Advancing SEL, Equity, and Social Justice with Justina Schlund

Show Notes

In this episode, host Dr. Tia Kim speaks with Justina Schlund, Senior Director of Content and Field Learning at the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). In her role, Justina leads the translation of CASEL’s learning and expertise into content to deepen and expand social-emotional learning (SEL) knowledge across the education field. Prior to joining CASEL, Justina was the executive director of Chicago Public School’s Office of Social and Emotional Learning, where she led districtwide strategies to promote the social and emotional development of all students. While at CPS, Justina also launched a districtwide initiative to build organizational commitment to addressing issues of race and equity.

Justina talks with us about the connections between SEL and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work. During the conversation, she addresses some common critiques of SEL in relation to DEI and provides practical recommendations for how educators, schools, and districts can effectively approach SEL and DEI.

To learn more about CASEL, visit

To read more about CASEL’s resources on Transformative SEL as a Lever for Equity and Social Justice, visit

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[00:00:02] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to the Grow Kinder Podcast, where thought leaders in education explore how social-emotional learning can help us navigate society's most pressing challenges and create a kinder, more compassionate world. Brought to you by Committee for Children.


[00:00:24] TK: Hi, Grow Kinder listeners. It's your host, Tia Kim, and today I'm really thrilled to be speaking with Justina Schlund, Senior Director of Content and Field Learning at CASEL, which is the Collaborative but Academic and Social-Emotional Learning. At CASEL, she leads a translation of learning and expertise into content to deepen and expand SEL knowledge across the education field. Prior to joining castle, Justina was the Executive Director of Chicago Public Schools Office of Social and Emotional learning, where she led district-wide strategies to promote the social and emotional development of all students, and where she launched a district wide initiative to build organizational commitment to addressing issues of race and equity.

So I'm excited to dive into this conversation with her today. It’s so great to connect with you today, Justina, and thank you for joining us.

[00:01:15] JS: Thanks for having me here, Tia.

[00:01:17] TK: Great. To help our listeners get to know you just a little bit better, can you tell me about a time in your life when you received kindness from another person and why you think that act was particularly meaningful to you?

[00:01:30] JS: Yes. Such a great question. I've been thinking about this. I was thinking about my high school experiences. For a lot of reasons, I felt pretty disengaged and unmotivated when I was in high school but I had an English teacher I think in my sophomore year, who as my as my grades were sort of plummeting and dropping, he pulled me aside one day after school, just to express interest in my writing. Not even really to talk about my grades or anything but just to ask about my family, ask about my life. He expressed a lot of interest in my writing and invited me to join an after-school club that he was running around writing and academics.

I hadn't viewed myself that way, and I think like just that noticing of me and feeling seen really impacted a lot of my life. I ended up applying to journalism school and going to journalism school after that and have a seven-year career as a as a reporter because of that interest that he showed me. To me, the feeling seen was just the biggest act of kindness I think, to me, at a moment in my adolescence when I so needed that.

[00:02:38] TK: That's a great example. I hear so many stories like that from different colleagues and friends about there was this one teacher that really just showed an interest in them and really motivate them to kind of take their careers and their education further. So I think that's a great example of how educators are super important in supporting children's outcomes. Before, again, we get into this conversation, which I'm predicting will be very rich, I'd love for you to tell our listeners, who may not be familiar with you or your work, a little bit about yourself and the great work that you do at CASEL, and what really is your role there and the work that they do.

[00:03:15] JS: If you'll allow me, I think actually, again, before CASEL too, since I brought up my high school story which made me think, just so you have a sense of who I am and where I'm coming from, I'm the daughter of two immigrant parents from Taiwan. I grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended a school in a suburb here. One of my formative school experiences was in the seventh grade. I got into a fight with a boy, a white boy who had told me to go back to China. He and I were dragged into the principal's office, and I was given a suspension. It was after that point, I think leading up to my high school story, that I really felt just disengaged and disconnected from the school system.

