Many Americans learned Becky Pringle’s name for the first time last week, when she testified about the nation’s gun violence epidemic in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Pringle, president of the National Education Association, recounted the stories of several deadly shootings that have struck schools nationwide recently, including last month’s massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 children and 2 teachers.
As head of the nation’s largest teachers union, Pringle argued in favor of stricter gun legislation. She took NEA’s helm in September 2020 as the highest-ranking Black labor leader in the country. A Pennsylvania middle school science teacher with three decades of experience, Pringle has been outspoken in debates about reopening schools during the pandemic, teaching students about America’s racial history, and now, keeping children safe in a country besieged by gun violence.
Pringle spoke to Capital B about her testimony and speaking about gun violence as a Black woman and educator. The conversation below was lightly edited for clarity and length.
Capital B: How did the speech you gave come together? What sort of planning did you do?
Becky Pringle: I first listened. I actually went down to Houston, Texas, a couple of weeks ago, to do a press conference and rally outside of the NRA [National Rifle Association], with our teachers and students. I was joined by one of our teachers who survived Sandy Hook, and one of our teachers who survived Parkland, and one of our students who survived Parkland. And I just asked them questions about how they were feeling in this moment, where they had to step up again and tell their horrific stories and relive their trauma.
I was trying to bring forward those voices. My own experience, the voices of the teachers, and the students that I had talked to, the parents that were also with us in Texas. In my mind, I thought, “Oh my god, I’m here again. Here we are again. And we have done nothing. What are we doing here in this country?” So all of that emotion, and passion and determination, is what I tried to bring into the room.
What do you think is the significance of having you, the president of the largest teacher’s union in the country, making the statement about gun safety and gun violence in schools?
I can bring my own experiences, and I can also bring the voices of 3 million educators in different jobs — not just our teachers, but food service, bus drivers, nurses and counselors, [and] faculty members. I can bring their voices and experiences into the room. We have members in every single congressional district in this country. And so, the power and the potential for collective action, I bring into that room. And I bring the diversity of this country into that room. We have Republicans and independents and Democrats. We have people in rural and suburban and urban areas. And every state in this country. And around the world. We actually represent America. Our union represents America.
And we are demanding that this country finally pass comprehensive, commonsense gun laws, the kinds of laws that the majority of Americans are crying out for, and are being blocked by a minority of lawmakers. So I felt that that was a powerful place to be, to be able to speak from all of those places and bring that voice back to the majority.
Research tells us that Black children are the most likely of any racial group to be exposed to firearm violence. The school shooting in Texas occurred at a predominantly Hispanic institution. As a Black woman, what did it feel like for you to talk about gun safety and violence when it comes to children?
That’s why, whenever I talk about it, I always talk about not just the horrific killings at schools, but the fact that every single day, 111 people die from gun violence in this country. And we know that that disproportionately impacts our communities. And they’re not getting the headlines. Nobody’s reading about the gun deaths in those communities. Or talking about the systemic inequities built into every single social system in this country, based on race and economic status, in some cases, ability, in some cases, LGBTQ+ status — all of those things adversely impact those communities more than others.
In all of our work, we are centering our marginalized communities and making sure that no one forgets that every day they are subjected to gun violence.
I cannot imagine how emotionally charged that room felt while you were speaking. Just watching, I could see the emotion from people as they spoke. What was going on, in your head, as you were speaking?
I was there [during testimony from] the student from Uvalde who testified, and the parents. Oh, my goodness. And as we listened to those stories, and then we went up there, that’s what I carried in my heart, because the reality is, it was gut-wrenching to listen to that. But I was so inspired by the fact that they were willing to step up.
And then I was infuriated by the members of Congress in that room that totally dismissed that and even accused us of using that for political gain. I was infuriated that they would totally dismiss what these survivors had said and what they’re telling the members of Congress that they need. It was all I could do to keep myself together from not crying.
But I tell you what I did: I reminded myself of the resolve of our members across this country — those who have gone through gun violence, and those who have not — in their resolve to not stop fighting until this country takes action. That’s what I was thinking about as I took my seat, as I read my statement, as I answered questions, as I engage with members of Congress before and after my testimony, and I continued to talk with them. That’s what I want to bring to every conversation I have.