Committee for Children Blog

First Steps in an Educator’s Path Toward Allyship

two teachers conversing

See all posts in this series: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

With intense social and political upheaval across the country, adults are stepping into two simultaneous roles: educator and student. Whether a teacher by profession, a parent trying to protect and prepare your child for the world, or an aspiring ally looking to make an impact, the opportunity to teach others is ubiquitous. But we’re also being asked to learn, to be vulnerable, to break apart assumptions and good intentions, and to dismantle our own basic understanding of how the world operates. In the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others who have been harmed by police, a great national movement has finally reemerged. As both educator and student, the moment to commit to the lifelong work of allyship is now.

My name is Casey Escola, and I’m a white woman working at Committee for Children as an implementation specialist. I partner with educators and district leaders to build systems of sustainability surrounding social-emotional learning (SEL) initiatives. I love this work because SEL offers an incredible opportunity to build a future generation fluent in emotional intelligence and the power of collective action. And the systems-level mindset I use in my implementation work has been helpful to me as I try to understand the structural nature of racism in the United States.

I grew up in a homogenous, white, middle-class suburb near St. Louis, Missouri, just a short drive from where Michael Brown was murdered in 2014. My own journey of coming to terms with my privilege, my place in society, and my lack of awareness around key issues and perspectives has been at times cringeworthy, heartbreaking, clumsy, humbling, and profound, and sometimes all those things at once. My journey began in the midst of a divisive and historic presidential election, when I started my master’s program at New York University studying the sociology of education, with a specialization in racial and class inequity in public school systems. Within my first few days of graduate school, I had to confront the depth of my own ignorance. I realized that, for the next two years, I needed to dedicate myself to understanding those social structures I had taken for granted and that shape individual outcomes either through design or negligence. For my thesis, I wrote about the power of developing interpersonal empathy in young children as a key to inspiring social and political activism later in life. I still believe in that power to this day.

When I think of what it means to be an ally, I think of a “helper,” someone who provides support and assistance in an ongoing effort. That’s what I strive to be. I aspire to help dismantle racist systems and offer support to communities of color in whatever ways I can. But “ally” isn’t a label you can assign to yourself; instead, it’s a title that’s given to you by the community you wish to aid. It’s something you live up to and prove through continuous action. With many adults beginning or continuing their work toward this goal, allyship risks becoming overly performative and self-centering. That’s my fear in writing this now. And yet, I want to help create brave spaces for people to enter these discussions with vulnerability and find their place in this crucial work.

In December 2018, I had the privilege of attending a one-day symposium for educators hosted in Seattle titled “Talking with Children and Youth About Race.” The ultimate objective was to build empowering spaces for kids where race could be discussed free of judgment or awkwardness—a challenging task for a room full of adults, let alone groups of young students. There were sticky moments of discussion, times when the goals felt sidetracked, and misunderstandings and mis-phrasings that left the air in the room tense and awkward. And yet, participants of all races and backgrounds remained willing to sit in discomfort in order to grow. And now, nearly two years later, I feel that willingness resurge as our nation reckons with this moment and our troubled history.

Right now, it’s critical for aspiring allies to step bravely into this space and prepare to be vulnerable. This journey of self-discovery and societal scrutiny is not one built on comfort. And if you, too, realize that we can’t allow such deep-rooted systemic oppression to persist—not for our children, our students, our neighbors, or ourselves—I invite you to join me in this space with a courageous and vulnerable heart. In this series of blogs, I hope to share reflections from my own allyship journey and my role within the education field, from symposiums, lecture halls, and conference spaces. I hope to provide insight on the many paths to allyship and offer some grace when we all inevitably stumble on the way there. Though I’ve been on this journey for years, I still may not get it completely right in these blogs, and I can’t emphasize enough that I can’t speak to the lived experiences of my friends and colleagues of color. I can only speak for myself, and hope that my sincerity and empathy will encourage you as you engage in this fundamental and challenging work.

Again, SEL offers an extraordinary opportunity to empower future generations with the skills to collectively engage these concepts with integrity and empathy. I believe that we’re in a critical moment in our nation’s history, and that we’ve been given the opportunity to take the traumas of 2020—and the centuries of pain leading up to it—and set our sights on a new path forward. A path to a future that prioritizes diversity, equity, inclusion, safety, empathy, and allyship. We wouldn’t ask for anything less for our children. We shouldn’t expect anything less for ourselves.

Don’t know where to begin? Read the next blog in this series for some recommendations!