I say all that to say that now when I explain what I do at CASEL and why I do that work is that I am aiming to work with those around our system to create schools where young people really feel like they can bring their full identities, where they really feel a sense of belonging, where they feel like they can learn and work on things that are meaningful to not just their educational careers but to their lives. I think SEL, to me, social-emotional learning, is really an important way to make that happen. So a big part of what I do, back to your question about my professional career here, a big part of my job is taking what we're learning across research and from actual implementation through our district and state partners, and sharing that with those who really have the power to shape what's going on in education.

[00:04:50] TK: Great. I really appreciate the work that CASEL does in terms of advancing the field and how we think about issues around SEL and really working with districts and educators. So what do you think is the relationship between SEL and equity work? We've been hearing a lot of this kind of dialogue in the field really currently. So what do you think is that relationship, and how was your experiences perhaps at Chicago Public Schools or at CASEL or both shaped your thoughts on this issue?

[00:05:22] JS: Yeah. I mean, there's so much conversation going on about this right now. What I would say about my experiences is that I think what I've really come to see is that SEL and equity work are really interdependent in a lot of ways. We just put out a few months ago a paper on how SEL is a really important lever for equity work, and I think it's important to say SEL is not everything for equity, right? Like there are lots of really deep seated, ingrained in equities within our education system that SEL isn't going to be sort of a panacea or solution for everything.

But I do think that when we implement SEL in a really systemic way, when we're thinking about it in terms of how it builds strengths and supports adults in doing their own SEL work, and really is about affirming students in their own interests and talents, it is a way to create really more robust developmental learning opportunities to improve instruction and engagement. Potentially, what we've been working on a CASEL, potentially SEL is a way to bring young people and adults together to really work on the solutions to address those long standing inequities.

So then I would say on the flip side, if you care about SEL, if you're an SEL champion who values kindness and value setting up students to succeed and contribute to our really increasingly global and diverse world, you have to care about the equity work or you're shortchanging students. I'm not just talking about – I think when we talk about equity work, we often talk about black and brown students and students who've been historically marginalized and what we need to provide there, right?

But I'm also talking about I think, especially in this moment, I'm talking about white students and students from higher social economic backgrounds and have we given them the opportunity through SEL to see really the fuller social, political, historical context that we're in to build that self-awareness of who they are and their full identities, to build the social awareness and empathy of communities who might not look like them, and responsible decision making skills that help them think about not just my personal well-being but how I'm contributing to our collective well-being to equity to our communities at large.

[00:07:40] TK: I think I really resonate with that point. I know here at CFC we've been thinking about that a lot too and thinking about SEL and equity work. I think that's something that resonates with me is really building these skills and kids, all kids, to really help them think deeply about their contributions to a larger community and a larger society, to really have pro social behaviors around creating better systems and thinking about those things as well. So I'm glad that we're all thinking about those things. I think they're super important.

Like we mentioned, there's been a lot of talk about SEL and equity and the intersection of those things in the field. But there's also been I think well-validated, I would say, criticisms around social-emotional learning and how it may not actually support equity work. So what are some criticisms that you've heard and what are your thoughts on how we can approach SEL to really address some of these critiques about SEL?

[00:08:37] JS: This is such an important question right now. I mean, SEL has gained so much attention right now, at this very moment when our country has become more and more polarized. So I think like we are hearing such a range of criticisms right now on one end. I think, as you're referencing, that this concern that SEL has grown out of white spaces and white conversations and has neglected equity, perhaps focus too heavily on students’ conformity or their compliance, not addressing the context that we're in. We've also started to hear a lot more on the other end about how SEL is potentially a way for schools to sneak in “critical race theory” at a time when I think there's a lot of concern that anything that has a whiff of so-called equity in certain communities feels like a political agenda.

You may be aware, but CASEL updated our definition of SEL last year because we thought it was really important to be clear about what we mean by SEL and the connection to equity and excellence. This update was really a result of years of working with SEL leaders, with equity leaders and researchers across the country, and thinking about how SEL supports both students and adults, how it addresses the learning environments, and how the core competencies themselves can be really intentionally leveraged to support equity. We often say about SEL, it's not a one-size-fits-all approach, right? Communities should really be thinking about what it means to them and their educational priorities.

