Crossing 3 Bridges to Center SEL in Equity

One thing has become clear to me over the last few weeks—creating a kind and tolerant society will not bring about the necessary changes to end inequity and racism. We need to intentionally develop an equity lens in our SEL work, if we want to influence and transform the behaviors and structures that have fed an unjust system. Dr. Dena Simmons says “If we truly care about the future of our young people and our nation, we can no longer be passive about racial justice. We can no longer walk away, bask in our comfort, and ignore the way racism is killing us and destroying our nation.”

If you are teaching SEL in your classroom or supporting educators to implement SEL practices, you may be wondering what to do and how to do it. How can you support yourself and others to use SEL as a vehicle to build more inclusive, caring and equitable learning communities? 

If you have been teaching SEL, it does not mean that you have been doing it “wrong”. It means that the work we have done until this point, teaching SEL skills and infusing SEL in our teaching practices, is not enough if we want to create social change and opportunities for ALL students to grow and thrive in a just society. 

I would like to appreciate Dr. Tia Barnes, Mrs. Kamilah Drummond-Forrester, and Dr. Shannon Wanless for their thoughtful feedback on this framework. Thank you for your support!

Crossing 3 Bridges to an Equity Centered SEL

  • SELF – From celebrating diversity to developing collective responsibility. When we think about the competencies related to self in the HEART in Mind model, honoring emotions and electing our responses, we have many helpful goals–generate ways to interpret our emotions, develop a positive identity, learn to manage our behavior, among others. These skills help students and adults develop a better understanding of who they are as humans in a way that they can appreciate the unique differences between individuals and celebrate diversity. This is good, but it is not enough. If we stay at this level, we are missing some opportunities to understand and explore why social expectations for emotional expression and management are different based on your gender, race or sexual orientation, among others. If we want to go deeper, we need to develop cultural awareness and critical consciousness, so we can understand how stereotypes and prejudices are generated, how we all perpetuate them everyday and how we can confront our biases. We need to support our students and adults to develop a positive racial and ethnic identity, and help white students and adults build the emotional capacity needed to face racism with a sense of collective responsibility and humility. That is to say, I see the value of living in a diverse world, and I am responsible for the collective wellbeing of my fellow humans. 
  • RELATIONSHIPS – From nurturing inclusive relationships to creating equitable relationships. Building classrooms where students show empathy for one another, and have skills to peacefully solve conflicts seems to be a commendable goal, right? We teach students to appreciate the emotions and experiences of others, we practice active listening and teach students to communicate assertively. Again, while these competencies are important to develop inclusive relationships, they are based on the premise that students’ sociopolitical and cultural context doesn’t influence their ability and that of others to establish and maintain these relationships. By ignoring the context, we are missing the challenges that students of color experience when trying to establish equitable relationships and the structures (some inside schools) that create these inequities. Our empathy and relationship building work needs to analyze how power and privilege influence social dynamics, white privilege and the reasons behind historical and systemic differential treatment. Students and adults need to develop their capacity to effectively communicate through different cultural and social contexts with fluency and humility, so the relationships that are created in schools and communities are not only inclusive, but also equitable. 
  • COMMUNITY – From building engaged communities to activating social transformation. I’ve written in the past about the importance of transforming with purpose, the last competency in the HEART in Mind model, and cultivating a “call to action” to improve our communities. In your SEL work, you may be working with students to identify challenges or issues at school that need improvement, and helping them get engaged with problem solving and implementation. When we think about centering our “why” in equity and racial justice, we move from engaging students in their communities to cultivating their activism and capacity for positive social change. This means creating space for students to see the consequences of the current social, economic and political system on white people, people of color and other minority groups, and engaging them to act on the injustices and inequities they observe inside and outside their communities. In this process, schools will be cultivating youth’s ability to speak up, question the status quo and confront injustices. Creating school structures that support collective responsibility and equitable relationships will allow our youth to lead the way and bring about social change. 

Crossing these 3 bridges may be difficult. You may question their need, feel uncomfortable or wonder how to get it started in the middle of a pandemic. No matter where you are, start by reflecting on what you need to do to cross these bridges yourself. We, educators, need to do the work first, before we can lead our teams and our students to do the same. Go back to the reasons why you decided to engage with SEL work in the first place, and think about what would happen if you could give that gift to all students, no matter their race, ethnicity, immigration status or sexual orientation. What would you do? Dare to be courageous. The work starts with us.

For more resources, check out these other posts: using your EQ to fight racism, preparing for difficult conversations about racial inequity, educating for freedom, and teaching more than “little virtues”

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