Deep Dives

Creating the Villages We Need 

December 20, 2023
Dr. Dena Simmons
Creating the Villages We Need 

In 2019, I was invited to be a featured speaker for CASEL’s plenary panel, Building a Culture of Equity Through SEL. I situated my message in my experiences as a child growing up in the Bronx, attending boarding school in New England, and then earning my doctorate before landing what I thought was my dream job in the SEL space. I discussed the discomforts and slights I had experienced daily as a Black woman up to that point, stating that “every single day, I am picking pieces of myself up.” 

What people did not know then was that I gave my remarks in fear, as some of the well-intentioned people in the audience had been perpetrators of my harm.

On that stage, I felt tattered and heavy. 

When I decided to return to CASEL’s conference this year, it was not without trepidation, not without an emergency therapy appointment, not without the support of my amazing colleagues at LiberatED. I questioned my safety because my scars know that the SEL organizations and people that mean so well could be unsafe. 

Author James Baldwin says, “Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart; for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.” With Baldwin’s guidance and my own lived experience, I must ask: As a field, how can we collectively do better at living our work?

Throughout the 2023 conference, we reflected on the theme Leaders as Learners: Building the Village Our Children Need. However, we cannot create the villages our children need if we do not have the villages we need. There are too many people in our field who have whispered their discontent at their workplaces to me on my travels throughout the nation. Like me, they convince themselves that the mission of their organizations justifies the pain from the indignities they experience in their work villages.

Swallowing our suffering will only make us sick. I know this from experience. There are also numerous studies that demonstrate the health toll of working in hostile environments (American Psychological Association, 2023; Rasool et al., 2021). Thus, it is imperative we cultivate villages that contribute to our care, belonging, and well-being, which, in turn, benefits the young people in our lives. 

To do that, we must reflect on whether our work environments contribute to or diminish our social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual wellness. We can ask ourselves:

  • Do I feel heavy or rejuvenated at the end of the work day? 
  • Do I spend more time ruminating about something I wish I had said or done than I do on generating new ideas at work? 
  • Does the thought of going to work frustrate or invigorate me? 

If our current work environment is toxic, we will become poisoned, which does not serve the people around us well. It is time then to find another village and focus on our healing. When we are not at our best, we cannot do our best. 

In addition to reflecting on how our jobs affect our wellness, it helps to evaluate whether our values are aligned with how our organization functions. It is possible to align with an organization’s mission, vision, and values but work amongst colleagues and leaders who do not live the values of the organization and thus breed unwellness in our villages. Consider reflecting on these questions:

  • What is in my power to support my organization to live its values? What do I need?
  • How am I taking care of myself while pushing my organization to do better? Do I need to be the one doing this?
  • Am I aligned with my organization’s practices? Is this the right place for me?

Value incongruence weighs heavily on us. It results in burnout, which can lead to a host of mental, physical, and psychological challenges, deteriorating our overall well-being (Maslach et al., 2016). Above all, we must center our own care and should not try to save our organizations at the cost of ourselves.

Moreover, we must list the ingredients we need to thrive, feel whole, and experience belonging and joy in our work villages. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to build and contribute to the communities of our dreams. That includes taking responsibility for our actions and doing better when we know better. Village-building is a collective, iterative process, which requires constant self-accountability and self-reflection as well as the act of inviting, listening, and implementing community input to ensure the village can support everyone’s full humanity. 

In the current context of political attacks on SEL, civil unrest, and immense suffering in the world, building the villages our students and we need is ever more important. We all deserve villages that facilitate individual and collective responsibility and care, foster joy, creativity, and belonging, and build trust and confidence. Our work is to model what is possible in our village for our young people and to create the conditions for everyone to live, learn, and thrive in the comfort of their own skin. That is our work. That is the type of village our children need.


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). 2023 work in America survey: Workplaces as engines of psychological health and well-being. American Psychological Association. 

Maslach, C., Leiter, M.P. (2016), Burnout. In: Fink, G., editor. Stress: Concepts, Cognition, Emotion, and Behavior. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Elsevier Science. 351-357.

Rasool, S. F., Wang, M., Tang, M., Saeed, A., & Iqbal, J. (2021). How Toxic Workplace Environment Effects the Employee Engagement: The Mediating Role of Organizational Support and Employee Wellbeing. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(5), 2294.

Dr. Dena Simmons is the founder of LiberatED, a liberatory approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) that centers radical love, healing, and justice. She is also a visiting professor at the Institute for Racial Justice at Loyola University of Chicago. Before LiberatED, she co-led the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, where she supported schools to use the power of emotions to create a more compassionate and just society. Prior to her work there, Dr. Simmons served as an educator, teacher educator, diversity facilitator, and curriculum developer. She has been a leading voice on teacher education and has written and spoken across the country about social and racial justice pedagogy, diversity, emotional intelligence, and bullying in K-12 school settings, including two TEDx talks and a TED talk on Broadway.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

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Edrina Flowers

Awesome Read. Thanks for Sharing your Story!!!

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Janet Patti

Dena, this is a powerful piece. Thank you for your contribution, Janet

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Angelica Davis-Bernard

Powerful questions posed in this blog. Black women are tired of explaining ourselves and the lack of real support. Thank you sis for being you and your transparency. Self reflection from the ones perpetuating the harm seems almost nonexistent. Please continue to shine.

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