David Bacon Stories & Photographs

By David Bacon
CFT Perspectives, 5/07

Don Peavy is a preacher. He is also a teacher. And he’s not only been elected president of his local faculty union at Victor Valley College, but was recently appointed to the Higher Education Program and Policy Council of the American Federation of Teachers.

“I’m trying to unite the academy with the real world,” Peavy says. “Philosophy, for instance, can become an academic exercise with little utility in the day to day life of our students. I’m looking for the practical application of ideas in their everyday lives. Instead of asking questions with no answers, I’m seeking a way of living in the world.” To this end, he even shows his students first-run movies, “so they can see people struggling with the issues we discuss in class.”

Peavy has been teaching religious studies at Victor Valley since 2001, and spent two years teaching at the University of Phoenix before that. But teaching, and religious studies, are one end of a long circle that has taken him through other careers and places.

He was born in Ft. Worth, Texas. As a teenager during the race riots following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he went to Detroit to help protect his sister. That took him into a job in an auto assembly plant, “an experience that quickly taught me that I wanted to go to college.”

Even then he had a religious calling, and received his bachelor’s degree from Texas Christian University after attending community college in Ft. Worth. He began preaching, while also going on to the University of Texas in Austin, where he received a law degree. Peavy pursued higher education with energy and persistence, returning to Texas Christian University for religious studies, and then going on to get a PhD from Hamilton University in Wyoming. Today he’s still in school, working on another PhD at Claremont College in theology, ethics and culture.
“I’m pursuing the answers to burning questions that rage deep within me, yet all I seem to be achieving is more questions,” he laughs.

In 1977 he left the ministry, however, and for the next two decades he worked as a successful attorney in Texas. In the mid-90s’ however, a set of profound experiences changed his life. “First, I heard a friend preach a sermon that made me feel there was something wrong with my life,” he recalls. Then a judge sentenced him to jail for 24 hours for contempt of court. “When I went into the cell, I felt it was giving me a break from a life that seemed increasingly insane.” Finally, a tornado tore through Ft. Worth, and demolished half of the office building in which he worked. “It demolished my office, while the one across the hall was left untouched. The day after that, I put my clothes in my Isuzu Trooper and drove off to the seminary.”

Becoming active in the union at Victor Valley was another journey. Peavy interprets his role as a teacher as a responsibility to students, and “to making the academy a better place.” He quotes Socrates’ exhortation that teaching should create a better person. “So that’s my role as an activist – to make this a better place, and particularly to be responsible to the part time instructors.” Peavy himself is a part timer, and the union at Victor Valley consists of part time faculty.

Nevertheless, he says, his experience in the auto plant made him suspicious of unions, especially since he was obligated to join without understanding the union’s purpose. Then he lived many years in Texas, a right-to-work state where mandatory union membership is prohibited.

“At Victor Valley I discovered that although I could go somewhere else, this would not be consistent with my responsibility towards others. So I became a union member, and then an activist.” Two years ago, to his great surprise, Jack Robinson, an instructor who headed the original faculty organizing committee, asked him to run for President. “In a moment of temporary insanity, I accepted,” Peavy remembers. “Actually, I wrestled with the decision, and at first said I didn’t want to do it. Now, after two years, I’m glad I finally accepted. I believe I’ve made a difference, and it’s certainly made me a different person. And I’ve met many remarkable people. I’ve attended my first political rally, when our state convention marched to the capitol building in Sacramento. It rained that day – par for the course.”

Five years ago, part time faculty at the Victor Valley Community College District decided to join the California Federation of Teachers, and formed Part Time Faculty United – AFT Local 6286. Their board of trustees, however, would not respect their decision, and insisted that they had to be represented by the full time faculty union that had never acted on their behalf.

In the darkest days of the state budget crisis, the district told part timers that it faced a possible budget shortfall, and was cutting their salaries unilaterally by 10%. Since there was no contract, the district said it was under no obligation to negotiate over the change, or even to justify it. Under Robinson’s leadership, the CFT organizing committee took the decision head on, and in the end, mobilized enough pressure on administration to get the cut rescinded.

An election took place finally in May 2004. By that time, instructors were fed up with their inability to bargain over the most basic changes in their jobs and conditions. The 540-person unit voted decisively in favor of Part Time Faculty United. The district still delayed, and had to be dragged into bargaining. Its negotiators would sign off on items, only to see trustees then rescind agreements reached at the table. Finally a mediator, and even the district’s own consultant, convinced the district to honor the process.

That fight reached its culmination in January, with Part Time Faculty United’s first collective bargaining agreement. Under Peavy’s leadership, Victor Valley part time faculty won binding arbitration, a priority list to protect assignments, a 22.5% pay increase, parity with full time faculty in leaves and stipends, and a good grievance procedure. “I take pride in this,” he says.

Some union efforts go further than wages and conditions. The local started a “one faculty campaign” to win more respect for part timers. “People often refer to ‘faculty and part timers’ as though we had two faculties,” Peavy explains. “We want people to understand that at Victor Valley there’s only one faculty, which includes both full and part timers. We’re going to get the Academic Senate and Board of Trustees to adopt resolutions that say so.”

Peavy sees his role on the AFT’s Higher Education Program and Policy Council as working on two issues, academic freedom and diversity. He points to the attacks by David Horowitz on academic freedom, and his effort to get districts to adopt the “Student Bill of Rights.” “The intent here is to say that instructors can’t talk about something not related to the subject matter of the class or matters of public discourse. We have to fulfill our responsibility to students to teach our subjects, but we also have an obligation to speak to them on issues in the public arena. As teachers, we have experience and a broader view of the world, which we should use to help them.”
Peavy is also deeply concerned about an increasing lack of respect for racial and national diversity. “Look at the comments of Don Imus, Mel Gibson, and others. People are voicing deep seated hatred, and the academy should address this.”

In the midst of all this activity, Peavy has also found the time to write a series of books on ethics and spirituality, including “What Must I do? – Bridging the Gap between Being and Doing,” and “Play it Where it Lays – Using the Rules of Golf to Play the Game of Life.”

“These are all related to my teaching too,” he says. “I use the same technique of telling stories of real people that I try to use in my teaching. In my last book I try to deal with the difficulty that so many people experience – that they wish their lives were different, and then wait for something else to come. Simply dreaming and hoping doesn’t work. You can’t cheat your way out of your situation.”

Peavy still preaches at the McCarthy Memorial Church in Los Angeles. “Faith is a journey,” he smiles.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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