Social Emotional Learning for Social Justice

Pierce Delahunt
Apr 17, 2019 · 19 min read

Every act we perform today must reflect the the kind of human relationships we are fighting to establish tomorrow.
- David Dellinger

Bullying is not a rite of passage. Empathy is a rite of passage.
- David A Levine

You do not have to work for justice. You get to.
- Pierce Delahunt

The below video is the 20-minute version of the talk I most often give at schools. The text and slides below go into more detail. Graphics by Leen Marie.

Why Am I Writing This?

My background before becoming a more explicit activist-educator is in social-emotional learning (SEL). I pull mostly from nonviolent communication (NVC), but utilize other practices as well. While each practice has critiques, my biggest issue with the field as a whole is its individualist focus.

Individual relationships are important. They are what make community, and life itself. At the same time, this focus is extremely limiting for us folk interested in systems change. And society does not even integrate a strong understanding of individualist SEL. I look at a lot of what I do as working at the union of social emotional learning and activism/social justice.

Individual Abuse → Systemic Oppression

Most of us will recognize that an angry person screaming at a scared person on the street is an abusive relationship. I know there are complications to this. (Are we catching the abused person finally standing up for themselves? Perhaps…) Still, mainstream, individualist SEL gives us tools to help resolve individual conflict, even in the face of abuse. What is much less clear is what SEL says to do about systemic oppression. Toward that end, we must first understand how systemic oppression operates.

In this illustration, Community A enjoys happy, fulfilling relationships with each other. They never get into conflict. All their strategies to meet all their needs support each other, and no one ever experiences conflict. Concretely, they are able to pay for the needs they must buy, like housing, food, healthcare, education, and comforts. In their gated communities, they find connection, intimacy, play, joy, fulfilling sense of purpose from work, and loving relationships with their families that they provide for. At their loving community gatherings, they talk about the less fortunate, and they feel good about talking about it. It meets their need for care.

Individualist SEL would say that Community A has reached the end of SEL, that they won: Game over, thank you for playing. However, they are afforded these luxuries at the expense of Community B, whose resources are stolen to support the needs of Community A. These may include wealth, natural materials, labor, emotional energy, their own physical bodies, and more. Under systemic oppression, it is an enforcer group, Community C, that steals these resources to the benefit of Community A. In this very clear-cut and exaggerated illustration, we can see how this relationship violates the principles of social emotional learning. I often teach this workshop at schools. Using a less loaded example from that environment, we could call Community A (privileged group) the popular students, Community B (oppressed group) the bullied students, and Community C (enforcer group) the bulliers.

Importantly, while the above slide is three separate circles, the reality is that these oppressions exist as Venn diagrams, and are all happening at once. Any one person occupies multiple identities, and experiences multiple oppressions and/or privileges at the same time. This is a representation of Intersectionality.

Oppression Example: Privileged (A), Oppressed (B), Enforcers (C)
Imperialism / Racism (Global): US/“Western” Nations, Imperialized, Military
Capitalism: Upper Class, Poor & Working Class, Gov & Ruling Class
Racism (Domestic): White Folk, Folk of Color, Law Enforcement
Patriarchy: Males, Female/Gender NonConforming Folk, Sexual Assaulters
Speciesism: Humans, NonHuman Animals, Animal Agriculture
Env Destruction: Humans, NonHuman Life, Resource Extractors/Capitalists
School Bullying: Popular Students, Bullied Students, Bulliers

Four D’s of Disconnection: Narratives

Let’s talk about needs. In NVC, we differentiate between needs and strategies, by asking whether the goal in question is universal. Because everyone needs some degree of independence, efficacy, and leisure, those are considered needs. A car is a popular vehicle (ha!) to meet those needs, but not everyone needs a car, and thus a car is considered a strategy. It should be noted that Capitalism is extremely effective at isolating us from strategies that do not grow its profits, and rendering us dependent on the ones that do.

How do oppressions perpetuate? Again, we can pull from the lessons of individualist SEL. NVC’s Four Ds of Disconnection offer a template. They organize the ways that we disconnect from the needs and feelings of ourselves or others. We may use any combination of these disconnections.