But in my mind, I do think there are certain non-negotiables in how you approach SEL to support equity work, and I would say it probably boils down to three things, right? One is that SEL has to be a strengths-based approach. This is really, really non-negotiable when we talk about and implement SEL, that it's not about fixing kids. It's not about controlling their behaviors. It's not even about giving them the right mindset to overcome the inequities we've put them in. But it has to be about I think lifting up students, lifting up their unique interests, their cultural and their linguistic assets, elevating their voice and building on their sense of purpose and agency.

Then second and connected that, I think SEL really has to include work on the systems and on us, the adults who are sort of the keepers of these systems. It has to be about strengthening our own SEL, building our own capacity as adults to create equitable spaces for the SEL work to happen, for relationships to develop. Then connected to that, I'll just say the last point is I think the work really has to be about continuous improvement. Meaning, like I think there's a lot of quick fixes proposed. I think there's a lot of loud voices in the room. But the work has to be about how we really understand what's working, for whom, and under what circumstances. Then working together with that information to dismantle the inequities that the data points to in our system, and that student experiences and outcomes really be our north star.

[00:11:55] TK: Yeah. I really like you summarizing those three points. I think they're really great. You mentioned adults. I think they're super important in this conversation. I think educators in terms of their own reflection about SEL and how it intersects with diversity, equity, and inclusion work is super important. So on this season of our podcast, our listeners are really hearing us grapple with the fact that we live in a country where educators and education providers are overwhelmingly white and often serving a student population that doesn't look like them. Without that knowledge and training or the self-awareness and social awareness, it can be really easy for people to make mistakes, even if they have good intentions.

We've heard a lot from educators, if they really want to do something these days and really have impactful behavior and supporting their students, but they really oftentimes don't know what to do and have some trepidation or fear of kind of doing the wrong thing, particularly when they're trying to integrate SEL and DEI work. So what actions or recommendations would you give educators and districts right now in terms of supporting SEL implementation with an equity lens and kind of going back to the points that you just reiterated that you think are non-negotiables are super important?

[00:13:16] JS: One of the immediate actions I think, especially right now during COVID, we're making all these plans and thinking about how do we bring students back to schools and what are the best SEL supports to put in place in academic supports. We really need to begin by listening deeply to students and families and communities, and I mean about their hopes and what they see as the educational priorities and also their needs and their concerns during this time. If we begin at a place where we're building those meaningful relationships with students and families and communities, like we can start to do the DEI and the SEL work in ways that are far more authentic, meaningful, relevant in our spaces.

One of the things we recommend at CASEL just as a very practical way to get this going is that when schools and districts are beginning their SEL work, one of the first things we say is to work with your communities, right? Bring on these different voices to create a shared vision of what you think schools should look like and what learning should involve, right? Ask what does it mean for students to feel socially, emotionally, academically, and fully supported in schools. What would that take? What would it look like, feel like, sound like?

I think that's a starting place for grounding SEL and equity because if there are what we've seen on the flip side, is if there's voices and perspectives that are left out of that vision and about decisions that are made about SEL programs and practices, that's where you run the most risk of harm. Then I would say in the longer term, I think part of the concern right now with a lot of the focus on SEL and equity and anti-racist practices is that there's going to be a lot of piecemeal approaches where we're just sort of throwing everything out there, I think as you're alluding to in this question, right?

I think we really need to look across not just here's a new program or here's a new training on implicit bias or what we're doing for adults, right? But we need to look across all of the frameworks and the curriculums, the programs, the professional learnings, the assessments that already exists in our schools and districts, and see how well they align with our goals around SEL and equity. For example, I mentioned implicit bias training for educators, which I think is a big thing that people are talking about right now. I think it's important that we do that internal work to examine where we're coming from.

But I think it's really, really difficult for a professional learning like that to really have an impact if, for example, our policies around discipline have baked in biases against black and brown students, right? So not having that alignment just undermine some of the work that we're doing. As we think about SEL programming and curricula in particular, I think looking at it through a lens of how it's supporting students in really affirming their identities, in feeling that sense of belonging in expressing their agency, in developing their curiosity, and in building their collaborative problem solving skills, I think those types of competencies are really important if we're looking at equity work. Looking really holistically at our SEL programs from that lens is really important.

