Social and Emotional Learning as Power

At Big Thought, we believe in “social and emotional learning as power”. Embedded in our north star where “all youth in marginalized communities are equipped to imagine and create their best lives and world” is a belief that every child is born with greatness. We acknowledge that in our work, if young people are not living that life of greatness, then it’s an indictment of our systems and not their collective inability to “perform”.  

Social and emotional learning is the foundation upon which everything else stands. 

I’ve been fortunate to have direct experience with the safety, strength, and enrichment that came from out-of-school time experiences that helped me wrestle with an upbringing surrounded by violence. It’s why I chose join an organization in Big Thought that’s been committed to social and emotional learning for over 30 years. 

Because of our recognized efficacy in delivering high quality social and emotional learning (SEL) experiences in nontraditional learning spaces, Big Thought entered in partnership with Dallas Independent School District were chosen as one of 6 city sites of a research project through the Wallace Foundation to help answer the question of what can happen when we embed SEL in both the in-school and out-of-school time environments. Entering the 4th year of the SEL Dallas research, the collective effort has yielded powerful insights that the foundation will be sharing upon its completion. 

Perhaps the most pristine case of SEL as power is through our work in the juvenile justice system through the nationally recognized Creative Solutions program. Youth who’ve experienced some of the most trauma, once heard, seen, and affirmed have become some of the most powerful voices and agents of change in their own lives and their communities. Through a highly intentional trauma-to-healing model anchored on artistic expression across multiple disciplines, youth on probation are paid as working artists through a 7-week program that culminates in either a performing arts musical production or a visual art gallery showing. This program in its 27th year has the lowest recidivism rate in the county and possible the state of Texas with a 7-year average of only 9% reoffending. The most recent year was only 4%. A typical effective program sees recidivism rates of 38-42%. While the metrics show value in what the youth don’t do, we measure our success by who the youth see themselves becoming. This is why the program has been recognized locally, at the state level and nationally as a best practice. This is why in the summer of 2019, our team had not one, but two living presidents visit our young people and hear their stories. This is why Creative Solutions insights are helping anchor policy changes affecting youth experiences in the juvenile justice system at the state level. 

Creative Solutions has shown me that the most powerful voices to carry the message of SEL as vital are those who’ve been most maligned by our systems.

Not as a means of repair, but as an agent of amplification. Social and emotional learning gave these young lives the tools they needed to root themselves in their own innate value, then spring toward a new stratosphere of life’s abundance. Even when we couldn’t change the world that our youth went back to when our program was over, they left our space with a new set of beliefs about what they deserved not because of what they’ve done, but simply because of who they are. 

For these reasons and many more, I wake up every day grateful for the chance to tell a new story about SEL. And I’m thankful to be part of a team who’ve committed ourselves to our young people’s ability to tell theirs. 

– by Byron Sanders