5 Questions With... Dena Simmons
The power of belonging
Dena Simmons argues that for education to have a positive impact, it has to happen in the right environment
When Dena Simmons was growing up in the Bronx, she loved going to school. But she didn’t always see her own experiences or reality reflected in what she was learning—the emphasis, she felt, was on white experiences. Since those days, Simmons has gone on to become an educator herself, as well as an activist for culturally responsive, inclusive teaching methods and emotionally intelligent, safe classrooms for all students. She's also given multuple TEDx talks and has a forthcoming book about her personal journey in education, White Rules for Black People.
We caught up with Simmons ahead of her upcoming lecture at Loyola University Chicago, entitled “Nurturing the Whole Child for a Future of Belonging,” to discuss her path in education and the need for a culture of belonging:
Why did you become an educator?
When I was in seventh grade, my social studies teacher, Mr. Dillon, pulled me aside at dismissal and said to me, “You know, Dena, I want you to promise me that whatever you do in life, you’ll spend at least one year teaching.” I didn’t know where this was coming from but I realized he probably saw something in me that I didn’t see. I thought about what he said and then I realized, you know what, I actually do think I want to be a teacher. But I was clouded by poverty anxiety, and didn’t see teaching as an option because teachers aren’t paid well.
I went into high school knowing I wanted to be a teacher. I was very fortunate to go to a school for my kindergarten to 8th grade experience where I did feel I belonged. But it wasn't until the transition from my neighborhood parochial school in the Bronx to a boarding school in Connecticut that I realized the importance of belonging. I never felt like I belonged at my predominantly white boarding school, and I still don’t feel like I belong at my predominantly white office.
We know that education can be liberating if we do it well, but if not, it’s dangerous. And that’s why I do the work that I do but that’s [also] why I am always cognizant that the education that we provide is one with belonging at the core.
Your upcoming lecture is titled, “Nurturing the Whole Child for a Future of Belonging.” What will you talk to the Loyola community about during your visit?
I’ll be talking about the intersection of culturally responsive practices, emotional intelligence, and social-emotional learning so that we can create spaces where young people, faculty, staff, and everyone within a school community has the privilege and the safety to live and learn in the comfort of their own skin.
Too often, what ends up happening is that young people go to school where their experiences and their lives and realities are not reflected back at them. Imagine me, being a young girl growing up in the Bronx and learning about white heroes and reading white authors and reading about the suburbs. Nothing I ever read validated my experiences or my reality. So how can we create environments where our young people can see themselves reflected at them?
What happens is that when they do see themselves reflected, it’s not necessarily in a positive light. We see in the media how black and brown people and people on the margins are reflected, and then we internalize those narratives and think that’s all we can be. So [I’ll be talking about how] we can create communities of belonging, where all people, including the staff and the faculty, have the privilege and the safety to learn and live in the comfort of their skin.