Then I'll just say I think this is an area where educators, they need support, right? This is new work, and we don't have enough research and data right now either to understand how SEL can really promote equity goals. I think this needs to be in coordination across researchers, practitioners, policymakers in thinking about how are we going to find out what works for our students, both in terms of SEL and equity.

[00:17:07] TK: Thanks for your responses on that. I know that CASEL and just in thinking around their SEL supports and works really thinks about sustainability of SEL implementation over the long term. I think about that in terms of equity work because I think it's wonderful that there's more awareness around it, and people are trying to do a lot more. But sometimes, I'm afraid that it'll just be like a one and done thing. Then maybe next year, they've moved on to something else.

When you think about this equity work and particularly in its relation with SEL work, you alluded to it a little bit, but what are your thoughts on how we can have long-term sustainability for work that I think has to be thought of as long term, right? That is a lifelong kind of journey? What are supports and structures that we can put in place in education to ensure that this is sustained over time?

[00:17:59] JS: One thing I will say, going back to the vision point, like a vision is really important because it then connects to your strategic plan and how you're thinking across everything you're doing in a district. One of the things in working with a lot of our district partners that's really become clear is that we have to think at an organizational level how we structure SEL work, equity work, academic work all together. For example, like at one point, there are a lot of districts that have these all across very different departments. So SEL work would sit under sometimes the student services department, and academics would sit over here, and equity might be in a completely different department responsible for Title IX.

What we've seen just organizationally over time with our district partners is that to create that sustainability, you have to break down those silos. So there's very practical things that districts have done in terms of aligning their departments, right? In some cases, there are SEL departments now housed under academic departments. There are equity departments that sort of serve on committees alongside the SEL departments. I think building that cohesion organizationally is one important way to do it, and it helps create that alignment that we talked about across frameworks, professional learning curricula, and pieces like that.

Then the other piece I think, going back to the continuous improvement point that you made and I think to the alignment, I think like from the get-go really planning intentionally for how you're measuring the outcomes related to SEL and equity work, which can feel soft and amorphous to a lot of people, right? I think getting really clear on the outcomes we're working towards and then creating a culture of continuous improvement throughout your school or your district, where you're bringing people in to reflect on how well are we working toward these goals that we've set out, that helps drive that sustainability as well.

[00:20:00] TK: I'm a researcher at heart, and so I love data and data-driven decision making. I know one thing that I've been thinking about, my group has been thinking about, my research group, is just what are the outcomes of interest. I know CASEL has thought about that too and shifted their thinking in terms of their framework and those outcomes. So I think that's an important dialogue to think about when we're talking about sex and equity work, and that maybe it's not just things like improving academic achievement or reducing problem behavior that I think there are other outcomes. Like we're saying, is it civic mindedness, and how are students thinking about their communities at large and those kinds of things? So I think those are important outcomes to look at as well.

You did mention already some examples of districts and from your own work about how they're doing this SEL equity work, right? Do you have any other like specific examples that come to your mind about, “I remember working with this one school or this one district, and they did a really good job of both the SEL and equity work.”? If you did, if you could just share that, I think that would be great.

[00:21:07] JS: Yeah. I mean, there are lots of districts during this work right now that I think are really important to share. I mean, I don't think it's like right or wrong, right? I think like, as you said, it's lifelong work, and so every single one of the districts and schools we've worked with have lots of challenges in this work. Also, I think lots of them are making really meaningful strides in terms of SEL and equity. A few that come to mind, Tulsa public schools in Oklahoma. They've been really a leader in this area for a few years now. They've centered their teaching standards and their professional learning for a long time around a really deep focus on SEL and equity that began with sort of a district level commitment and vision for SEL and equity, sort of like we were talking about.

