Interview with Dr. Zachary Casey

a man with glasses and shoulder-length hair talks with a student
Dr. Zac Casey talks with a student.

Coauthor of the New Book Building Pedagogues: White Practicing Teachers and the Struggle for Antiracist Work in Schools

by Zara Raezer '22

Throughout the past eight years, Dr. Zachary Casey and Dr. Shannon McManimon have rooted themselves in the development, execution, research, and presentation of their professional development seminar, RaceWork. From 2012­ ­to 2014, Drs. Casey and McManimon met weekly with eight white practicing teachers from the metropolitan area of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Focused on enacting antiracist corrections within their buildings, the teachers worked together to further their own racial equity education and create action plans. RaceWork, after proving successful and ending in 2014, lived on as Drs. Casey and McManimon presented their research throughout the country. After compiling their research and experiences, they’ve authored Building Pedagogues: White Practicing Teachers and the Struggle for Antiracist Work in Schools.

In early July, Dr. Casey and I chatted over Zoom about his new book. Building Pedagogues proves to be a firm challenge to what Dr. Casey’s colleague, Dr. Beverly Cross, calls that “same old oppression.” Despite a noticeable shift towards anti-racism in the national dialogue in light of the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests, the structural problems being challenged today are largely the same ones that RaceWork teachers were combating in 2012. Building Pedagogues remains salient in its modeling of effective anti-racist professional development for teachers. Here, Dr. Casey shares ideas that are further explored in his new book and describes his hopes for restructuring education in light of anti-racism work and COVID-19.

Dr. Casey on Minneapolis and the future of education:

Minneapolis is a really fascinating space because it's one of the only major metropolitan areas that's majority white in the United States. I believe because of that, many conversations around acknowledging racism, white supremacy, and structural racism get buried and excluded because of the seeming absence of communities of colors. Much like most other major cities, Minneapolis is segregated. There's that out-of-sight, out-of-mind, privilege bubble. In some terms, it feels like a thicker, bigger bubble in Minneapolis compared to other places I've spent time in. I think what we've seen since the murder of George Floyd has been a really sophisticated, coordinated effort up in Minneapolis.

I stay hopeful and optimistic about the transformations we may see. But I think there are all kinds of interpersonal work that needs to be done for folks to process and understand their own roles and complicities in these systems. In some ways, that's where our book may be an intervention. It's a book about white teachers. We're primarily concerned about what happens in schools. I entered education because (I might make the joke flippantly) you do "get 'em while they're young." Because it's not too late if you're working with young people. To me, rather than trying to figure out ways to change people's minds later, perhaps there's actually some curricular interventions here. Perhaps there are actually things we can be doing on the K-12 side that can be more responsive and stave some of this off in the future. That's where I draw inspiration and hope from in this moment, even if it's buttressed or nuanced by COVID-19. I'm hopeful that people are looking for more anti-racist texts and strategies and looking to become smarter about being anti-racist in this historical moment. So to that end, I hope the book is helpful.

Dr. Casey on white privilege and inaction in professional development:

If the point is to be a good white person—one, I don't think there is such a thing. If I can convince myself that I'm a good white person, I do not actually understand how systems and structures work. When we talk about white structural supremacy, we mean that regardless of the actual sentiments, the system itself working the way it's supposed to with everything baked into it will reproduce white supremacy. There is no “outside white supremacy” for white people or for people of color. [I can't] just think hard enough, know all the things to say, or just confess my privilege beautifully enough that somehow this goes away. What's happening between my ears is incapable of transforming the structural reality. Structures and systems don't change with individual people. There are no one-person revolutions.

Dr. Casey on making small changes in the school system:

Rather than thinking, "I wish I could find the answer," maybe we could actually get up to something. Perhaps I can do something that feels really small, but see what a lot of really small stuff actually does, and there's a trickle-down. I'll tell this story: I was getting ready to workshop with this elementary school in St. Paul, where a dear friend of mine was the vice principal. A fourth-grader, I will never forget this little guy, he had to go to the principal's office. So I asked, "Why are you here? What happened?" And he said, "Well, I'm a bad kid." He's ten. That is school. That's the power of school to shape worldviews, that's the power of school to shape life-chances. But school is also the site that he can recover from being a "bad kid," or thinking of himself as one. I think in those moments, remembering that there are things I can do in my position as a teacher, the relative privilege that that is, there are all kinds of bounds on that, teaching is one of the sites, one of these locations, that disproportionately impact life chances of the young people that I'm working with.

Dr. Casey on his hopes for the Master of Arts in Urban Education program:

I'm wildly excited for the M.A. program to continue to grow, and coming off of our last incoming cohort—I just wrapped up my first course with them, and they are such a dynamic group. Every year we get folks from other areas, other parts of the country, folks who are in the classroom or on their way, and folks looking to do different kinds of things. We have three people with social work backgrounds in this current cohort. I'm just excited to see where this group goes with their projects.

I suppose I'm more excited longer-term about having more people in local schools that have been through our program. Not necessarily because we all share a singular worldview or something, but more because there will be so many opportunities to have Rhodes be more robustly involved in K-12 schools locally. Obviously, I think we have a lot further to go, but just trying to think t10 years in the future, and maybe five percent of local teachers have been through a Rhodes program? How cool! I’m thinking long term, too, about school leaders and who's actually making hiring decisions, district-level kinds of folks. I think in some ways, the more involved we can be, the more resources we can bring to the local district—that feels redistributive to me. That feels like increasing life chances.