Most simply, I can deny that the unmet needs exist in the first place. Whether from plain ignorance or something more willful, I might deny the needs are not being met, or that they exist at all. We often do this to ourselves as an effort to plow through hardship in the name of productivity, I do not need to rest. This is internalized capitalism. When we deny the unmet needs of others, we are typically gaslighting them, just as we sometimes gaslight ourselves. Systemically, this is simply denying that oppression exists: Racism ended with the Civil Rights Act. You have your equality now.

Similarly, we disconnect from our own or each others’ needs when we are focused on diagnosing the situation. It is important to note that diagnoses can help connect us to our needs and feelings. Even just naming the needs and feelings is a diagnosis. At the same time, diagnoses are used to disconnect by shirking responsibility or minimizing. I can even dismiss your needs and feelings by diagnosing them: You just feel sad from your unmet need for purpose. You will notice the word “just” come up often in diagnoses. They also often support a gaslight: You just feel that way because of your attachment history. Your need is not a truth grounded in this moment. The problem is in you.

On a systemic level, diagnostic narratives include “The real problem is Black-on-Black crime,” respectability politics, or blaming the poor for being lazy. If, for example, the person were genuinely concerned with Black-on-Black crime, or at least curious with how it fits into White supremacy, there could be whole conversations about histories of individualized survival strategies at the expense of collective liberation, and how to support oppressed communities’ efforts toward survival strategies that empower each other. More likely, the diagnostician is disconnecting from others’ needs, perhaps out of discomfort with their complicity, or by trolling you.

A demand is a request with conditional threat or punishment. The distinction is in the freedom of the person to decline. If I insult someone after they decline my asking them out on a date, my “ask” was actually a demand. I am disconnecting from their needs (independence, safety, or others) in an effort to coerce them to meet mine (connection, validation, pleasure, or others). Importantly, a sincere request may still be heard as a demand, in which case that disconnect also needs to be resolved for more harmony. This entails either getting more honest with myself that I really was using a threat, or better communicating to others that they really may decline without punishment, or both. This can be especially hard if I am recovering from a history of making demands. And of course, we can also make demands of ourselves. Systemically, few punishments are more coercive than the threat of state-sanctioned violence via US military intervention or law enforcement…

Finally, by focusing on a system of reward and punishment, I am now asking what we deserve, rather than remaining connected to whether we even need those things. On a personal level, I may experience a sense of inadequacy and think that I deserve shame, or the reverse: a sense of entitlement to the rewards or luxuries I think are owed to me. Systems of reward/punishment take us out of the present moment, where needs and feelings live. Instead, we focus on the future rewards/punishments or the past behaviors that triggered them. Again: even the rewards disconnect us. Thus disconnected from needs, I may not ask whether it is even possible to deserve stripping away my joy, or whether I actually want the reward, luxury, or privilege. Systemically, the ideology of meritocracy is a system of who deserves what, often in an attempt to justify White Supremacist AntiSocialism: If you want job security, you will have to work enough to earn it. Similarly, US exceptionalism (or Manifest Destiny) is a narrative about what those of us who are considered US Americans deserve.

I will also add: I feel astounded and horrified by the degree to which we can disconnect from both our own needs and the needs of others, if we convince ourselves that the victims of violence are criminals who deserve punishment. The US government continues to kidnap children, sometimes infants, from families fleeing violence spurred on by our own coups d’état, ransom those children for an ecologically devastating and migrationally ineffective border wall, forcefully separate the ransomed siblings apart from each other, and physically, sometimes sexually abuse them for what is legally considered a civil (non-criminal) offense. We disconnect from their basic living needs for family and safety, among others, in part because we believe they broke the law, and so deserve what they get. This disgusts me, and violates my need for justice, empathy, and shared reality.

The Four N’s of Narrative have had more written about them. They initially came out of vegan analysis, but can be applied to any oppression. They act as support, and clues, to how we disconnect. Normal and Natural imply that there is nothing wrong (often deny/diagnose). Nice refers to enjoying the privilege (in the original example, of eating meat),while Necessary implies that there is no other way (often demand/deserve). I underline necessary because however abnormal, unnatural, or mean we can think the system is, we often ignore it if we think there is no other way. Conversely, emphasizing how unnecessary a system is often helps to crumble the other narratives. The best way to underscore how unnecessary a system is is to pose alternatives.

