Social Justice & Equity
What potentialities in human beings do we want to see develop?
This question from Lucy Sprague Mitchell, who founded Bank Street in 1916, continues to drive the School for Children today. Our work is based on the faith that human beings can improve the society they have created.
At Bank Street, social justice, community, and advocacy are at our core. We firmly believe that our diversity is what strengthens us. We continually challenge ourselves to grow from the opportunities and tensions inherent in people working and learning together.
We take a broad view of diversity. In developmentally appropriate ways, we explore aspects of identity including race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, social class, religion, gender, sexual orientation, family structure, ability, and learning styles. At Bank Street, children become advocates for social justice and allies in an inclusive community. Our work is grounded in supporting positive identity development for all students.
The power of diversity involves adults as well as children. The School for Children actively seeks families, faculty, and staff from diverse backgrounds who are willing partners in the quest for social justice. Each child and adult should be able to see themselves reflected in the larger community. This commitment is consistent with the progressive idea that schools should represent and improve the society in which they exist.
Affinity Groups at Bank Street
The term affinity group refers to people who share a similar identity but not necessarily the same experiences. The group offers a time for reflection, dialogue, and support. It ultimately strengthens the ties within the community and is central to creating an inclusive and thriving community. Below is a list of affinity groups at Bank Street:
- Parents of Children of Color (POCOC)
- Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, & Allies (LGBTQA)
- Learning Diversity Support Group
- White Anti-Racist Affinity Group (WAAG)
- Touched by Adoption
- Kids of Color (KOC)
- Touched by Adoption
- Banana Splits
Student participation in Middle School affinity groups is a family decision requiring consent. In the Upper School, students can independently join affinity groups and clubs without familial consent.
- Educators of Color (EOC)
- White Anti-Racist Affinity Group (WAAG)
Social Justice in the Lower School
In early childhood, social justice lives and breathes in children’s interactions. In the Lower School, we focus on sharing, friendships, same versus different, responsibility, fairness, and inclusiveness. We learn how racial identity, gender identity, learning differences, and family structure are part of our everyday lives. Children explore diversity through books, conversation, classroom guests, and music.
Students in the nursery program learn about sharing and friendships. They are problem-solvers and helpers. They work on a project book about their family and their role in the family. Students have classroom jobs, including taking care of classroom pets and plants. We all help clean up!
In the 4/5s we think and learn about our similarities and differences. For example, while people have different body parts, we are also similar in that everyone can be fast, slow, wear the same clothes, and can choose whether to be called a boy or a girl or another gender identifier. We work together to solve community challenges. We learn about social activists and activism within our classrooms, our school, and the broader world. Continuing the work started in the nursery year, we create family boards and learn from guests invited into the classroom who tell their family stories. Puppet shows help us examine issues of social justice, such as sharing, exclusion, and standing up for people. Supporting children in their ability to identify themselves with language describing their race, gender, ability, religion, socioeconomic status is a focus in the 4/5s year.
In the 5/6s, children are developmentally focused on fairness, whether it’s between peers, the school, or grown-ups. They create a family page in a book. We empower children to be advocates for themselves through the discovery of their own identity.
Social Justice in the Middle School
The Racial Justice and Advocacy (RJA) curriculum in the Middle School empowers all students to take part in developmentally appropriate lessons and activities based on themes related to racial identity and advocacy. It is a dedicated curriculum that focuses on positive racial identity and prepares students to be advocates for social justice.
For some of the lessons, children are in RJA groups. One group is an affinity space for children of color, known as KOC. This curriculum occurs once weekly over the course of ten weeks.
6/7s (Grade 1)
Thinking about communities is the major focus of the 6/7s social studies curriculum. Essential questions include: What is a community? How do communities function? What are the needs and wants of communities? How are decisions made? How and why are communities the same and/or different from each other? A big idea underlying this study is the interdependence between people from which concepts about personal identities naturally emerge. We also consider and discuss how race, economics, culture, and language affect neighborhood communities.
The 6/7s are developmentally ready to think about communities outside their immediate family, classroom, and school. They consider the essential questions in relation to communities beyond Bank Street and into greater New York City. Their learning culminates in the actual construction of a community, called Box City, made inside the classroom.
7/8s (Grade 2)
In the 7/8s, children are developmentally able to consider multiple perspectives. We study traditional fairy tales and consider whose stories are being told, and whose are not. Children then choose a fairy tale to rewrite, focusing on how to make the stories more inclusive of underrepresented identities and perspectives.
The 7/8s’ newfound capacity to consider multiple perspectives, combined with their emerging awareness of “long ago,” allows them to investigate how the Lenape lived before and after the arrival of Europeans to Mannahatta. Children discuss the pros and cons of the European invasion and how that has influenced our country’s political and racial structures. 7/8s discuss assumptions and stereotypes about modern-day Native American culture and are asked to consider ways in which they can stand up for the rights of marginalized groups in our society.
7/8s also spend the winter thinking about the concept of human rights: What is a “right” and what rights should all people have? They examine current and historical situations in which people were denied their rights. They also consider how these people advocated for themselves and their communities to secure their rights.
8/9s (Grade 3)
In the 8/9s, we focus on civil rights and the history of race in the United States.
