On June 19, Chesapeake, Maryland-based saxophonist Brian Lenair played a silky-smooth rendition of “Someday We’ll All Be Free” as guests entered a virtual Zoom room for the Bank Street College of Education Alumni Association’s (BSCAA) Alumni of Color Virtual Conversation event. The music’s healing embrace aimed to inspire hope for change and soothe the spirits of participants as they prepared to embark on a painful dialogue of systematic racial injustice for Black people in America.
The event, which hosted alumni of color from across the country, was centered around the landmark 1916 Project, an ongoing initiative from the New York Times dedicated to re-examining the legacy of slavery in the United States. The 2019 launch of the project was timed for the 400th anniversary of the first Africans’ arrival in Virginia and helped facilitate deep discussions on American history and our nation’s narrative across the Bank Street community and institutions nationwide
“The horrifying image of George Floyd’s death and the social protests that have followed remind us that racial injustice won’t run its course in a finite period, like a virus, and then be gone,” said Michelle Fizer Peterson, Alumni Relations Coordinator, Development and Alumni Relations Office. “Racism is chronic, a condition of the system that has afflicted us for centuries, and like any chronic condition, we can never stop fighting it, or it will overwhelm us. This event provided community members of color with a place to engage in critical conversations and reconnect with other alums.”
To begin, Cecelia Traugh, Dean, Bank Street Graduate School of Education, graciously welcomed alumni, noting the significance of the event’s date of June 19—known as Juneteenth—which marks the day in 1865 when word of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed two years earlier by President Abraham Lincoln, finally reached enslaved people in Texas.
Next, co-presenters Erica Davis, GSE ’11, BSCAA President, and Pamela Jones, GSE ‘05, Supervised Fieldwork Advisor and Course Instructor, Bank Street Graduate School of Education, expertly led the gathering by facilitating time “to breathe” for participants through a presentation titled “The 1619 Project, Black Pain, and Black Joy: A Critical Meditation for Educators.” Throughout the curated conversation, an energized chatbox rang out with positive responses to prompts asking attendees to share “small joys,” a practice inspired by The Book of Delights by Ross Gay.
“How are you intentional about creating space for Black joy in the midst of so much Black pain?” asked the presenters, encouraging participants to meditate on their joys and write them in the chat window.
“The gardening of roses and watching them bloom;” “hiking;” “reading books that have been piling up;” and “adopting a new dog into the family” were just a few of the responses emanating from the interactive activity, which proved particularly meaningful during this time of widespread trauma felt from the dramatically disparate COVID-19 death toll highlighting economic inequities of Black people and people of color in America as well as the continuous news-cycle covering “I Can’t Breathe” police brutality, Black Lives Matter peaceful protests followed by rioting, and the tormenting video of George Floyd’s murder.
Leading an insightful conversation on The 1916 Project, created by 2020 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, co-presenters Davis and Jones examined the legacy of slavery and how America’s misrepresented history has marginalized 40 million descendants’ experiences of enslaved people. Additionally, the artfully produced presentation shared excerpts from Hannah-Jones’ work to show the country’s founding fathers’ hypocrisy in the framing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Alumni further explored ideas in virtual small-group breakout rooms where they shared personal feelings on how to stay strong emotionally throughout turbulent times before re-joining the larger group for discussions on community-responsive education and abolitionist teaching with lessons from experts Dr. Bettina Love and Dr. Duncan-Andrade.
“We are all craving more opportunities to connect and brainstorm and strategize,” noted Jones as the event culminated in discussions on moving from theory to practice and carrying new discoveries back into classrooms with the progressive and thoughtful pedagogy for which Bank Street is known.
One participant shared, “The conversation has given re-found energy to continue the good fight on behalf of my students.” Another attendee indicated the teaching moment had left her feeling “connected and empowered.”
Skillfully summoning motivational quotes from inspirational leaders of civil rights, Ella Baker, Frederick Douglass, and tributes to the importance of self-care, the presenters made the Alumni of Color Virtual Conversation unlike any other meeting during socially distant times, creating more of a conduit to channel power and possibility for productive purposes.
Participants left the discussion upbeat, with the music playing, and with a brighter sense of their Bank Street community as well as ideas to create opportunities in education for a more racially fair and just world wherever they may be.
“Oppressed people, no matter their level of education, have the ability to understand and interpret the world around them, see the world for what it is, and move to transform it.” – Ella Baker, American Civil Rights Activist 1903-1986