Intervene & (Re)Connect: Sovereignty & Self-Determination

Having discussed the ways we disconnect, the solutionary question is how to repair and prevent those disconnections. For this, we borrow from the individualist model of Ring Theory: Comfort In, Dump Out. (I have also seen Care In, Crap Out.)

Ring Theory

In ring theory, the aggrieved or afflicted is at the center of a hardship or trauma. That person may freely dump or crap or vent all their feelings about all their unmet needs to most anyone. The folk on the outer rings are there to care, comfort, and support. Even a “lookie loo” may have strong feelings about the trauma the aggrieved person is experiencing, and may vent them, but only to another lookie loo. To vent to those closer to the trauma would further trigger and traumatize those people.

How does this fit into systemic liberation? I would argue that this is an individualist representation of the concept of sovereignty, self-determination, or: Nothing About Us Without Us. To intervene, we must center the needs and feelings of the folk most aggrieved. I feel great pain when see folk of color oppressed under racism: I do not put the work of healing my pain onto those people of color. If we prioritize our own feelings and needs, especially if we come from a place of privilege, the attempts to intervene will likely only further oppress.

The Right has a long history of co-opting language from the Left, and centering the oppressors’ needs in the name of liberation shows up as: Nazism (so named for “National Socialism,” which was the Right’s successful attempt to co-opt the party and murder the Socialists), “anti-establishment” rhetoric embedded in Libertarianism/Anarcho-Capitalism, NeoLiberalism (an intentionally repackaged Capitalism), “Classical Liberalism” (similarly repackaged Conservatism), Liberalism itself (as opposed to Leftism), “Woke” Misogyny, White Feminism, Misogynoir, TERF/FART (trans-exclusionary radical feminism / feminist-appropriating reactionary transphobia), White Veganism, Saviorism, Martyr Complexes, Paternalism, Tokenizing, and other liberation-washed practices of oppression.

So how do we attune to the needs and feelings of those most aggrieved? That is the best part: We get to listen to them. They have been telling us their needs for longer than these oppressions have been occurring. There are ample writings, speeches, videos, art, and infinite other expressions of needs from oppressed communities. Life cannot not express its needs. To attune to them, we need only listen, with our whole selves.

Or of “Disruption” — A “D” Word

After attuning to, or centering, the needs of the aggrieved, we are better positioned to act in a way that not only does not further violate their needs, but contributes to the oppressed’s needs and collective liberation. I first learned of the Four D’s of Intervention from Hollaback! in the context of street harassment, but they work in any situation of abuse or oppression. I often use school bullying as the example in my talks to schools. We may also use any combination of these interventions.

The Fifth D

Since first writing this, Hollaback has added a fifth D to their analysis: Documentation. In their anti-harassment context, this means recording the interaction, or even serving as witness if the abuse goes to court. In a systems context, this may be keeping records of using official, legal channels of appeal, to later demonstrate how ineffective they are. It also includes in-depth understanding of the oppression, so that restorative justice or reparations may be more informed. This also anticipates the disconnection of denial. Imagine how much harder it would be to oppose Nazism if the Holocaust were poorly documented.

If we see abuse happening, we might not feel comfortable stepping in for whatever reason. Perhaps we are too afraid, or simply tired. We might then call upon someone who feels more comfortable. This person often has more authority or power than we do. In school bullying, this could be a faculty person, or even simply a classmate less afraid. Whatever the situation, we delegate the responsibility of intervention (disruption) to someone else, sometimes by just letting them know. Systemically, this is what whistleblowers and reporters do. Together, they tell the public to intervene how we can. Another example: donations. Every time we donate to some organization working for justice, we are delegating to them the power of that money, as they are hopefully better positioned to leverage it toward systemic change.

Perhaps the abuse has already happened. We might check in with the abused after the fact, in a delayed intervention: I was too scared to do anything right then, but I want you to know I saw it, and that was not okay. Do you need anything? Again, it is important to center their needs in the conversation, and not, as a common example, offer unsolicited advice, which may simply further traumatize them. Additionally, we might also check in with the abuser. Sometimes they will be more receptive to our intervention while not in the heat of their abuse, I heard what you said, and I want you to know that is not acceptable, or, I wonder if you know that language/behavior has a loaded history, or, I wonder what needs you were trying to meet, and how you might do so while still honoring the needs of others?

