Committee for Children Blog

For Educators Aspiring Toward Allyship: Making an Impact at School

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

Educators and school staff are used to tackling a whole array of challenges: expanding class sizes, budget constraints, new and evolving curricula, and ever-increasing expectations. But adding the challenging and rewarding work of allyship onto all of that can admittedly feel overwhelming or exhausting sometimes. Especially if you’re new to the process, it can be easy to give this work your all and suddenly feel burnout, even when you know how crucial it is to maintain momentum. Any aspiring ally might benefit from creating systems that help make this work sustainable for a lifetime. One of the systems of support I’ve seen blossom in 2020, when teachers have faced a wholly unmatched set of new circumstances, is collaboration.

As this blog series has evolved, we’ve discussed the empowering and humbling journey toward allyship. This work is internal, self-directed, rooted in discomfort, and can have real effects on a child’s perception of the world around them. And, like many of our most meaningful experiences, this work is not done alone. Much of the allyship journey is about the profound ways in which individuals can plant the seed of a new idea that blooms into a new way of thinking. This process entails collaboration, creating spaces for discussion, and respectfully yet firmly advocating for change. Such collaboration is not relegated to anti-racism book clubs or social justice coalitions—it can happen with colleagues in work groups, school settings, and community spaces.

Here are some suggestions for engaging in allyship work in your school community.

Seek out official as well as informal channels.

When trying to decide where to start, look to the structures that already exist within your school or district. Research shows that when educators take an active and engaged role in supporting students of color, the entire school community benefits. Are there leadership groups to join? District meetings to attend? Review your school’s code of conduct or mission statement. Seek out ways that formal policies and procedures could better serve students and families of color. Take the initiative to plan a staff professional development meeting or organize a roundtable discussion. Look for the ways in which your sphere of influence could inspire other people.

Meet others where they are.

In many realms of conversation, persuasion, and influence, it’s important to remember to meet others where they are. Yes, allyship work is messy and requires comfort with discomfort. Yes, true growth and sustainable change can’t be attained without a breakdown of formerly held beliefs. But it’s been shown that requiring others to meet you at the exact moment of your allyship journey can do more harm than good. Open conversations with curiosity and respect. Ask questions to get to the root of another person’s feelings. Introduce new ideas, push to expand perspectives, find factors that will best motivate that person (like fair and equitable outcomes for their students, for example), and remember to be compassionate. We don’t always get it right, but what’s important is that we strive to make the world better for children everywhere.

Facilitate discussions with a focus on brave spaces, not safe spaces.

When leading a discussion dedicated to racial inequity and allyship in a professional setting, encourage the concept of “brave spaces” rather than “safe spaces.” Safe spaces prioritize comfort and support. While some learning may take place in safe spaces, as we’ve discussed, lifelong allyship work requires facing and sitting with uncomfortable truths. Brave spaces encourage dialogue, participation, and discomfort. To build a brave space, set and abide by discussion norms, consider the experiences of all participants, and make a conscious effort to avoid defensiveness.

Look for ways to support and highlight infrequently heard voices.

In your school community, and especially in your leadership and advocacy work, take the time to consider who is not in the room. Is there a diverse representation of perspectives and experiences? Are these structures or meetings set up to benefit and include some but not all students, community members, or educators? How can you use your own platform and privilege to make these spaces more accessible and amplify voices that are not frequently heard?

Lead with vulnerability.

As aspiring allies, this work often makes us feel unsure and vulnerable. I think back to the early days of my own allyship journey and my unwillingness to speak up in class until I had gained a greater sense of confidence. I was hoping that once I felt more prepared, I wouldn’t make any mistakes and reveal the depth of my ignorance or harm one of my classmates. Even now, writing this blog, I feel vulnerable—worried that my desire to inspire self-reflection and meaningful dialogue will be seen as self-promotional or self-centering. But by acknowledging that vulnerability, by embracing the discomfort and humility of making mistakes, you’ll allow others to abandon perfectionism and join you, as clumsy as that process may be. Leading with vulnerability may be the most powerful tool to build intimacy and supportive relationships. As social researcher Brené Brown stated in her book, Rising Strong: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”

The consequences of racial inequity have profound and far-reaching effects on society and specifically on the lives of the students in your classroom. From the moment a child enters the schooling system—from when they step onto a bus or walk onto the campus, to their interactions with peers, to their classes, to their counselor and front office visits and remote learning log-ins—their mind is guided, inspired, and influenced by your school community. Building allyship and systems of advocacy among the adults dedicated to support them will help provide the best possible environment for children to explore, ask questions, and grow.

True allyship and activism require bravery as well as tact. Many people feel uncomfortable engaging in these difficult conversations, and we’re not often asked to grapple with race in professional settings. But the educator community is rooted in passion and grit. As an educator, you’ve withstood pressure and sacrificed greatly for the benefit of the communities you serve; you continue to inspire and continue to learn. Rely on these skills and lean into conversations that advance your understanding. Your journey will be messy, humbling, and profound, as mine continues to be. But collectively, as a community of imperfect, aspirational, self-compassionate human beings, we have the power to build the world that our students deserve.

Want to learn more? Revisit earlier blogs in the series:

  1. First Steps in an Educator’s Path Toward Allyship
  2. For Educators Aspiring Toward Allyship: A Note on Where to Begin
  3. For Educators Aspiring Toward Allyship: Starting in the Classroom