Two years after her second daughter was born, Emily James, a teacher at Brooklyn Preparatory HS, found herself reflecting on the Department of Education’s parental leave policy — or rather, the lack of a policy allowing parents to take paid leave to care for their newborn children.
“I was appalled by the whole situation,” says James, recalling a maternity workshop she attended during her first pregnancy in 2012. “Women had questions, hopes, ideas, and they were shot down one by one.”
So one evening in May 2017, James decided to publish a petition on Change.org calling on the UFT and the DOE to implement a paid parental leave policy. Little did she know that the UFT had been trying, without success, to negotiate a paid parental leave policy with the DOE.
“There’s a tendency in the DOE to feel like a small fish, like you can’t make a huge change in policy,” she says. “I knew it was important, but I wasn’t sure it would make a difference.”
In just a few months, James’ petition garnered more than 80,000 signatures and thrust the UFT’s efforts to negotiate a parental leave policy into the spotlight. In November of 2017, building on the momentum created by the petition, the UFT launched a public campaign calling on the mayor to grant paid parental leave to UFT members, and James and other UFT members began working side by side with UFT leaders on the issue.
“We had a shared experience of injustice, and people had felt silenced and hopeless for a long time,” James says. “We were all bound by the one idea that something had to change — and change fast — because every day another mother was giving birth and facing this problem.”
James sees the victory as an important lesson in collaboration and persistence.
“It feels good to know that when you rally together, change can come from that,” she says. “It didn’t feel like my fight, but like our fight together. And we never gave up.”