Again, these disruptions can be used in combination with each other. Any abuse, and other disruption, can be followed with a delayed disruption. This can be restorative justice. Importantly, in restorative justice or any intervention, there need not be any thought of what anyone deserves: only focusing on the needs of everyone, and especially centering those of the abused.

Systemically, delayed intervention may look like better prosecuting sexual assaulters, including actually processing sexual assault kits in the first place. Another example is Reparations. In either of these, we cannot stop the injustices of histories of sexual assault and State-sanctioned human trafficking from having happened. But we may account/compensate for those injustices, in an effort to restore whatever justice possible.

Distract is a more creative one. It diverts the abuser’s attention from abusing. In street harassment, the common example is to ask the harasser for directions. In school bullying, it might be to ask about homework, or tell the bullier that a teacher is coming. Systemically, this can look like spectacle protests, especially to pull media attention away from an oppressor’s speech or ceremony. This tactic can also be used in electoral politics, by pulling attention away from an oppressive bill until the congressional session ends for example. Distract can also be used in conjunction with NonViolent Direct Action, to help facilitate the direct disruption, or as a consequence of it: If weapons manufacturers are spending their energy (or money) on responding to a media crisis, they are not spending it on manufacturing weapons. I personally believe oppressors are very effective at using one injustice to distract the public from other injustices.

Direct (Compassionate)

We can, of course, walk into that abusive situation and directly stop it. I put Compassionate in parentheses because we often think of this as an attempt to hurt the abuser, but I have not found that to work very well: Shaming people does not actually hold them accountable. On an individual level, I prefer talking to them in a way that connects them to their own needs and feelings. NonViolent Communication distinguishes between the punitive and the protective uses of force. This question is one of objective. Again, by focusing on the impulse to punish, we are caught up in Deserve thinking. Not only does this disconnect us from the abuser’s needs, but it also disconnects us from our own, as well as the needs of the person harmed. And while abusers may not win over our sympathy, the more unaware (disconnected) we are of their needs, the more we set ourselves up for later violence. This may look like backlash, for example, where we could instead achieve redemption.

Once individuals are better connected to their own needs and feelings, they tend to open up to other strategies to meet those needs, and better connect to the needs and feelings of others. In an individual setting, we may first address the needs and feelings of the abused. Perhaps they need a space to sit. Perhaps they want to be left alone, or to talk it through. Once that is resolved, we may ask the abuser, What are you trying to accomplish with your behavior? Eventually, we might get to what need they are trying to reach, and tactics to meet that need that do not disrupt others’ needs, as bullying does.

But what do we do systemically? Talk to the Nazis in government and war manufacturers about their needs until they stop? No. When we think of activism, we tend to picture NonViolent Direct Action, and with good reason. It halts the injustice, if temporarily, and garners the greatest media platform (what we do with that platform, we will get to). It builds strong community relationships, which fuel the movement. It empowers folk to take more actions, and to learn more about the systems of oppression and their leverage points. These actions can look like blockades, strikes, occupations, sit-ins, die-ins, spectacles, direct mutual aid, or more. Not only does a community directly caring for its own people after a flood directly address their immediate needs, it also puts immense pressure, with media attention, on the government to shape up their emergency responses: If this oppressed community can respond so well, why can’t the government?

Here again, I parenthesize Compassionate, though for a slightly different emphasis than in the individual setting. NonViolent Direct Action faces a misconception that it appeals to the conscience of oppressors. This is not the case. NVDA pressures the system into aligning the oppressors’ self-interest with the interest of the oppressed. If war profiteers gain power and profit from their violence, NVDA intends to reduce that power and profit. This is the work of history, and takes large public action, but it is the work. So instead, I emphasize that the direct intervention be NVDA, or “Compassionate,” to focus the objective of the action on disrupting the oppression, and not on our own individual impulses toward revenge or punishment, strategies that exacerbate oppression by provoking backlash, and most endangering the already oppressed.

A good rule of thumb is: If we are doing work that corporations and fascists would pay saboteurs to do, then we may need to pause and ask what other strategies may be more effective. This also includes attacking people online who mostly agree with our politics, trying to socially isolate them from the organizing community. There are absolutely saboteurs doing this.

