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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

CUNY’s Labor School graduates enter into a world of change

Nashanta Lamont
Norma Heyward


The City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies held its graduation ceremony on June 3, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ceremony was virtual, broadcast online.

While the graduating class, its teachers, and staff were not present in person, spirits were high, and united in purpose as they began their journeys as part of a new generation of leaders in the labor movement.

Dr. Gregory Mantsios, the school’s founding dean, noted the unfortunate circumstances of the graduation, and affirmed that this graduating class will be able to walk next year with the 2021 class in honor of their commitment and accomplishments in what has turned out to be a challenging year for both the school and New York City.

Citing the pandemic, Mantsios focused on three important lessons: the big picture is essential, leadership counts, and advocacy is key.

“It is time for a paradigm shift that can empower poor and working-class people in this country to take action to ensure that the benefits of our society and our economy are distributed equitably to everyone, not just to the privileged few,” Mantsios said. “Someone, somewhere, from this school is out there trying to change the world in ways big and small.”

Introduced by DC 37 Executive Director Henry Garrido, commencement speaker Leititia James, New York State Attorney General, spoke to the class.

“You are graduating at perhaps the most pivotal moment in American history,” James said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has not only wreaked havoc on the physical health of tens of thousands, it has devastated our economy and the financial health of millions.”

Pointing out that the pandemic has exposed the deep disparities in race and class in the United States, and the horrific impact from the policies of the Trump administration, the Attorney General said, “America is in uncharted territory, careening toward chaos and crisis. With a country at war with itself, you are wondering what you can possibly do to change it.”

“The answer my friends,” James said. “is everything.” Other speakers, including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, also spoke to the graduates.

“These are really difficult times. Our society will overcome this pandemic and so will you,” he said. “And when the worst is over, we will need your help to rebuild our country stronger than ever.”

Student speaker, 1199 SEIU member KenDell Jackson, who received a Masters in Urban Studies, felt joy and sorrow at graduation. “I made it, and so did you,” he said. “Especially because of the pandemic, disparities among communities of color have exposed larger issues of social iniquities. It is no longer about me — it is about we.”

Two graduates shared their stories of this vital program of labor education.

“This is why we fight.”

Norma Heyward had decided to continue her education. This was made possible as a member of Local 1549 through the support of DC 37. The experience opened her eyes to the vital dynamics of the power of unionism.

“When I first began working for the Department of Social Services, I learned through unions that the institution gives workers the power to improve their jobs and unrig the economy,” Heyward said.

Heyward is an Eligibility Specialist in the Human Resources Administration. In 2014, she went for the certificate in labor studies after her son entered Howard University. She spent two years earning her certificate in Public Sector Labor Relations and an additional two years in the Master’s program, graduating with a Master’s Degree in Labor Studies.

“I needed to better myself,” said Heyward, who now has two adult children. “What I learned is what the union is. Labor relations is bigger than the everyday knowledge you encounter. The union is much more important to us as workers, and this is why we fight. I learned the organizational history, and the importance of being a union member.”

What Heyward learned is the strength of union member voices.

Heyward said, “In the end, as a graduate, the School of Labor Studies is an amazing school; there is no other school I’d rather continue my education with. SLU’s program gave me the skills, knowledge, and the network to be successful, but most of all it gave me the confidence to navigate the world as a critical thinker ready to effect change.”

Discovering the Reason ‘Why’

Nashanta Lamont, a hard-working Department of Education Employees Local 372 member received her Labor Relations Certificate after she decided to take the chance and enroll in the certificate program.

Lamont rose through the ranks at the DOE, eventually becoming a Borough Support Coordinator, but knew she wanted more.

“I wanted to take on more of a leadership role,” Lamont said, speaking of what partly motivated her to enter the program.

It also gave her an opportunity to speak out and become more active — an evolution that helped her immensely when interacting with instructors and fellow students, and which paid off dividends in her new career as a frontline activist at her union.

Lamont admitted she was often reticent in class. “I was a little hesitant to speak out. But when I was called on in class, I was able to find my voice, speaking out, and in the process of my journey, understanding the reason ‘why’.

“What was important was understanding the importance of the labor movement, and in discovering my reason why,” Lamont said.

Her biggest influence at the School of Labor and Urban Studies was Gene Carroll.

“His introductory course into the history of labor gives you the entire untold story, the mistakes the labor movement made, and in the telling of the history, inspired us to be more involved, and helped develop our inherent skills to organize to develop,” she said.

After graduation, Lamont began working last September for the Council of School Supervisors & Administrators, Local 1, as an associate director in Government Affairs. Though no longer a DC 37 member, she gives the union credit for the opportunities to continue her education.

“I wouldn’t be here if it were not for District Council 37,” she said.

Lamont has taken on a leadership role in her new union, working on lobbying efforts and on the census, as well as tackling other major issues. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been working from home, putting in the long hours necessary to maintain the power of the union as it faces its greatest crisis in decades.