Dr. Slesaransky-Poe Fights for Equitable Opportunities for All Students

By Caitlin T. Burns | November 15, 2019

Dr. Graciela Slesaransky-Poe

Professor of Education
Years at Arcadia: 
Courses: Princesses and Superheroes: How media shape children’s understanding of gender, sexuality, race, and disability; Intro to Inclusive Education; Disability Studies & Special Education Law
Expertise: Inclusive education at all learning levels
Languages: English, Spanish, Hebrew, and Italian
Advice to Students: “As I become older at a time when the national and global landscape seem to be going backwards, I try to encourage my students to become more brave and bolder. I tell them to vote, to get involved, to show up, to ask questions, to be curious, to be critical thinkers, to learn to find comfort in discomfort.”

“We need to take action to interrupt the systems that favor some and disadvantage others.”

– Dr. Graciela Slesaransky-Poe

“I call it the gringo mate—the tea bags,” Dr. Graciela Slesaransky-Poe remarked in her office about the recent trend in tea shops to sell the South American drink in a tea bag form.

Dr. Slesaransky-Poe with her mate and bambilla.

Instead, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe prefers the traditional way with a mate (a drinking vessel, pronounced mat-ay), bambilla (a metal straw that yerba mate is drank through, which contains a filter at the bottom), and a thermos of hot water. 

“Everything I do is unconventional, even after nearly 30 years of living in the US,” said Dr. Slesaransky-Poe, professor of Education, who brought her love of yerba mate from her home country of Argentina when she was offered a Fulbright fellowship in 1990. In Buenos Aires, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe was one of three professionals at a center teaching computer skills to individuals with disabilities. The center had limited resources, and Dr. Slesaransky-Poe said it was often “trial by error” to develop the tools the students needed to learn to communicate, write, and sometimes code.

However, through the Fulbright fellowship, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe said they saw an opportunity to learn about advanced resources for teaching computer skills. After being awarded the fellowship, she worked at a center affiliated with the hospital at the University of Pennsylvania, which had recently received an assistive technology grant to work with individuals with disabilities. There, she found resources she couldn’t have imagined in Argentina.

“We didn’t have the resources that existed here, so I would have an intuitive understanding of what the student needed to access the computer. One of my colleagues, who was an electronic engineer, would put it together,” said Dr. Slesaransky-Poe. “Then, I came here and I found all of these switches, boards, and computer access devices of all sizes and shapes available through catalogs. They blew my mind.” 

After her fellowship was completed, she went on to a doctoral program at Temple University in special education where she worked as a graduate assistant at the university’s Institute for Disabilities, which she said “shaped my professional orientation and mindset.”

“I became an advocate,” she said. “I think that I was one in Argentina, but during my time at Temple was when my advocacy was solidified. I had the opportunity to work and learn alongside people with disabilities and family members of children with disabilities. And it totally changed my perspective about what I thought I knew and who the ‘experts’ really were. It also helped me understand the responsibilities we hold as able bodied and neurotypical people to address issues of ableism we see in education and in higher education.”

Dr. Slesaransky-Poe noted that overall individuals need to be more aware of the many privileges they hold. She recognizes as a highly educated cisgender individual, she holds a number of privileges, but she also knows that some of her social identities are less privileged. 

“I’m Latinx, Jewish, an immigrant, I have an accent, my husband is black,” she said. “As we discuss in my course ‘Princesses and Superheroes’ we must become aware of our implicit biases, and yet that is not sufficient. We need to take action to interrupt the systems that favor some and disadvantage others.”

Today, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe is recognized for her work in inclusive education. Ensuring students—no matter their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, language, etc.—have an equitable opportunity to feel safe and welcomed, in an inclusive and affirming learning environment is just one of her passions. Throughout her work, as a professor and as the School of Education’s founding dean, she has carried this principle.

“Inclusive education has expanded beyond just disability,” said Dr. Slesaransky-Poe. “To me inclusive education, equity, diversity, and justice,  is professional, it’s political, and it’s personal. As the parent of two biracial, Jewish, queer kids, this is my life. When my son was very young, he invited us into the space of gender nonconformity and I realized I had a lot to learn to be able to be a good mother and a good teacher educator. Fifteen years ago there was minimum information and understanding about gender, the social construction of gender, and the intersection between gender and sexuality. That became part of my work, my teaching, my scholarship, my service, and my advocacy.”

What is Dragon Boating?

Dragon boating is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old, and credited to the Chinese legend of Qu Yuan, a 4th century statesman, poet, and adviser to the king, for starting the sport. Teams consist of 20 paddlers in 10 rows, who work together to move the boat forward. At the front of the boat is a drummer, who keeps the paddlers synchronized, and a steerer, who uses an oar at the back of the boat to steer.

Whether it’s presenting at the annual conference of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) about her experiences raising a gender nonconfirming child, or leading discussions on inclusive education at the University of Lower Silesia in Wrocław, Poland, Dr. Slesaransky-Poe is driven to ensure all students have the resources and respect they need to be successful in school. She’s been recognized for her work on numerous occasions, including by the Parent Education and Advocacy Leadership (PEAL) Center as the 2017 Champion of Social Justice award recipient, and Pennsylvania’s Education for All Coalition as the 2011 Patricia J. Creegan Award for Excellence in Inclusive Education recipient. In 2014, she received Arcadia’s Ally Award. 

“I feel like the culmination of all this work led to me being asked to co-chair the President’s Commission on Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI),” said Dr. Slesaransky-Poe. The JEDI Commission was formed this fall, and is charged with moving the University forward in becoming a just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive institution. “To me that is an incredible honor and a privilege. I feel that everything I have done has prepared me for this opportunity.” 

Schuylkill Dragons win the regional championships.

When she’s not advocating for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion, you can find Dr. Slesaransky-Poe on the Schuylkill River between April and November. Her other passion: dragon boating. A paddler with the Senior B division of the Schuylkill Dragons, a regional division for women 50-years-old and over, she takes to the water several times a week during the season to train to compete in regional and international championships, and collecting several medals along the way. In 2018, the team went to the world championships in Szeged, Hungry where they placed fourth—missing bronze by only a tenth of a second. This year, the team earned gold in the regional championships and secured a place at the 2020 world championships in France.

“Dragon boating has transformed my life,” said Dr. Slesaransky-Poe. “This is the first time I’m involved in a team sport or water sport. It’s an amazing group of incredibly strong and competitive women who push me physically and mentally to perform at levels I didn’t know I could.”