As educators and caregivers, we have the power to create learning environments that inspire joy and curiosity and foster affirming, loving spaces for all young children.
To explore the early educational experiences of Black children and deepen our understanding of how to create meaningful learning experiences for all children, the Center on Culture, Race & Equity (CCRE) at Bank Street College hosted its third annual Black Lives Matter at School Week Early Childhood Symposium on February 4 titled “Disrupting Anti-Black Racism in Early Childhood Education: Center, Abolish, Liberate.” The event, hosted as part of the national Black Lives Matter at School Week movement, provoked a meaningful dialogue on how we can abolish structures, mindsets, and policies that maintain anti-Black racism across early education settings.
“Disrupting anti-Black racism is a lifelong pursuit that every single person must commit to if we are to see a shift toward liberation for Black children and for all. This can and will begin with our youngest people,” said Takiema Bunche-Smith, GSE ’97, Event Organizer and Executive Director, Center on Culture, Race & Equity.
Held virtually this year, the event welcomed close to 2,000 participants from across the country. There was Spanish and American Sign Language interpretation and live closed captioning to create an inclusive, accessible space for engagement.
To begin, Bunche-Smith presented opening remarks about the ongoing threat of White supremacy and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black communities. She noted that 2020 was a year that brought increased awareness around systemic racism and a deeper effort by educators to understand how to better support Black children, who research shows begin to experience anti-Black racism in their youngest years with disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion for 3- and 4-year-old Black preschoolers.
Next, Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, President, Bank Street College, spoke about Bank Street’s commitment to teaching and learning as expressions of justice. Additionally, he addressed the critical need to rethink our current educational systems, particularly child care, in order to create more equitable and culturally responsive environments for all children.
“During their earliest years, the most critical phase of brain development, Black children and the families who raise them are particularly vulnerable to the negative impacts of educational inequities as they are at the foundational stages of their educational lives,” said Polakow-Suransky. “This gathering today represents Bank Street’s commitment to center Black children as we imagine a different future and learn together in order to transform the educational experiences of Black children.”
Several panelists then gathered on screen for a panel moderated by Akiea (Ki) Gross, MSEd, Founder of Woke Kindergarten and abolitionist educator. Gross also shared powerful 60-second texts—part of Woke Kindergarten’s resources—they authored for young children during the event. The discussion featured Iheoma U. Iruka, PhD, Research Professor of Public Policy and Director of the Early Childhood Health and Racial Equity Program, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Thomas Williams Jr., PhD, Policy Advisor, Office of Special Education and Early Learning, Kentucky Department of Education; Denisha Jones, PhD, JD, Director, Art of Teaching Program, Sarah Lawrence College; and Nikolai Pizarro de Jesus, MBA, Consultant, Author, and Parenting Coach.
Throughout the conversation, panelists explored a range of meaningful topics around disrupting anti-Black racism, including advocacy, research and policy, unschooling, and parenting and caregiving. The rich discussion focused on essential questions, such as “What types of liberatory early childhood policies should we be demanding?” and “How can we structure our research in a way that ensures we are centering and affirming the humanity of young Black children?”
After the panel discussion, attendees enjoyed a 15-minute Kukuwa dance activity led by mother-daughter team Kukuwa and Coach Cass. In addition, Peggy François, a teacher at Maple Street School, performed an original song titled “Black Lives Matter.”
Closing out the symposium, Bunche-Smith expressed deep gratitude for the collaborations that happened at Bank Street and beyond to make the event possible. This included CCRE’s colleagues, partner organizations, the event panelists, and all educators and people who work toward creating environments of “care, love, support, representation, and joy” for all children each day.
Bunche-Smith encouraged participants to attend other Black Lives Matter at School events, such as those hosted as part of CCRE’s national partnership that was established this year to support the Year of Purpose, which encourages the movement to expand its work throughout the entire year. For example, Oakland Starting Smart and Strong will host “Centering Young Black Children in Oakland: Incorporating Anti-Racist Principles into Early Learning Practice” on March 16. Additionally, a recording of the February 24 “Author Panel: Celebrating Black Voices in Children’s Literature,” hosted by Tandem Partners in Early Learning, is available here.
To learn more about the work of the Center on Culture, Race & Equity, visit bankstreet.edu/ccre, view a recording of the event here, or tune into a WPIX 11 interview with Bunche-Smith titled “Combatting Racism in Early Childhood Education.”