Celebrating Women’s History: A tribute to BJ:
Hi Gin –
I would love to dedicate a song to me dear friend and mentor, Bj Richards. The song is “Who Were the Witches?” (“who were the witches, where did they come from, maybe your great-great-great grandma was one, witches were wise wise women they say, and there’s a little witch in every woman today…”)
I read about Bj in Ms. magazine, in the spring of 1986. Her small (tiny!) child care program called Bj’s Kids, on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, was written up as a glowing example of integrating anti-bias education into early childhood programs. I was about to graduate from UVM with a degree in Early Childhood, and had a long-standing interest in what was then called “multicultural education.” I located a phone number, called the program, and asked to visit on an upcoming trip to the city.
The moment I walked through the door, I felt at home. Children and adults of all sizes and skin colors were playing busily, accompanied by the happy hum of engaged children. The space was made warm and welcoming with a wide variety of fabrics and posters on the walls, cozy furnishings, and books representing all kinds of people. My visit was planned to be an hour, but there was a big snowstorm that day and one of their teachers couldn’t make it in – I ended up spending the whole day, as Bj and her co-teachers felt equally at home with me.
Long story short – I worked at Bj’s Kids for two years, while my partner was in grad school in the city. Bj taught me about anti-bias education, introduced me to the amazing folks at Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California (Louise Derman-Sparks and the teachers in their lab school later wrote the first book on the topic: Anti-Bias Education for Young Children, published by NAEYC – National Association for the Education of Young Children). Bj and her co-teachers taught me about using gender-neutral words including firefighter, police office, mail carrier, and snowfriend, all of which now easily roll off my tongue without even thinking about it. They taught me about listening to people of color – in real life, in books, music, theater, movies, and art.
Women’s Day was probably the most-celebrated day of the year for Bj. She had/still has an *enormous* (maybe 6-8 feet x 4-5 feet) photo collage on the wall, with photos of mothers and aunties and grandmas related to Bj’s Kids, photos of women from around the world, women engaged in all kinds of work, women of all sizes and abilities/disabilities and ages, collected from magazines. She added more photos every year to include the families of new kids and teachers.
Every Women’s Day Bj hosts a huge brunch, with dozens of women. Each woman is encouraged to bring a poem or writing or song to share. Bread and roses are on the table, and bread and roses are also given to each mother/auntie/grandma of the children in her care. There is always a reading of Bread and Roses http://unionsong.com/u159.html.
The classroom is filled with books about all kinds of women, as well as music from women around the world. In 1986-1988, one of the kids’ and my favorite songs (played hundreds of times on an old record player that sat in a place of honor in the classroom) was Who Were the Witches. Bj wanted the kids to learn that women have a long tradition as healers, and this was one of the tools that she used. We listened to a version sung by Kristin Lems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GZguvylqTP0 (the song was written by Bonnie Lockhart).
Bj was one of the first adoptive single moms in New York City, at the forefront of a movement that saw women in their thirties and forties becoming mothers without waiting for partners. Her daughter was born on Brazil, and we welcomed them both home at LaGuardia airport with dozens of children and parents and teachers and tears of joy. Ten years later, when infertility brought me and my husband to the journey of parenthood through adoption, we stayed with Bj (who by then had moved to Chicago) for literally *weeks* while waiting for our son to be born (and again when his brother was born). Her daughter was present at our Entrustment Ceremonies, celebrating open adoption (and yes, we were early participants in this movement).
It was Bj who showed me how to work toward being an anti-racist, and how to teach children and families to work toward that as well. She worked with a group of kids to write to Band-Aid complaining that “skin tone” Band-Aids did *not* match their skin. We took the kids on city busses all over, visiting museums and parks. We took the children to eat at the only Ethiopian restaurant in the city.
It was Bj who gave me the courage to be the white mother of a Black child (which of course includes reaching out to and learning from women of color). She gave me the courage to go deeper and farther with my beliefs about raising children to be activists for justice, fairness, and respect for all.
Both as a teacher and as a parent, Bj has been a remarkable friend and role model. I love her!