They embarked on a really cool – It’s called Liberatory School Design approach where they worked with outside partners, but they engaged in practices like bus ride alongs and empathy interviews and student observations to really begin to understand more deeply the way that students are experiencing school. You talked about earlier sort of what's the different types of data we're looking at. I think that's one important piece of data is like how the students perceive and experience school, right? So teachers and school leaders now are all part of sort of this Liberatory Design thinking practice, where they develop an equity aspiration. They prototype and pilot really immediate and powerful changes to their classroom and school practices so that they're continuously doing this work toward improving toward equity with an SEL lens, of course.

Another example that comes to mind, one of really longtime partners, Sacramento City Schools out in California, they have always really from the get-go more than a decade ago position SEL within their equity work. Part of their big focus is really on the adult SELPs, which we talked about as a way to engage staff around sort of the difficult conversations about equity and access and social justice. Their academic team works really closely with their SEL team to do a lot of educator support, so professional learning, coaching, resources that's really focused on teacher reflection and on creating sort of these equitable learning environments that's built on what students themselves have shared about their experience. They have a really strong ethnic studies program that has a really intentional integration of SEL that I think is really interesting.

Then the last example I'll share, Minneapolis Public Schools. They have a really strong research and accountability department, which may be of interest to you, actually. That department has connected a lot of their SEL and equity work, so they've been really intentional about engaging families and students in what's called parent participatory evaluation and youth participatory action research, where as they're collecting data, like the students and the parents have been trained to really lead research efforts to capture data on things like school climate and culture, on student engagement and sense of belonging. Then after they collect and reflect on this data, take that to make recommendations to school and district leaders for improvement.

[00:24:32] TK: Yeah. I'm a huge fan of the youth participatory action research, so I'm glad they're using those strategies. I recently heard a webinar where someone was using this, and they had students actually develop their own definitions of what racism was, which I think is just such an interesting perspective because we're trying to create programs for students. But oftentimes we neglect to hear what they're thinking, so I think that's a great way to do that.

I could have this conversation with you for very much longer. But unfortunately, we're kind of at our time, so I really do appreciate you joining our podcast. But before we closed, I'd love to know how you're practicing being kind to yourself in this journey and as you do your own work.

[00:25:16] JS: I'm down in Texas. A few months ago, we had that big statewide power outage that was really awful in a lot of ways.

[00:25:23] TK: It’s about the ice storm?

[00:25:24] JS: Yeah, from the ice storm. It was like unprecedented freeze down here. It was awful in a lot of ways, but what was really interesting was that my kids, in reflecting on the night that our electricity went out, was like, “That was my favorite day of all time,” because our technology and our cell phones ran out, and we lit candles, and we played charades. Probably not coincidentally, I had like the best sleep I had in a long time that night. I think one thing I've just tried to do is really put down the multitasking that I know we're all doing these days, and really just try to be fully present for myself and for my family, and just spend those times with charades or 20 questions or what have you, really being there.

[00:26:11] TK: I think that's great. I wish I had willpower to do that. Recently, I remember a girlfriend of mine. I text her about something, and she didn't respond for a really long time. She goes, “Oh, I'm sorry. I'm starting to do these things like at least one day of the weekend of totally disconnecting from devices,” so she can be more present with her kids. I thought that's such an interesting idea but I don't know if I could do that for an entire day, so I really admire people that I think that's a great way to be kind to yourself.

[00:26:38] JS: A day is hard but maybe an hour or so. I mean, even small bits of time. I think it's like my own personal mental health is really affected by it.

[00:26:47] TK: That's right. Again, before we close, is there anything else you'd like to share with our listeners today? If you could just let them know where they can learn more about you and your work, of course, would be very helpful.

[00:26:59] JS: If you want to learn more about SEL and how it connects to equity and read our equity insights report, you can find that on our website at, Then we also have guidance for schools on SEL implementation with an equity lens, both through our free school guide, which is at, as well as we have a virtual workshop series coming up that you can also sign up for at that same website.

[00:27:28] TK: Great. Yes, I would definitely encourage our listeners to check out all these resources. I know they're super valuable and really helpful. So thanks, again, Justina, for joining us. It was such a pleasure to have you.

[00:27:40] JS: Thanks so much.


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