“At Heart, I’m Still a Teacher”: Cailey Underhill G’13 Transitions from Education to Environmental Advocacy

Cailey Underhill G’13 was in her fifth year of teaching high school English in rural Northern New York when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Sitting in lockdown at her dining room table, she googled “How to save the planet.” That search led her to a new career as an environmental advocate who, in her words, still has the heart of a teacher.

Syracuse University School of Education caught up with Underhill to ask how and why she made the transition (“I’m still driven by my desire to protect the environmental future my students deserve”); her work advocating for teachers, students, and education; and why teaching is like a Swiss Army knife.

About Cailey Underhill

Cailey Underhill headshotCurrently, Underhill is the Advocacy and Development Director with Solar Rights Alliance—a California-based nonprofit that “believes in the right to make energy from the sun.” She graduated from Cazenovia College in 2012 with a B.A in English and from the School of Education in 2013 with an M.S. in English Education (Grades 7-12).

Before joining Solar Rights Alliance full time, Underhill was Lead Environmental Field Organizer for Green Corps—a Colorado-based “field school” for environmental organizing—where among other tasks, she launched and managed a Solar Rights Alliance campaign to aid residents through streamlined rooftop solar permitting, as well as serving as a trainer and staff manager for other field organizers and teams of volunteers.

Underhill began her advocacy career, while still a high school English teacher in the Canton (NY) Central School District, where she taught English 9 Honors and every level of English 12.

As Political Action Committee Coordinator for New York State United Teachers, Underhill lobbied elected officials for educational equity, inclusion, and reform. Simultaneously, as Gender and Sexuality Coordinator at SUNY-Potsdam, she helped establish the Office of Gender and Sexuality, creating a welcoming and safe space for LGBTQ+ students to obtain resources.

Describe the responsibilities of your current job.

I am currently the Advocacy and Development Director with Solar Rights Alliance, a statewide nonprofit association of California solar users. We envision a California in which millions of everyday people and communities—including homeowners, renters, farmers, and schools—can benefit from the freedom of rooftop solar energy.

“[Being a teacher] means you are, more or less, prepared for just about anything because you are bottom-line responsible for everything.”

But rooftop solar is under attack from powerful monopoly utilities in California. We believe in the right to make energy from the sun and that people are their own best advocates. So, we develop tools, resources, and trainings to help individuals harness their grassroots power to support rooftop solar.

In my role, I get to do a little bit of everything. I conduct research to keep my finger on the pulse of the rooftop solar landscape; assist in developing strategies to get rooftop solar growing again; craft toolkits and materials to help folks take action; prepare people to lobby with their elected officials; build coalitions; run meetings; answer consumer questions; organize events and protests; do web and graphic design; and fundraise, phonebank, and petition.

Most importantly, I work with a wide array of wonderfully passionate people to help them advocate for what they believe in. Or, put another way—at heart, I’m still a teacher.

While a teacher, you juggled other work—including for your union—how did you manage that, and what did you learn about yourself?

The answer to the first question is pretty simple: I believed deeply in the importance of the work, and I worked really hard. The answer to the second question is pretty simple too: I learned that I was already prepared for those jobs because that’s what it means to be a teacher. It means you are, more or less, prepared for just about anything because you are bottom-line responsible for everything.

But it would be remiss of me not to add that I learned something about the world, too. I took those additional jobs because I wanted to advocate more directly for teachers and students. But I hope most people are aware that teachers generally have more than one job because they must.

Despite being the profession that makes all other professions possible, public school teachers are rarely paid what they are worth. And not just in the moral sense of “worth,” but in the literal day-to-day practicalities of buying groceries and paying rent. Teachers are profoundly hard workers who care deeply about their students and believe in what they do. I learned the world does not always treat them with the respect they deserve. Our society can, and should, do better.

Why did you decide on the career change from teaching school to nonprofit advocacy?

I decided to become an English teacher because I believed in the power of stories to shape our world, and I believed in the capability of young people. Teenagers shine so brightly with all that we can be. I loved being a teacher, and it was the honor of a lifetime.

“My skills and experience as a teacher underpin nearly every aspect of what I do.”

Then the pandemic hit—it changed my conception of time: I realized we are out of time to solve our environmental crisis. I had a choice to make: I could continue hoping that my brilliant and wonderful students would grow up to save the world, or I could change course and step up to fight for the future they deserve.

So, sitting at my dining room table in the middle of the pandemic shutdown, I googled “How to save the planet”—true story!

An organization called Green Corps popped up, which offers a fellowship program where they send participants all over the country to learn how to lead grassroots environmental movements. I applied on the spot, and my first campaign was with Solar Rights Alliance. And in all I do, I’m still driven by my desire to protect the environmental future my students deserve.

What teaching skills are useful in your current work, and how did the School of Education prepare you?

I have often said that a teaching degree, especially in English, is like a Swiss army knife: it helps with just about anything.

In the case of grassroots field organizing, the parallels are striking. When developing a goal for a particular campaign, it’s exactly like backwards design. When developing materials and tools that will help a wide range of people take action, it’s exactly like universal design. When explaining complicated topics like streamlined rooftop solar permitting, it’s exactly like teaching Shakespeare. My skills and experience as a teacher underpin nearly every aspect of what I do.

I’m deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from brilliant educators like Dean Kelly Chandler-Olcott and Professor Marcelle Haddix. The education they offered was best-in-class. I still have all my notes. I still have all my textbooks. I still carry with me all the wisdom and experience they imparted. I am still, and always, grateful for everything I learned during my time in the School of Education.

What thread—values, skills, a vocation—connects all of the jobs that you have had so far?

I’ve always wanted to be helpful. From my early days as a bookseller in Barnes and Noble, driven by a desire to help people find the stories they were looking for; to my work as a teacher, driven by a desire to help students harness the power of language; to my work as a field organizer, driven by a desire to help the planet, there’s definitely a theme there.

“Because you’ve learned how to be a teacher, you already know how to do all the stuff at the core of most other professions.”

And I’ve always believed in our collective capacity for good. I’m often reminded of John Lewis’s autobiography, Walking with the Wind. In the prologue, he recounts a day from his youth when he and his cousins and siblings were playing at his aunt’s house when a storm hit. The storm was so powerful that the wind began to lift the house off the ground. His aunt directed the children to hold hands and walk back and forth across the house to whichever corner was lifting.

By “walking with the wind,” they held the house down. He explained that it’s a good metaphor for the country: if we hold hands, moving towards the issue that needs us most, working together to hold the house down, then we can weather any storm together.

What advice do you have for School of Education students looking into going into public advocacy?

Our country is in desperate need of passionate teachers who have learned from stellar educators like those in the School of Education.

If teaching is right for you, I hope you give it a fair shake. But if you decide that being a classroom teacher isn’t the right fit, then I hope you believe you are capable of doing something else. Don’t be afraid to give it a whirl.

There are lots of ways to change the world, lots of paths to take and people to meet and differences to be made. And because you’ve learned how to be a teacher, you already know how to do all the stuff at the core of most other professions. The only thing left is to try.

Janie Hershman ’24 contributed to this story.