in Sparks has been great,” says Shelton ELL paraeducator Nathan Chapman. “I had no idea this program existed.” Chapman has worked in school districts as a bus driver, a custodian and, now, as a paraeducator.
“I had no idea what to expect,” says Bellingham Multi-Program Instructional Assistant Sarah Rockwell. “Being able to talk with different people has been a whirlwind — it has been fascinating.”
Raucous laughter escapes through the doors of the meeting room — someone is telling a story about an experience they had at school and others are nodding, agreeing and feeling recognized because they are not the only ones dealing with the daily bumps in navigating their jobs.
But there are serious moments too. Times when people pour out their hearts and share their struggles. Those times, too, allow people to listen, to empathize and to feel more connected. And Sparks is also a time of taking a deep dive into what it means to be a union member.
“I’ve learned that we have rights as classified members — real rights,” says Seattle EA Instructional Assistant Sydnee Grace. “I matter. My role is not just important, but a big part of the spinning wheel called school. We can change things.”
And there is no doubt people like Sydnee Grace will create positive change, Duncan says. She knows that connecting with people will pull them into their union and give them the opportunity to create the change they want.
This one-time investment in our members creates a lifetime of engagement and union leadership,” Duncan says. And for that alone, Duncan says, she is energized and exhausted creating these opportunities for WEA members.