Annual Report: Work for Justice

Tom Roderick's message in our newly released Annual Report 2017.

Morningside Center’s founding goal, back in 1982, was to educate for peace. Our idea of “peace” has always been active and ambitious. At the bottom of every issue of “Action News,” the typewritten legal-sized newsletter we put out in our early years, was the quote: “If you want peace, work for justice.” 

From the beginning, our work with teachers and young people included celebrating our cultures, standing up to oppression, and working together to make a better world. As a leader in the field of “social and emotional learning,” we have maintained that core SEL competencies should include “taking responsibility for our communities, from the classroom to the world.” 

Never has the need for this social justice perspective been more urgent than in our current political environment. Never has the need for kindness, community, and courageous action been greater. 

This past year, we’ve taken our work to promote justice – specifically racial justice – to a new level, both in the schools and in ourselves. We’re on a challenging path into new territory, and we’re on it for the long haul.  

We started out on this path about eight years ago, when we sensed a new openness in schools to reversing the then widespread use of “zero tolerance” discipline policies.

Zero tolerance and SEL don’t mix. You can’t encourage students to develop qualities like empathy, kindness, and social awareness if in your actual practice and treatment of students, you demonstrate the opposite of these qualities. Soon, we were partnering with the NYC Department of Education’s Office of Safety & Youth Development, and with schools across New York City, to help foster restorative practices as a powerful strategy for community-building, social and emotional skill-building, and as an alternative to punitive discipline. 

Much of the impetus for the move to restorative practices came from the growing understanding – and alarm – about how punitive discipline was affecting students of color, who are harshly disciplined out of all proportion to their numbers and their behavior. Restorative practices have proven to be an effective strategy for reducing suspensions (as well as helping students feel more connected to school and developing their social and emotional skills). We’ve seen huge drops in suspensions in the schools we’ve supported. 

But research shows that although restorative practices have been effective in reducing suspensions, the disproportional use of punitive discipline with students of color persists. It points to a stubborn evil that educators of all races must wrestle with: the implicit bias that we absorb as members of a society that has racism at its very roots.

In November 2016 we learned that we had received a prestigious federal “Investing in Innovation” grant that aims to crack that hard nut of discipline disparity by developing and evaluating an approach for fostering racial equity in our schools through a combination of SEL, restorative practices, and brave conversations about race.  

We rolled up our sleeves and got to work in the participating schools. Meanwhile, we took ourselves and our staff on a deep dive into racial equity. We used our own racially diverse community to test effective approaches for advancing equity in the schools, creating a kind of R&D shop for activities, approaches, readings, and videos that would help to increase the cultural fluency of school staff. In the process, we are learning a lot about each other and ourselves. The project has opened up a new world of understanding for many of us – especially those of us who are white. 

What we are learning on this path to racial equity is transformative and enriching both for us personally and for our organization. We’re incorporating our learnings into all of our work, including longstanding programs from The 4Rs to our PAZ after-school programs (see pages 3 and 5 for more on these and other initiatives).

We are excited about this new leg of our long journey, and we’re looking forward to working for peace and justice in 2018 and the years to come! 

    – Tom Roderick


Read the rest of the Annual Report