Rich Askey is “very talented at lifting up other voices,” said one colleague.
Fitting for someone who segued a lifetime in music—teaching in the Harrisburg school district and performing for Theatre Harrisburg—into a second career as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) and a seat on the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs.
In a sense, Askey is still directing choirs, conducting disparate voices to sing for a quality education and a safer space for every student in every Pennsylvania public school.
Born in Harrisburg and raised in Camp Hill, Askey chose Camp Hill High School over Catholic school on the strength of its music program. It was his first sign that “public education was a really good thing.”
Growing up gay, Askey was teased and physically assaulted. There were days he didn’t want to go to school. In high school, he found his safe space in the classroom of Mrs. Thurston, where bullying was unacceptable, and he felt free to cultivate his talents.
“Everybody has that one teacher, and Mrs. Thurston was that one teacher for me,” he said. “She saw I had talent. She saw the good in me.”
Later on, in his second college teaching practicum, Askey was “the Camp Hill kid all of a sudden at Trenton Junior High #4.” A veteran teacher calmed his nerves by advising, “Just be who you are, and let them know that you like them, and everything will be fine.”
“And it was,” he said. “It was. That sealed the deal for me.”
Askey launched his Harrisburg teaching career in the school district’s notorious former intermediate school on Wayne Avenue, originally built in a failed experiment in open classrooms.
“If you could survive there, you could survive anywhere,” said Deb Wire, a mentor of Askey’s who, in retirement, organizes the governor’s STEM Competition.
As a Harrisburg music teacher, Askey worked with arts groups and funders to bring in high-level, diverse performing artists for concerts and workshops.
“I always felt like the kids didn’t get to get out of the neighborhood,” Askey said. “They hardly got down to see the river. Let’s teach them there are things possible to achieve, and someone who looks like me is doing this.”
So, Askey survived—and thrived. He also stepped up to be building representative for the Harrisburg Education Association, the union local.
“You can’t fool a kid,” said Wire. “They saw how Rich moved about his school. Teachers would come to the door crying. They saw Rich for who he was—working his classroom, dealing with teachers, dealing with the principal. It was a lot for him, and he handled it beautifully.”
Askey served as HEA president when former Mayor Steve Reed controlled the schools through the Empowerment Act. Wire saw someone who listened to all sides and rejected the “us against them” mentality of teachers versus administration.
“Rich came to realize that wasn’t going to solve any problems,” said Wire.
After serving on the National Education Association board and as treasurer of PSEA’s southern region, Askey ran for statewide treasurer and won, “and that’s where life turned a little topsy-turvy for me,” he said.
Near the end of his second year as treasurer, the PSEA president left to fill a state cabinet post. That bumped Askey to vice president. Soon after, in November 2018, beloved PSEA President Dolores McCracken died after a short battle with cancer. Mourning the loss of his friend, Askey became president “before I should have even finished being treasurer.”
He was bolstered by the appointed vice president, Korri Brown. Every morning, she would ask, “What can I do for you today, Mr. President?” Their elevations gave PSEA its most diverse leadership ever—a gay man and a woman of color in top leadership.
The morning in May 2019 when Brown faced official election to her post, she suffered a brain aneurysm and died. While he grieved personally, Askey had to unify an organization plunged into mourning again.
“It truly grew me as a leader, because I knew then I had to step back and put the needs of other people frontline, 24/7,” he said.
The measure of a person is found in “the way they stand up to lead a challenge and make difficult decisions in the midst of those challenges,” said PSEA Executive Director Jim Vaughan.
“He has risen to an untold number of challenges,” he said. “I feel privileged to work with him and know that he has the ability to deal with any number of crises in a calm manner.”
In March, on Friday the 13th, when Gov. Tom Wolf closed schools—ostensibly for two weeks—Askey and Vaughan were in PSEA headquarters on 3rd Street. In a few chaotic hours, they helped draft the emergency legislation ensuring that all school employees, including support staff, would be paid and giving school districts the flexibility to continue functioning.
Askey’s meticulous preparation positioned him for such moments, Vaughan said.
“Very few people can walk in a room and make things look effortless,” he said. “It’s the work that goes into it that people don’t see that makes him look like he can speak off the cuff.”
Both Vaughan and Wire noted Askey’s reliance on procedures and documentation to assure fairness amid contention.
“Union leaders can be Jimmy Hoffa or they can be someone like Rich,” said Wire, recalling Askey’s Harrisburg days. “The bottom line was, people trusted him. Even when people weren’t happy with some of his responses, he was truthful.”
That preparation soon showed again.
Even before the racial justice protests of 2020, Askey had created the PSEA Educational Justice Committee, and PSEA trained members in implementing racial and social justice. Priorities in the union’s 2020 legislative agenda include attracting more teachers of color.
“All the research shows the ability to connect with a teacher and see some of themselves in that person make a huge difference in the education of a child,” Askey said.
Equality, Askey noted, isn’t the same as equity. He cited a favorite poster of kids looking over a fence at a baseball game. With equality, all are standing on the same platform, but the short ones can’t see. With equity, the stools account for their different heights, and everyone has a view.
“There is more bipartisan buy-in to these conversations than I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I have hope because at least there are more conversations about it. There’s more on the table than there’s ever been before.”
Askey and Ed Dishong had been partners for about 20 years when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015.
“We were watching the news,” Askey recalled. “So romantic. I looked over and said, ‘So, are we going to get married?’ Six weeks later, we went down to Rehoboth and got married.”
With an invitation to join the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, Askey expanded his circle of advocacy to include “my community.”
“That’s one of the reasons I feel like I have one of the best jobs in the world, because it led me to this opportunity,” he said.
Serving on the commission’s education committee, Askey helps craft model inclusion and gender equity language for school boards. He is also bridging back to PSEA, with a well-received workshop on gender identity and creating safe classroom spaces.
Amid the committee’s weighty discussions, Askey stressed the importance of training and resources that empower school staff to implement policy on the ground, said committee Co-chair Jere Mahaffey.
It was Mahaffey who cited Askey’s talent at “lifting up other voices” to ensure diversity in all conversations. And, he adds, Askey is fun to work with.
“Rich understands just how important and nuanced and complex these things are, but he always brings a sense of optimism. He always brings a sense of bright energy, and that’s really important to sustaining the work that we’re doing.”
Can Pennsylvania achieve equity? Here’s that Askey optimism, buoyed by this year’s surge of activism.
“I believe that society is going to lead the way, and we’re going to make the changes in public education that have to be made,” he said. “It’s hard work. It’s going to be a lot of work and a lot of self-examination and admitting what’s not right, but we have an opportunity that we’ve never had before.”