“I decided to start an Allies Club because in 2011, [I heard of] at least five boys who were middle school age who all committed suicide because they were perceived as gay. And I can’t explain it more than just that it really created a profound shift in me. It made me think that if 12-year-old kids were that miserable in school that they killed themselves, that there were 12-year-olds in my school that were that miserable.”
“I just sort of pictured myself walking through the halls and looking at all these kids during passing periods and seeing them walk by thinking that I’m going on in my day and that they are having days that are just hell on earth. Hell. And I just couldn’t walk by anymore thinking of my agenda. I started looking into their eyes and thinking, ‘I just have to help you.’ Enough. Enough of this.”
Librarian, Manhattan Middle School
The Beginning: Manhattan Middle School
Barb Miller, the librarian at Manhattan Middle School in Boulder, Colo., has worked diligently over the past five years to create an Allies Club that now has more than 100 student members. This group meets weekly to explore diversity as it relates to students’ lives. The Allies group brings attention to the ways that certain groups are treated differently and works to understand the value of differences and to accept all people for who they are.
Through activities, deep reflection, and connections to the community, Miller has helped to create a cultural shift at Manhattan where students are encouraged to support one another as allies in school and the community, standing up for those who are bullied and judged negatively for being outside the norm, particularly those norms based on sexual and gender identity. The term “ally” has become a verb for Miller and her students as it is a practice to be cultivated and honed over time to best support fellow students, teachers, and community members.
The work that Miller has done at Manhattan paved the way for five other Colorado middle schools to initiate this important Allies program last year. AXL Academy (Aurora Public Schools), Erie Middle School (St. Vrain Valley Schools), University Schools (a Greeley charter school), Kunsmiller Creative Arts Academy (Denver Public Schools), and Centennial Middle School (Boulder Valley School District) were part of The Colorado Education Initiative’s (CEI) pilot program, and their work and feedback coupled with Miller’s original program have largely informed this tool.
Starting, maintaining, and garnering support for an Allies program takes personal work, purposeful planning, and insight into the particularities of the school environment and student needs. There is no magic formula for developing a group that explicitly works to create an environment of safety and inclusivity, though all teachers can learn from these considerations, drawn from the inspirational work these schools have done with their students as they work toward safer and more welcoming schools for all students.