Dena Simmons, a prominent researcher of social-emotional learning, resigned from Yale University’s Center for Emotional Intelligence last month due to what she calls a pattern of behavior by some colleagues that left her feeling “tokenized, undermined and bullied.”
The final straw for Simmons happened in June, during an antiracism town hall sponsored by Yale’s Child Study Center. Several people Zoombombed the event, typing racial slurs into the chat directed at Simmons. She quickly logged out of the forum, but colleagues encouraged her to return, and after she did, more unidentified participants attacked her with further racist comments.
As a result of the incident, Simmons took a seven-month medical leave from Yale. She had planned to return, but ended up resigning instead with plans to start her own organization.
“I left primarily because Yale could not keep me safe,” she tells EdSurge in an interview this month. Simmons says she wants others to learn from her experience, which she argues is part of a pattern of well-known institutions that are failing to value and protect employees of color. “This is a persistent and pervasive problem in academe—and in many other institutions that were founded on whiteness. Many of us leave silently, and in our silence we become complicit.”
Simmons had been at Yale’s Center for Emotional Intelligence for more than six years, starting off as associate director of school initiatives, then moving into a director of education role and finally becoming assistant director of the center.
Even before the Zoombombing, she says she faced abuses by colleagues on the basis of her race, including “constant non-consensual hair touching” that made her feel exoticized. She had become a prominent speaker at conferences—including giving a TED talk—but says she was also told by a supervisor that the only reason people wanted to hear her ideas was because she was associated with Yale.
Simmons has been an outspoken advocate for infusing social-emotional learning efforts with larger socioeconomic context to help work against racial injustice, hate, and inequity, especially in K-12 education. In a 2019 interview with EdSurge, Simmons argued that if SEL skills are taught to students of color without illuminating a larger cultural context, the efforts risk becoming what she called “white supremacy with a hug.”
“People’s lives are at stake and so we have to approach anything we do with them—SEL, project-based learning, any of the sort of big names or trendy things—we just have to do it responsibly,” she said. “I worry that sometimes because of the trend, we do it for the sake of doing it and not because it could enhance people’s lives.”
She says some of her colleagues expressed alarm about those comments, suggesting that it might upset funders of the center. “We try to be for everyone, and doing that always leaves out BIPOC communities,” Simmons says, using an abbreviation for Black and Indigenous people of color. “‘Everyone’ is always code for ‘white people.’”
Other former employees of the center have recently shared similar concerns. Karina Medved-Wu, a former program manager at the center, told the Yale Daily News that she was asked to revise some SEL curriculum for the center that originally included the novel “The Other Boy” by M.G. Hennessey—which is about a transgender child—because it could be seen as “controversial” by schools.
In her resignation letter, Simmons wrote: “My hope is for you to come together and do what I have obsessively asked for year after year—get racial and social justice right at home first before doing it disingenuously in the world. You did not get it right for me. I hope that you will for others.”
Yale officials declined to comment for this article, citing policies that prohibit talking about employment matters. But leaders of the center sent a statement to the more than 2,500 schools they work with around the world regarding Simmons’ resignation.
“We want to stress that we do not tolerate discrimination or bias in any form,” the statement reads. “We care deeply about our team’s well-being and safety, and we continuously strive to create a workplace that fosters a sense of belonging where all people feel valued and connected.”
The Yale officials argued in the statement that the center’s approach to SEL, known as RULER, does take race and social-justice into account. “For example, RULER addresses the Learning for Justice (formerly known as Teaching Tolerance) standards with lessons focused on appreciation of similarities and differences in race, gender identity, cultural background, and experiences, underscoring the need for solutions to challenges within unique school communities and classrooms,” it states.
According to the statement, the center is taking steps to prevent future Zoombombing attacks, and it plans “additional training in restorative practices, to continue to deepen our commitment to creating and sustaining an antiracist workplace that is built on trust and mutual respect.”
Simmons responded that the Learning for Justice work on the RULER system that the center’s statement points to so proudly is work she led. During her time at the center she got mixed signals, she says: She was both asked to do work on diversity, equity and inclusion, but then “reprimanded” when she did it.
She said she had previously shared her concerns with colleagues, and that the center’s response “makes me reflect on how more moved to action they are now that they are frantically trying to uphold their reputation and because of shame.”
Also, she added: “Why is ‘training’ seen as an example as an action they will engage in? Antiracism requires systematic shifts and changes.” That means changing how colleagues work together and how they treat colleagues of color. “Is it possible,” she added, ”to be anti-racist at a university built on exclusion?”
Starting an Independent Effort
Since her resignation, Simmons started her own effort to do SEL work with schools in a way that is “authentic” and “without reprimand.”
The effort is called LiberatED, and she says it will be a school-based approach to SEL that will include resources for students, teachers, families and communities and training and coaching for educators. She plans to start with a listening tour to gather stories and hear ideas and needs from communities, educators and young people.
“Racial justice and healing-centered work will not be initiatives nor add-ons,” she said. “They will be built into the core of the LiberatED approach, learning from the wisdom of the people we have too often left out in any decisions about education.”
She said she plans to start working first with schools in the New England region and hopes to expand later.
Simmons is also working on a book, to be titled “White Rules for Black People,” about her experiences in a white world, starting with her childhood education at a boarding school in New England.
“It’s all the rules I had to learn to get to where I am today,” she says. “And everything I gained and everything I lost in the process.”