Rachel Ehrlich has a really nasty cold, following a surprise snowstorm that just about shut down New York City. It had taken five hours to get home that night, and a tree had fallen in her yard. When I suggest postponing our interview to save her flagging voice, she won’t hear of making me miss my deadline. Instead, she charges through an hour-long conversation, veering from serious introspection to vivid storytelling to nuanced care when she talks about her students. Even between coughs, she’s clearly unstoppable.
Posters from childhood hang in Ehrlich’s office: one says, “No Nukes,” another reads, “US Out of El Salvador,” and a third says, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Ehrlich, who serves as the chair of the Upper School ethics department and a college counselor, has also filled the room with books that “feel like important old friends” and other mementos from a life of social justice action. She brings that spirit of activism directly into the classroom.
“I come from a long line of sibling activists in my family, so I've been going to no nukes protests, protests in favor of women’s rights, and protests against unfair government practices probably since I was six or seven years old,” she says. The sixth of eight children, Ehrlich watched her siblings display a kind of advocacy that was rare in conservative Huntington Beach, California, where she grew up. Her family stuck out: they didn’t drive a car, they didn’t watch TV, and her parents were poets and artists. But Ehrlich didn’t mind being different. She was raised with the idea of “critical inquiry, and that being an active citizen meant the ability to question the norm [...] and to try to make the conditions better than they were for most people — not just the people in charge.”
Ehrlich continued her activism through high school during the HIV/AIDS crisis. “In the 90s, if you were queer and coming out, it was really difficult not to get involved in what was happening in this country around HIV and AIDS,” she says.
It felt like we were fighting by ourselves without a ton of resources, but it was amazing. It felt so joyful and powerful to watch people fight and to be a part of that fight.
A stint as a camp counselor during her early college years was an early harbinger of her commitment to social equity. When one camper’s sibling was hospitalized because of HIV, the camp directors would not allow the child without HIV to return to camp, for fear the disease might be contagious. Disgusted by their prejudice and ignorance, Ehrlich quit immediately. Her next move was to write a grant to start a camp for children infected or affected by HIV. She ran the camp for five years, eventually leaving college when she was 19 to live in San Francisco and direct the camp full-time.
She was one of the younger people in the San Francisco queer activist community, which was dominated by older lesbians. “It was where I got my queer education,” she says. Working in that environment was marked by powerful joy and devastating loss. The community of activists was tightly knit, “fierce, protective, and unrelenting,” she says. At times, it seemed like a party — but then, on a weekly basis, she dealt with grief over the constant deaths. “It felt like we were fighting by ourselves without a ton of resources, but it was amazing. It felt so joyful and powerful to watch people fight and to be a part of that fight,” she says.
Wanting to support people with HIV/AIDS more holistically, Ehrlich moved into social work, getting a master’s degree in the field. She felt that as a social worker, she could focus on sweeping systemic issues but also address the needs of individuals and their families.
After years doing social work in clinics and non-profits, she started working in schools and “realized how powerful the classroom could be as a place to help students activate their vision for social change.” After receiving a second master’s in education, she transitioned from social work to teaching. She joined ECFS in 2006 and has been the chair of the ethics department for eight years. In that time, the department has significantly broadened its course offerings to include about a dozen electives spanning social psychology, literature, and moral philosophy. The goal is to have a “variety and abundance of ways we can look at ethics — not just from a strictly philosophical point of view, but to look at the ways in which ethical learning can expand into other disciplines.” She teaches two of those electives — Educational Inequity and Crime and Punishment — both open to juniors and seniors.
In Educational Inequity, students examine racial and class segregation in public elementary and secondary schools. This semester, students will write a paper chronicling their own educational journey, connecting it to the identity privilege or disadvantage they’ve experienced. In the spring, they’ll analyze a New York City policy that affects K–12 students in the public school system based on its race, class, and gender dynamics.
The students in Crime and Punishment critique the United States’ system of mass incarceration, looking at the history of race and class dynamics. This spring, they’ll travel to Montgomery, Alabama, to explore the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which connects the legacy of lynching to our current conditions of police brutality and mass incarceration.
As Ehrlich teaches her students self-examination, she grapples with it herself. She struggles to reconcile her achievements with the structural advantages from which she benefited.
While so much of activism these days is what Ehrlich calls “one-off activism” — the kind where you do one thing, feel good about yourself, post a picture on social media, and call it a day — she is especially interested in deeply effective advocacy that is sustainable over the long term. Central to long-term change is learning historical context. Equally foundational is self-examination. “I'm interested in personal transformation first,” she says. “How do we dismantle our own biases and our own lenses so we can think really expansively and creatively about how to make change?"
“Solidarity” is Ehrlich’s favorite word in the English language, and she aims to prepare her students for activism that is steeped in exactly that. She provides a toolbox to “ask really strong and critical questions, to poke holes in what we think is the usual or normative ways of being, to turn things around and look at them differently, to make sure they're supporting multiple voices in the room, to ask, ‘What about the voices who aren‘t in the room — what would they care about?’,” she says. This solidarity work is especially important at an exclusive school like ECFS, and so Ehrlich stresses these conversations in everything the students do. “I really feel like the classroom is an active research lab for that kind of dismantling work before we go out and do the activism that is so critically needed in the world.”
As Ehrlich teaches her students self-examination, she grapples with it herself. She struggles to reconcile her achievements with the structural advantages from which she benefited. “A lot of things have come my way because I say the right things and have the right accent and I have the right skin color,” she says. She has watched friends without the same access struggle. “I feel rewarded for the accomplishments that have come my way, but I’m suspicious of them. I am proud of myself, and I do feel honored, but there’s always a little question mark next to it. It doesn't mean I'm not good at what I do, but it doesn't feel entirely fair, right?”
She sees herself surrounded by extremely smart people of color, but wonders why not more and what she is doing to prevent that. How can she dismantle the ways in which she is exclusionary? It’s a study in avoiding complacency, that the critical work of self-examination and actively trying to dismantle oppression does not end. And so she practices what she teaches: the necessity to live her social justice principles in all elements of her life. It’s the only way to make any sort of change — and Ehrlich is clearly a change-maker.