Studio Magazine Interview: Ms. Elizabeth Kouassi, P.S. 036 Margaret Douglas School
The Studio Museum in Harlem Education Department members Shanta Lawson, Jennifer Harley, and Chloe Hayward sat down via Zoom with long-time Studio Museum School Partnership classroom teacher Elizabeth Kouassi. Their conversation took place weeks before Ms. Kouassi retired from her long career in the NYC Department of Education as a way to celebrate her work as an educator and her long partnership with the Studio Museum.
The group spoke about her history working with the Studio Museum as a teacher at P.S. 036 Margaret Douglas Elementary School in Harlem, her pedagogy as an early childhood educator, and her legacy of integrating the arts into her classroom. The following interview is an excerpt from their conversation.
Shanta Lawson: I want to start at the beginning and ask, how did you become connected with the Studio Museum?
Elizabeth Kouassi: I was at a workshop for early childhood education and these awesome speakers were talking about how they were in partnership with different people in their community, and as I was sitting there listening to this workshop spiritually you (Shanta) came to me then. The spirit said “now go and ask her if she will work with you and see what she says.”
I said to you this was a spiritual connection because the spirit brought you to me to ask you if you would work with our school. You said I'll see what I can do. You wrote me a letter and you told me all the things you could offer [and what] it would cost to partner. At the bottom it was a zero balance.
I remember Chloe taking pictures with some camera from you know Mars someplace; we never saw one like that. She exposed them to an artist (Troy Michie), and she was using the photographs in collage, and now they're reliving the artist’s work. Everybody was learning so much because of the way you are so committed to using art and education and new knowledge about artists.
Chloe Hayward: I’ve witnessed you use art to tend to the social-emotional intelligence of the children. I'm wondering if you can say more about how art has impacted your life, and what art means to you emotionally and personally.
EK: We come from 112th Street and Lenox Avenue, in the Foster Projects. My mother used to take my sister and me all around because money was limited, but she always exposed us to museums and live performances. Every year we went to see the Radio City Music Hall Christmas show. It wasn't enough that it was okay we lived on 112th street, but we didn't have to stay on 112th street. She wanted to give my sister and me a different experience other than 112th street. It’s important people of color like myself have those same opportunities.
Jennifer Harley: I'm curious why being an educator in Harlem, and working with young people has been your life's work? You’ve been at PS 36 for thirty-two years.
EK: When you see the dynamics of the community in which you live, and you see all of the social ills, and you see all of the little people who are deprived, versus our counterparts, you want to do better. I always wanted to come to Harlem. I said God, if you get me out of here and send me to Harlem to teach, I said I will be eternally grateful, so he got me out.
One day I had a little person who was driving me up the Milwaukee River, so I went out to lunch and I'm trying to figure out how I can be of service. As I'm walking out of the school building, the spirit clearly says to me “get over it that's your ministry,” so my mind shifted immediately. He has something inside of him, he's saying something else a lot louder than his potential, but I have to find out so I can quiet his spirit. Art does that, right?
With art, his social-emotional area was beginning to be addressed. After I was able to quiet his spirit, he was quite charming! It was important I stood in front of the Black, brown, and Latinx children. It was important I get back to it, to serve the children in the community where I live.
JH: I think back to the classrooms I've seen in Harlem in other places, classrooms that I grew up in, and believe it makes such a difference to have not only teachers of color, Black teachers, but teachers who are willing to step out and think critically about the community around them. I am curious to know how the Museum provides learning opportunities that might not always be possible during your traditional Department of Education school day structure.
CH: To that point, can you share with us how your work with the Studio Museum has influenced the way you create in the classroom?
EK: It influenced every aspect. I'd like to think it first starts with the materials, then with the teachers who are artists. With art there is no right or wrong, I love that, and how the children are encouraged to explore their creativity.
JH: It’s fun to hear you talk about how a museum is a space to be in community, to eat together, to sit together, because that's what people should feel they can do in museum spaces. It makes a big difference you know this is a space that is not only for art making and viewing and conversation, but it's a space for you to be nourished, to be cared for, and to have fun. You stand out as someone who advocates as an educator for communities of color and the Black communities who are creating shifts and changes within schools and other institutions.
EK: We have to get some leaders to understand what really is important for our children because our counterparts have no problem, they look for it, they say, “where is the art? What are you going to be doing?” That’s why all I did was art art art art art! When [parents] see the work, they are so blown away. Parents are looking for the art, for their children to emotionally be okay, and this happens with the artwork.
SL: Right up there in terms of the priority of the right leadership that understands the necessity of supporting this work is investing in partnerships such as the one we have with PS 36. You talked earlier about how the Museum was able to deliver an invoice with a zero balance, and it is because we have funding and support for many of these programs.
With that in mind, as we look towards the future, and the Museum’s new building, a brand-new space, what do you hope for as you think about the future of the young people you have worked with, and what do you hope for from Studio Museum in the future?
EK: I would say don't change anything! You want to keep your hand on the pulse, the children you will be serving, and the teachers have to be taught because we have to be trained. To be someone who is patient with us is where you all did a beautiful job. Whatever it is it will come to pass because your hearts are in it. All of this is being done by people of color, it's us.
JH: I’m so curious to hear more about how you’ve advocated for your students and families during this moment, specifically given how during this time of COVID we know it has disproportionate effects in Black and Latinx communities. What does this year look like for you and how have you been able to support your community and your young people?
EK: I took a page out of Leslie Koplow’s book, and she talks about trauma. There's a book, Bears Bears Everywhere; through these bears, we create this social/ emotional platform. Name the bear, what is the bear feeling sad, mad, happy, sleepy. We had these discussions in the morning, they would bring their bears to the centers, the bears are like their friends. That gave me an opportunity to address the social-emotional aspects.
This year I let the parents know we are celebrating the children in Morningside Park, I’m going to retire and I’d like to do something with the children real big!
SL: Ms. Kouassi you’ve got to find a way to do it big and do it right! We’ve been talking a lot today about what you’ve learned as an educator, and we want to say we have equally learned so much from you as a person whose practice is centered in care.
Shanta, Chloe, Jennifer: THANK YOU MS. KOUASSI!
EK: I loved seeing all of us together again, THANK YOU!