August 28, 2016
By Silver Krieger
New York, NY – Donald Nesbit, Executive Vice President of Local 372, AFSCME, has had a long journey, but one thing has informed his work at all times: his passion for people, and for making a difference. For that, he is being honored with the 2016 Heroes of Labor Award.
Nesbit started working in schools in March of 1998, when he became a senior school lunch helper at P.S. 299 in Brooklyn. Coming from a union family where both his mother and father, neither of whom had a high school diploma, were union workers — and because of their union jobs were still able to raise a family — he appreciated his position from the very first. He also saw how lucky he was, and shortly, he was able to pass on his wisdom to the young people he served.
Nesbit was promoted twice on the job, first to assistant cook at P.S. 274, then to school lunch aide/cook at the Acorn High School for Social Justice, also in Brooklyn. And when, in August 2014, he became executive vice president of Local 372, he started a mentoring program for young people.
Even earlier, as a senior school lunch helper, he says the kids trusted him and opened up to him on the job.
“Coming from a similar background as many of them, in some cases even the same neighborhood, they could relate to me,” Nesbit says. “I even knew some of their relatives or parents. So when something bad was going on, for example, gangs outside the school, I was able to have a positive influence.”
That ability to connect with youth continues, Nesbit says.
“I sit on the Next Wave Advisory Board of the International ASCME and we are concerned with the ‘next wave’ of leadership,” he says. “Where is it going to come from? We sit and talk about what affects young workers all over the country. I’m the East Coast representative.”
A recent effort of the Advisory Board is in the same vein. In the wake of numerous police shootings of people of color, particularly men, the Board worked on a resolution regarding the intersection of groups such as Black Lives Matter and law enforcement.
“We spoke about how to fix the problem, and declared that we support the efforts of Black Lives Matter, at the same time we support law enforcement,” Nesbit says. “The majority of the union’s members are people of color who live in poor communities. We are working on having them come in with their kids and meet with police officers. We plan to have the PD speak about what their job is, and what their fears are. Then we would have the kids speak about their experiences.
“We spoke about how to fix the problem, and declared that we support the efforts of Black Lives Matter, at the same time we support law enforcement,” Nesbit says. “The majority of the union’s members are people of color who live in poor communities. We are working on having them come in with their kids and meet with police officers. We plan to have the PD speak about what their job is, and what their fears are. Then we would have the kids speak about their experiences. “With open discussion we can make a connection between the two. Labor has always been at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. We want to continue to be a catalyst for change.”
Nesbit also brings his passion into advocacy for union members who have been discriminated against in other ways. Shortly after becoming executive vice president, numerous problems with the school crossing guard position arose. It turned out that 90 percent of the guards are women, while 90 percent of traffic agents are men. Local 372 represents both titles, but “the men made almost $20,000 more a year than the women for similar work. The work deserves equal pay.” The union won a significant raise for their women, but litigation to equalize pay to the higher level is still ongoing.
With a membership of 23,000, the union’s reach is long and its influence on children is undeniable.
“With our school crossing guards, food service employees, school aides, family workers, and SAPIS counselors (Substance Abuse and Prevention and Intervention Specialist), among others, we are with kids from the moment they approach the school, when they eat, when they have problems at home, and if they are struggling with addiction problems.”
With his tradition of mentoring, work on building bridges between youth and the law, efforts to equalize pay for women, and true caring for the workers that come in contact with so many young people, Nesbit has shown a depth of compassion that is truly commendable. About being nominated for the Heroes of Labor Award he says, “I feel great about it. When you start doing this kind of work, you never think about that, you do it because it’s the right thing to do. You do it for the members. But it’s nice to be recognized for your accomplishments.”