Safe Spaces in Tough Places

A Bronx Native Helps Teens from Similar Circumstance

When Dena Simmons (Ed.D. '14) became director of Implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, she asked to work with schools in the Bronx. Growing up there in a building where dealers sold drugs and guns, “I was obsessed with safety,” says Simmons. “News of the violence in my neighborhood made me physically sick.”

She attended St. Simon Stock, a Catholic school, and then Westover, a Connecticut boarding school, where she excelled but assimilated in order to survive. “You had to be like the white girls,” she says. “I didn’t read writers of color. Who I was and how I identified were never celebrated.”

After attending Middlebury College and studying on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Dominican Republic, Simmons taught middle school under an assistant principal she’d known at St. Simon Stock. “He’d seen me as a child; I felt destined to teach there. My goal was for my students to feel safe, loved and part of our community.”

Greenlighted to advance with her class for a third year, Simmons told the stu­dents they’d need to petition to make it happen. “I’d talked about social justice,” she explains. “I wanted them to feel the power of their orga­nizing, so I asked them to present their reasons to the principal.”

At TC, Simmons wrote her dissertation on teachers’ preparedness to confront classroom bullying, which she believes results from bullying in society: “Students model what we show them is okay.” Accordingly, at Yale, Simmons helps teachers become more attuned to students’ emotions and their own in an effort to make schools safer. She’s giving a TED talk this fall in New York City.

“I want to do good work in the world,” she says. “Our good work cannot leave out marginalized communities.”

Published Friday, Jan. 29, 2016

Safe Spaces in Tough Places

A Bronx Native Helps Teens from Similar Circumstance

When Dena Simmons (Ed.D. '14) became director of Implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, she asked to work with schools in the Bronx. Growing up there in a building where dealers sold drugs and guns, “I was obsessed with safety,” says Simmons. “News of the violence in my neighborhood made me physically sick.”

She attended St. Simon Stock, a Catholic school, and then Westover, a Connecticut boarding school, where she excelled but assimilated in order to survive. “You had to be like the white girls,” she says. “I didn’t read writers of color. Who I was and how I identified were never celebrated.”

After attending Middlebury College and studying on a Fulbright Scholarship in the Dominican Republic, Simmons taught middle school under an assistant principal she’d known at St. Simon Stock. “He’d seen me as a child; I felt destined to teach there. My goal was for my students to feel safe, loved and part of our community.”

Greenlighted to advance with her class for a third year, Simmons told the stu­dents they’d need to petition to make it happen. “I’d talked about social justice,” she explains. “I wanted them to feel the power of their orga­nizing, so I asked them to present their reasons to the principal.”

At TC, Simmons wrote her dissertation on teachers’ preparedness to confront classroom bullying, which she believes results from bullying in society: “Students model what we show them is okay.” Accordingly, at Yale, Simmons helps teachers become more attuned to students’ emotions and their own in an effort to make schools safer. She’s giving a TED talk this fall in New York City.

“I want to do good work in the world,” she says. “Our good work cannot leave out marginalized communities.”

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