Abby Erdmann is not your everyday teacher; she knows how it is to be different and to be judged for that reason. Despite her privilege as a white woman, growing up in New Work in the 1960s; she experienced first hand how is it to be one of a few Jewish students in her school.
She was bullied for this reason and for the fact that, as Abby put it herself, she was fat. And the kids around her made sure she wouldn’t forget:
“I was aware of being marginalized. In high school, a very popular student drew a caricature of me, and had an arrow to my mouth, and said ‘n-word lips.’ I think that raised my consciousness”.
The experience changed her. She now understands very well the implications of being an outsider. It also helped her understand that her privilege can only make a difference if used to help others.
As a teacher, Abby decided to use her knowledge to help her students see that racial issues are to be discussed. And that privileged white people must use their advantage to help others not so fortunate. She wants her students to understand that being white carries a lot of weight that should be used for good.
In other words, she thought that white students could help color students by offering their support. She also hopes that by doing so, white pupils can challenge others and empower the less privileged, as Abby explains:
“The problem of racism isn’t the problem of black kids; it’s a problem of white kids and the white power structure. So I used to work with white kids to teach them how to listen to kids of color when they spoke up, to see their privilege, to understand definitions of racism.”
Abby’s passion for racial issues reached her students quite deep, so much so that one of them nominated her to the Olmsted Award in 2011. An award that values outstanding secondary school teachers with a considerable money prize to the teacher and school. The student was Tatiana Fernandez, and here is what she wrote:
“She always knew how to be a support for minority students in particular and recognized the importance of having difficult and sometimes uncomfortable discussions. Abby was the first person to teach me, as a Latina woman, about whiteness, and be open about things like white privilege, and she was the loudest advocate for those who are normally silenced.”
Abby Erdmann won the Olmsted Award and quickly put the money to good use. She started an initiative called Race Reels. The initiative creates awareness about race and starts conversations to change the system and improve the lives of future generations. Her approach is:
“Guilt is not helpful. Shame is not helpful. Action is.”
Simple, but so true if you think about it. We could do wonders with more people like Abby Erdmann out there to fight for the rights of the less privileged kids. And open the minds of conservative people to create a welcoming environment for all of us to leave in peace.