In her first real job out of college, Diamonté Brown worked to get juvenile offenders back into classrooms and on track to graduate.
By the time these children became part of her caseload, she said, they’d already been failed by the education system. Brown began thinking that instead of helping students re-enroll after trouble with the law, perhaps she “needed to be on the other side.”
“I thought maybe I could be a preventative measure and be the kind of teacher that would make them want to go to class,” Brown said.
She became a Baltimore public school teacher and committed herself to educating students in the city that raised her. She saw firsthand the impact that generational poverty, institutional racism and pervasive crime have on Baltimore’s kids. She also saw how teachers aren’t given the necessary tools and resources to help them.
That same pull to “be on the other side” struck again. She decided to run for president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, hoping to unseat the woman who has run the union for much of the last two decades.
Late Wednesday night, Brown hugged the members of her slate, dubbed The Union We Deserve after the preliminary results showed she’d defeated incumbent Marietta English to become the next leader of the city’s nearly 7,000 educators.
Brown, 37, and her slate represent a changing of the guard. Some said English’s style wasn’t suited to today’s political climate, in which teachers across the nation are rising up, saying they’re sick of a system that’s left them feeling unheard and undervalued. Brown’s victory signals the end of what critics call a business-as-usual teachers union and a generational shift in leadership.
The Union We Deserve candidates promised to be more accountable to members and to prioritize fighting for social justice and racial equity.
Voter turnout is typically low in Baltimore Teachers Union elections, but about 500 more teachers cast ballots Wednesday than did three years ago. Brown beat English, 901-839, according to unofficial numbers.
Brown is sure to face challenges. For starters, English pledged to protest the election’s results, saying the campaign was riddled with rules violations.
“I can't in good faith concede this election,” she wrote in a statement. English is seeking her ninth term.
Should the results stand, Brown will be leading a divided union. The executive board is split between teachers and paraprofessionals — The Union We Deserve captured the majority of teacher positions, but the English Slate took all the paraprofessionals spots, according to the preliminary results. The English Slate’s teacher candidates are all also challenging the election results.
Brown said her first action will be to speak with the entire paraprofessional slate one-on-one to “listen to what they have to say and use that to guide us toward being a united front.”
“Even if we’re not on the same page, everyone deserves to be heard,” she said. “I don’t think people have to be on the same page to get work done. Everyone has the same goal” of bettering the lives of teachers, students and families.
Brown declined to lay out her list of specific priorities in an interview Thursday — she said she wants to deal with the English Slate’s challenge and other housekeeping matters first — but she’s been outspoken about the need to make the union more democratic, transparent and accountable to its members.
This election was riddled with allegations of voter suppression.
Union We Deserve supporters accused the union’s elections committee of attempting to suppress the vote by having limited voting hours and locations, and denying the majority of absentee ballot requests. They also say educators had to use a confusing ballot that favored English’s team. And at the end of the day, the election observers at Edmondson-Westside High School were kicked out by officials at Elections USA, the outside group that ran the election, leaving the process with limited oversight.
English’s side also has complained about campaign violations, which will fuel her challenge to the election’s results. Her supporters have said they got home visits from the opposing party and received unsolicited emails to their district addresses, which is not allowed.
Her supporters also have criticized Brown’s slate, saying Brown and others are inexperienced and unready to lead a union.
Brown pushed back on that assertion. She was a union building representative at Renaissance Academy. She’s worked with school system administrators on a plan to recruit and retain more black teachers. And she’s spent countless hours lobbying for better education funding and services in Annapolis.
“She has really shown us her organizing chops,” said Kimberly Mooney, who was part of the BMORE Caucus with Brown and was elected Teacher Vice Chair.
Several years ago, BMORE members invited Del. Mary Washington to Brown’s home for an “Annapolis 101” session. They set up a projector in her living room and went through how to track bills and advocate effectively in the General Assembly.
“They wanted to be more engaged in the legislative side of things and felt teachers should take on more of a role,” Washington said.
The BMORE Caucus helped Washington draft a bill to channel the state’s casino revenue to a “lockbox” for public schools. A different version of the legislation ended up passing.
Brown is quick to say that while she sat at the top of the ticket, Wednesday’s win is far bigger than her, pointing to the work of the BMORE Caucus.
Her willingness to be a team player is part of why The Union We Deserve wanted Brown as its presidential candidate.
Cristina Duncan Evans also said it was important to members for the union president to be “of this city.”
“We’ve seen a lot of people come from outside of Baltimore to try and fix Baltimore's problems,” Duncan Evans said.
Brown graduated from Baltimore City College before attending the University of Michigan. She always knew she’d come back: “My mission in life is to make Baltimore a better place for low-income people.”
She’s worked at Youth Opportunity Academy, Renaissance Academy and is currently an English teacher at Booker T. Washington Middle School.
Her time in the classroom, she said, means she has an “ear to the people with the most strenuous jobs ever.”
She knows what it’s like for teachers to try to educate teenagers when they don’t have enough books to pass out. She knows what it’s like when standardized tests roll around, and students haven’t had enough time to practice using a school’s limited supply of computers. She knows what it’s like for teachers to deal with losing students to gun violence.
“I don’t use stories people tell me,” she said. “I use my own stories.”
She’s pledged that her union salary will never exceed what the top-paid teacher makes. To serve as union president, Brown will have to give up her job at Booker T. Washington.
She’ll miss her kids but isn’t sad to leave the classroom.