Kelisa's headshot and the text "Kelisa Wing: Empower Students who are Self-Aware, and Challenge Systems of Oppression"

How old were you when you first realized you were different from your peers? Maybe you noticed that your hair was different, your preferences, or maybe your eye color. For me, I knew I was different not by how I looked necessarily, but by how others treated me. I knew that I was a girl, I was Black, that I loved to read and write, but I also knew that I was perceived differently by the world outside of those who loved me. I knew this at six years old.

As an adult who assists others on their journey of creating a more just society as well as dismantling disparate systems, I am especially interested in the role of identity development and the ways in which it affects us and the way in which we see the world. For many children of color, much like myself, there is a double consciousness that occurs during identity development that occurs within ourselves. Too many times, I had to hear things from my White friends’ parents like, “You’re not like the other Black people,” or, “You are so nice and well behaved for a Black person.” Understanding the damage this does to a developing person’s psyche is something we need to understand when we are working with young children of color and how these biases and the cognitive dissonance is something White people do not have to contend with. Knowing that you may believe one thing about yourself, yet society sees you as something else based on a tendency to view your singular life as a monolith and place blanketed labels on it based on unfounded biases and prejudgments. 

Knowing this happens to our students should be motivation for developing positive self and cultural-awareness and creating empowered students who speak up and speak out when something is not right in order to eliminate unjust systems that exist. The question is how to do this in a way that does not harm, but builds. 

1. Shifting from Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to Social and Emotional Equity (SEE)

Social and Emotional Learning is comprised of five elements: 

  • Self-Awareness: Students need to know who THEY are. Understanding themselves allows them to fully embrace their identity independent of others’ perceptions. 
  • Self-Management: Students need to know and be empowered to manage their feelings and emotions and not allow those things to manage them.
  • Social-Awareness: Knowing others and being aware of the needs of others empowers students to treat others better and understand more about people who are different than them.
  • Responsible Decision Making: This empowers students to think critically and be responsible in the choices they make.
  • Relationship Skills: Students need to know how to relate to others and to build relationships on trust and mutual understanding

I often find myself worrying that based on the dominant culture, SEL can shift into becoming oppressive based on who we are as educators when we show up to the learning space. Dr. Deena Simmons challenges us in this area by asking, “Whose social norms are we adhering to?” I often wonder as well, who gets to say what is acceptable behavior. Who gets to determine what is positive and what is negative? How does their own identity development play a role in these decisions and what perceptions, biases, and prejudgments have they bestowed on others while making these decisions? SEL can be fine if done correctly; however, we should be seeking to have Social and Emotional Equity (SEE). 

While equality is well and good, equity is providing each person with what they need to be successful, having freedom from bias or favoritism. The murders we have watched play out across our televisions and social media this year have shown us that we are living in a world that is far from equal and certainly not equitable. While it was encouraging to see the consciousness of America awaken over the summer, consciousness and awareness alone will not be enough in and of itself to make real sustainable and systemic change necessary to dismantling disparate systems. What will allow this to happen will be the commitment we make as educators to teach, to dream, and to act. SEE allows students to have what they need socially and emotionally. It builds them up from the inside out. It recognizes and considers the journey of their identity development and provides them with opportunities to immerse themselves in all aspects of their identity to develop a sense of pride about who they are and what they can become. From the internal work that emotional equity brings, then comes the external work for the social equity, which is the revision of policies, practices and interactions in your classroom, thinking, curriculum or anything that is not equitable for all of your students. Through that, our students reach a level of empowerment to help others become self-aware and change systems.

2. Creating a School-to-Activism Pipeline

My good friend Sharif El-Mekki often talks about the school-to-activism pipeline, and this is what we should be motivating our students towards, being able to see something they want to see changed in school, the community or beyond, and then changing it. Through things like service projects, students can begin to see themselves as agents of change, using problem-solving and teamwork to come together to impact the communities in which they live in.

3. Giving students windows and mirrors

In my book, Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline, I talk about the notion of providing students with a mirror, showing them a reflection of themselves in the curriculum we teach, and a window, allowing them to see a view of the world of people who do not look like them. This is important to allow them to be more self-aware and culturally aware of themselves and others.

Realizing the importance of our role in the lives of our students can allow us to view teaching as social and emotional equity and justice. We owe it to our students to teach them how to read, write, think critically, become self-aware, culturally aware and to be empowered to know that they have the power to imagine a world that is much better than the one we are living in, and then the audacity to change it!

Kelisa Wing is the author of Weeds & Seeds: How To Stay Positive in the Midst of Life’s Storms, Promises and Possibilities: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline, and If I Could: Lessons for Navigating an Unjust World. In 2017, Kelisa became the first person of color to be the Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA) State Teacher of the Year. She is the 2017 University of Maryland University College Alumnus of the Year, a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader, a member of the Leading Educator Ambassadors for Equity (LEAE), a member of the Education Civil Rights Alliance (ECRA), and an advisor for the Learner Variability Project (LVP). She is a speaker, educator, and activist for racial justice and school discipline reform. She is also a regular contributor to Education Post.

To hear more from Kelisa, be sure to check out her webinar from TpT’s Teach for Justice speaker series, Content and Curriculum: What, How, Why of Anti-Racist Teaching.