SEL Day 2021: Reimagining SEL for Social Justice

By Dr. Shannon Wanless, Director, Office of Child Development


On SEL Day 2020, Dr. Tia Barnes and I made a call to the SEL field:

“Before SEL Day 2021, join us in committing to set aside time and make safe spaces to grapple with your colleagues about ways we can strengthen the equity gaps in the SEL field and to raise a generation of students and teachers that are prepared to use their SEL skills to fight for social justice.”

This call has stayed at the front of my mind through a year filled with many injustices, and many reasons for hope. The more I reflect on developing my own skills to advocate for social justice and on how to help my students do the same, the more I see the critical role of harnessing social emotional skills for this goal. SEL has not typically been conceptualized or applied for social justice, but it is becoming clearer to me how we might use social emotional skills to see and disrupt injustice, and imagine and build a more just and equitable world.

See and Disrupt Injustice

Seeing injustices requires (1) becoming aware of the fact that we are each playing a role in perpetuating systems of privilege and oppression, and (2) being willing to see the world through others’ perspectives, even when it seemingly contradicts our own perspective. All of this necessitates nuanced SEL skills. Questions that might help us make sense of these nuances are: How do we broaden our self-awareness to simultaneously hold the fact that we may make statements that are racist and anti-racist in the same conversation? How do we know and take pride in our own identities and yet allow them to be permeable enough to make space for reconsidering the past and making space for change in the future? How do we enhance our perspective taking skills to be able to consider a situation with historical context and through the eyes of multiple identities and intersectionalities?

And once we see injustice, it takes courage, a commitment to our humanity, and fine-tuned relationship skills to disrupt it. Our society has been built to have a strong gravitational pull toward white supremacy. For me, fighting against this pull means that my well of self-management skills needs to be substantially deeper than it has ever been before. When it is easier to stay quiet, or look the other way, or perpetuate the status quo, how will we draw on our internal regulation to push ourselves to disrupt injustice? And even when we do speak up, what are the relationships skills needed to make these efforts impactful? This seems like a different kind of relationship skills than what we typically hear about in the SEL field. To me, changemaking relationship skills help us to build coalitions with others, to be open to hearing that our own well-intentioned efforts to disrupt injustice may actually be causing harm, and to understand power dynamics well-enough to know exactly what steps are needed to produce actual change.

Imagine and Build a More Just & Equitable World

Seeing and disrupting injustice is only part of the social justice work that is needed. As one of my mentors, Michelle King, reminds me, we have never actually seen a just and equitable world. While we are disrupting, we must also be building. SEL skills can help us to create a new way of being together that looks completely different than anything we have ever known. One of the reasons SEL is so necessary for imagining the future, is because we cannot do this work alone. By definition, this new world is one that prioritizes interconnectedness. A truly just and equitable future is one that is co-created across many identities and perspectives. This process is quite different than our current way of drawing on a narrow group of voices to create SEL initiatives and activities, and then encouraging others to use them too. To imagine and build with others, we must have spaces where everyone can speak their truths, feel a sense of belonging, and be heard and valued for being our true selves. Rather than looking outside of ourselves for “what works”, we must start to look within and to each other to figure out what it means for each of us to live a life that is committed to actualizing the beloved community.

All of this work ultimately takes the shape of a lifelong practice that takes steadfast perseverance in the face of inevitable setbacks, humility to know that the process of learning and unlearning never ends, and the skills to cultivate authentic relationships with trusted friends who will hold you accountable and be part of your practice of collective care. As I look toward the upcoming year and imagine where we will be on SEL Day 2022, I am optimistic that our field will embrace the call to reimagine and repurpose our skills to address the most pressing task of our time.