#ReclaimSEL​: The Intersections Between Social-Emotional Learning and Education Justice

How following the lead of young people can dismantle inequities in education

The BELE Network
4 min readFeb 23, 2021


By The BELE Network

The Communities for Just Schools Fund (CJSF) kicked off its #ReclaimSEL webinar series on February 3, 2021 with an installment titled “The Intersections Between Social-Emotional Learning and Education Justice.” The panel, moderated by Cierra Kaler-Jones and Jaime Koppel of CJSF, featured:

  • Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education
  • Jesse Hagopian of Rethinking Schools
  • Carlos Rojas of Youth On Board
  • Gisele Shorter of the Raikes Foundation & BELE Network partner

Their conversation was insightful and wide-ranging, covering a variety of topics about social-emotional learning (SEL) and how it can be applied as a tactic to achieve racial equity in education. Read on to learn more about the major themes they covered.

Relationships As Learning

Learning is a social and emotional process. SEL means taking new approaches not only to schooling, but to how people learn and develop. But what does this new approach look like? It looks like the blossoming of strong relationships between students, educators, communities, and philanthropists in what Jaime called “holistically safe” schools. Holistically safe schools, Gisele noted, are relationship-rich environments that see, respect, and commit to access and inclusion for all community members. They take schools from policed fortresses, as Cierra said, and turn them into places where students learn from themselves and each other.

Achieving holistically safe schools demands more than a new curriculum or checklist. The foundation of these relationships, as the panelists attested, is trust. Trust between students and educators, trust in their peers, and trust in themselves. Carlos likewise emphasized the need to listen to our young people and take their needs seriously even if it makes us uncomfortable. As Gisele said: when we take SEL and partner it with equity and community leadership, we unlock something powerful.

Seeing One Another

What can we do with these relationships? Zakiyah wants us to let young people know that we see them and recognize their hopes, fears, and needs as valid. With educators willing to hold thoughtful conversations with young people, our communities connect on a deeper level that engages vulnerabilities, needs, and fears. We create spaces rooted in love and trust that foster self-affirming young leaders.

Gisele reminds us that seeing each other includes seeing the inequitable structures around us. This is especially true as the crises of health, economy, climate, and racism intersect in unprecedented ways. Using SEL as a means towards healing offers a path forward in an education system that has failed to prioritize the leadership of young people and their communities. Young people know how to lean into vulnerability and be honest about their needs, so let’s follow their lead in addressing and dismantling inequitable structures.

Justice Through Engagement

When we see each other and see inequities around us, we realize that truly transformative change cannot be co-opted by existing systems. So what does it look like to move beyond those systems? It looks like creating a culture of care, rather than punishment, and by investing in equity, rather than police. It looks like resource equity for all students. It looks like funding child care or assistance to students from low-income backgrounds because education justice is racial justice.

Inequitable policies must be changed, but inextricable from them is the shifting of narratives that define our youth and schools. Globally, educators and philanthropists can lean into partnerships that change how we talk about young people and racial equity. Fostering the relationships that develop self-affirming young leaders cannot happen just by legislative vote. It demands our conscious engagement.

Follow the Leaders

Authentic SEL centers young leaders. When we do, it no longer makes sense to impose zero tolerance discipline in schools because it simply doesn’t work for students, Jesse said. A restorative approach forces us to look into measures to prevent further harm to all students affected by disciplinary infractions. This doesn’t mean, of course, that students should lack responsibility and accountability. It means bringing families into the conversation so they can be side by side with their young people in working through problems because the SEL approach is rooted in all of us wanting to be seen, heard, and respected.

Progress in Action

Just as young peoples’ needs have become clear during the coronavirus pandemic, so have the priorities of the education system. Zakiyah singles out New York City’s reopening, where precedence was given to reopening businesses before the wellbeing of students. The healing process for marginalized students to work through the pain of the past year just wasn’t prioritized in school districts across the nation.

Still, there’s a bright side. Many schools have attempted to use SEL to engage in thoughtful conversations with students and lean into vulnerability, in large part due to the work of advocates like Zakiyah. And while many schools are still trying to figure out how to best implement SEL, their interest represents an important step towards the implementation of authentic SEL in schools. Steps like this will pave the way for the crucial policies and narrative-shifting that truly transformative and liberating change is made of.



The BELE Network

We are committed to creating learning environments that equitably support every student — especially students of color and low-income students. belenetwork.org