Annual Sunset Chat Explores Social Justice and Equity at Bank Street

On November 3, Bank Street Graduate School of Education alumni and students gathered for the 2022 Sunset Chat, an annual conversation with Bank Street President Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, that provides an opportunity for the community to engage in thoughtful dialogue and learn about new initiatives happening across the College.

Hosted by the Bank Street College Alumni Association (BSCAA) and facilitated by Polakow-Suransky and Raygine DiAquoi, Chief Equity Officer, Bank Street College, this year’s virtual event focused on social justice and equity. The discussion centered around an excerpt from the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine that examines the idea of the “historical self” and “self self,” which prompted questions about race and identity and how these themes connect to the work of educators.

A friend argues that Americans battle between the “historical self” and the “self self.” By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant. — Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

To further explore these ideas, DiAquoi and Polakow-Suransky spoke from personal experience. DiAquoi reflected on her lineage, specifically the impact of her maternal grandmother, who she described as a “carrier and keeper of ancestral knowledge and indigenous practices.” She said, “When anyone is speaking with me or interacting with me, you are also engaging with her and with that history in some way. I think, with everyone, you are also engaging their histories and multiple other ancestors, particularly as it relates to these conversations about liberation and oppression.”

Sunset Chat 2022 attendees on Zoom

Then, Polakow-Suransky shared his family’s generational history as immigrants and how this influenced his early work as the founder of a school in New York City for immigrant students. He said, “That history shaped my perspective on racism and social justice and also the importance of using education as a means for social change.”

Attendees also spoke about the “historical selves” they bring to their work and practice as educators and, later, examined the tension between the “historical self” and “self self” in how and what they teach.

During the discussion, one alumni participant noted how profound it was that, throughout her educational career, she was never asked any questions that recognized her identity, her personal story, or her historical self. She also spoke about the critical role of storytelling for this purpose in the classroom.

She said, “I fell in love with storytelling from the very time I started to teach, so that’s how I communicated the importance of knowing other people in other people’s cultures and recognizing and getting to know everybody else. All throughout the grades that I taught—and I have taught every elementary grade—I told stories and I had students discover their own folktales and their own family stories and bring them into the classroom.” 

Polakow-Suransky followed up by noting “how much richness and important information is usually held beneath the surface as we interact with each other, and creating spaces to bring that to the surface and to value it, I think, is part of what we’re trying to figure out how to do in our work.”

The discussion culminated in a question that asked attendees to think about what it would mean for Bank Street to acknowledge the “historical self” and the “self self” in its curriculum and instruction for children and adults.