Lead Photo
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.


Blockquote Image Background
If only some people can belong and others cannot, then we have decided we are okay with inequity.”
- Dena Simmons

Why is belonging important, and why must schools and educators be intentional about it?

We cannot thrive without belonging. If only some people can belong and others cannot, then we have decided we are okay with inequity and we’re deciding that it’s okay that some children are not given as much belonging, and that some children go to school where they don’t feel safe. We can’t do anything, we can’t take risks, we can’t breathe freely without feeling like we belong. So if we really truly believe that all children should succeed, all children should thrive, then we have to start with belonging. Without it there’s really little room for what we need in order to learn, which is to take risks, to ask questions, to challenge authority, to be creative.

And part of that intention requires, on the educator’s part, the self-work and reflection on their own practice: What are the ways that my practice contributes or does not contribute to belonging? And then also considering, how do I, in my identity and my lack of self-awareness about my power and privilege, get in the way of belonging? If we start with the self-work, then we can support our students more thoroughly, because sometimes,if we don’t know our power and privilege, we can inadvertently abuse it in ways that actually get in the way of belonging. It is ensuring that we do work that is emotionally intelligent, and also requiring that there is cultural responsivity to our work and there’s cultural competence, taking on an equity and anti-racist lens to the work that we do at schools.

What is emotional intelligence?

It is essentially what we do with our emotions. It aligns with recognizing emotions in ourselves and other people, understanding the causes and consequences of when we feel a certain emotion. [It is] that self-awareness of our emotions, and managing our emotions. We can learn to be emotionally intelligent—we can always get better at it and we call it a practice.

Your work focuses on social justice and equity, which is also part of Loyola’s Jesuit character and the mission within the School of Education. How can people committed to these similar ideas come together as advocates?

At the core of Jesuit values or Catholic values is humanity. If we read any of the stories—about the Good Samaritan, any of the stories that I learned in Catholic school—at the core of it is getting rid of pretenses, stripping people of all of their money and everything they have and then seeing them for their humanity. And when we can see people for their humanity, we more easily can create spaces of belonging, create spaces of kindness, be more compassionate, be moved to act, to do something, to be helpful, to be in community and partnership with them, to have radical hospitality.

And whenever we allow people’s identities to be a barrier as opposed to an asset, then we begin to see those unnecessary distinctions. And I think it’s important to value people’s unique identities, not as barriers but rather as assets to a full fabric of a beautiful mosaic of difference and of diversity and of belonging and of humanity.