We examine the quest for equality over the last 200 years through our study of Civil Rights, incorporating the narratives of African Americans, Chinese Americans, and Japanese Americans. We learn about laws that caused inequality, the ways people reacted to this injustice, and the upstanders and allies who helped support change.
We ask: What are rights? What rights do you think all people should have? How do people get rights? What do people do if they aren’t getting treated equally?
9/10s (Grade 4)
Community conversations, both planned and emergent, abound in the 9/10s—about classroom fairness, learning differences, peaceful conflict resolution, social identifiers, prejudice, activism, current events, and representation in books and other media.
Students begin the year studying food systems, and conversations about food insecurity, hunger, and equitable food access emerge. Students brainstorm what they can do to help alleviate hunger locally. This has led to child-driven fundraisers and experiences with organizations who do this work in the community. We move on to study world biomes, which leads to environmental advocacy to protect these habitats and natural resources.
In connection with our Human Growth and Development and RJA curriculum units, we teach a unit about gender identity. We read George, by Alex Gino, which is one of the first realistic fiction novels for this age level to include a transgender main character. The curriculum includes lessons in reading comprehension as well as lessons around gender identity and advocacy. We address topics including assigned gender versus gender identity, gender expression, and transgender activism.
Social Justice in the Upper School
Advocacy is at the center of the Upper School social justice curriculum. Below is just a small snapshot of the many ways we address social justice in the Upper School.
10/11s (Grade 5)
In the 10/11s, our social justice work is evident in our Social Studies, Current Events, and Community time curricula. In Social Studies, students explore an in-depth study of Culture. This provides us with many opportunities to address issues of equality, human rights, and stereotypes. Additionally, our Current Events work surfaces issues and topics around gender normativity, immigration, racism, and more. We use our Community time as a platform to discuss social justice while taking into account the developmental needs of our students. Some topics include equity versus equality, ability, and advocacy (both in our school community and the world at large). The curriculum for the 10/11s focuses on studying China and the stereotypes related to it. Students engage in persuasive writing about the issues in the community and society related to social justice and they study sex, gender, and sexuality. We engage in a series of lessons on learning styles, learning needs, growth mindset, and equity and with respect to learning. In music, students study world music and learn about political music from artists like Bob Marley or Fela Kuti.
11/12s (Grade 6)
Loudness in the Library: Empowering Students to Think Critically About Identity & Bias is a highlight of the 11/12s year. Students examine the implicit and explicit messages in children’s and young adult literature, advertising, TV, movies, and other forms of media to understand the effects of those messages on how they think about race and gender. Students learn to think critically about messaging, whether it is positive or potentially dangerous, and why.
We delve into the history, beliefs, and practices of major world religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Students study different religious practices to understand the similarities and differences, as well as some interactions between different cultures and religions. They learn of the origins of each religion and the traditions/beliefs each holds; this is reinforced with visits to places of worship for each of the five major religions. They examine the historical basis for various religious practices, and how traditions are maintained and adapted. There are also opportunities for students to reflect and to write about their own values, within and outside religion.
In Woodshop, students create figure sculptures—self-portraits or superheroes, in the gesture of how they are making the world a better place. In music, the students learn about the history of American popular music since 1955. There are frequent discussions about how music intersects with culture, history, and social justice. Racial and gender issues often come up in class as the students learn about different musicians.
12/13s (Grade 7)
In social studies, students study American history by engaging with the diversity of our country’s story every day. Students learn about the tapestry of multiple perspectives in viewing our nation’s history, concluding with an essay to discuss the access to freedom and rights for different groups over time.
The Science curriculum includes a unit on Human Sexuality and Reproduction. Students discuss diversity of gender, sexual orientation, and anatomy.
In the spring, the 12/13s learn about jazz in music class. The history of the genre and its unique place as an American art form created by people of color is paramount.
13/14s (Grade 8)
Over the course of 16 weeks students engage in four major themes of study, which are Peer Pressure, Racial Identity, Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation, and Advocacy. In addition to their own explorations of self, students are taught to see and confront injustice, to be upstanders (individuals who recognize when something is wrong and act to make it right) rather than bystanders, and to engage difference through curiosity, decency, and respect.
Students study gender. In French class, they watch movies such as Tomboy and analyze the characters’ emotions and family structure and offer their opinions. They discuss grammatical gender in the French language versus biological gender. Students engage in cultural and historical studies that are geographically and/or temporally distant and compare and contrast these studies with their own experiences.
During the winter term—January and February—a comprehensive civil rights unit is taught, spanning Reconstruction to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Students examine the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, seminal Supreme Court decisions, legislative actions, executive orders, and highly orchestrated protests to learn the twists and turns of a century-long struggle to secure equal rights for black Americans. There is special focus given to the role of ordinary people and extraordinary leaders in initiating coordinated and long-term campaigns for lasting social and racial justice. Three overarching questions guide the unit: What are the ideals or promises about freedom and justice that the United States makes to its citizens? How are these ideals, rights, and promises different from the reality for many groups of people? What are specific actions people can take to protest inequality and injustice? Over the course of the unit, students come to appreciate that the civil rights movement was a primary force for the expansion of democracy for all people.