For example, we might organize a protest of a White Nationalist speech in order to: de-platform them by making too much sound for them to be heard; demonstrate that such a speech is not going to be tolerated without objection; host a party that attracts the centrist public with the promise of joy in opposition to the oppressors’ appeals to fear; occupy the auditorium seats so that impressionable folk do not listen to their ideology; converse with those impressionable folk, to help them process their internalized supremacy; or we might organize the protest to attack the White Nationalists and their impressionable audience. This last objective carries the most risk. We face many variables we cannot control and may well “lose” the physical conflict, giving confident momentum to oppressors. It also positions the collective liberation movement extremely poorly in national media, and most importantly, it plays into the strengths of the oppressors.

The state has a monopoly on violence, and they have demonstrated a history of using it to defend White supremacy rather than collective liberation. I will gladly advocate the power of organized self-defense. If something goes down at that protest, I will defend myself and my fellow liberationists. My point is that organizing a protest for the purpose of violence is a less effective strategy toward collective liberation than de-platforming or other means.

Three Always Things

There are times we will be stuck, or otherwise not know what to do. For those times, I offer what I call the three always things.

We can always learn more. This is the theory portion of praxis. It must be matched with action, but if we are stuck, there are always more books to read or podcasts to listen to. If we do not know where to begin, I like to suggest learning more about how the issues we already know and care about intersect with issues we are less familiar with. Are you already antiracist? Did you know that the US military sends dozens of thousands air strikes every year to poorer, majority-Black/Brown nations, or regularly imposes fascist governments on foreign democracies, or that the Civil Rights Movement was led and supported by multitudes of Socialists? Are you already vegan? Did you know that one of the best things we can do to reduce animal suffering is empower undocumented folk of color, disproportionately hired in slaughterhouses, where they cannot unionize to slow down the “processing” of animals?

We can always help others doing activism. It can be simple. We already discussed donations. You could wear a shirt that carries an organization’s name, or host a dinner to discuss their work. If you spend your life making tea and soup for fellow activists hit with the flu, you will have served the movement. You can even offer good old-fashioned emotional support, to help them process what is coming up for them. The more you help those in the movement meet their own needs, the better they may tend to others. Activists are people, and we need love and soup.

It Works!

Finally, we can engage with others. Whether increasing cohesion among the die-hard Leftists, turning passive allies more active, winning over neutral folk, or arousing doubt among oppressors, relationships are the thing. In these conversations with others, I offer guidance from my own experience:

  1. Let go of convincing anyone of anything. That will only backfire.
  2. Prioritize the relationship, by listening to their needs and feelings. Support the other person in connecting to themselves.
  3. Less important: Learn their talking points, and practice your own rhetoric.

Holding these, we might be surprised by what those conversations can do.

Outreach Insights

When Engaging

White supremacist AntiSocialism’s morality disgusts me. Its tactical lessons are also valuable. It weaponizes good research for the oppressive purpose of extracting profit for a few, but we can use that research for our own collective liberation. In that vein, marketing science has valuable lessons for people engaged in outreach of any kind. This is because their insights are not about extracting wealth from consumers per se, but about relationality itself.

Marketers understand that there are three levels of engagement. The example often used is coffee. I can market the product to you, by talking about the quality of the beans and the care in the roasting/drip process. I can market the experience to you by advertising how my café offers a relaxing atmosphere with massage chairs. And I can market the identity to you by emphasizing that the people who buy my coffee and hang out in my coffee shop are the creative professionals, the bohemian bourgeoisie, and by patronizing my establishment, you can network with them and become a successful creative professional too.

What marketers have learned is that we are always engaging at all three levels, and we most respond to identity. Put another way: We are always in relationship. If I am looking for caffeine to fuel my extreme sports habit, I may not really care about the drip process, and feel turned off by some nerd telling me about it, who cannot read my disinterest. The lesson here is understanding how people respond to the movement. If you only care about energy for extreme sports, you might actually appreciate my nerdness when I tell you all about how the process maximizes caffeine extraction.

Together with the levels of engagement, advertisers also know that no one commercial is going to convince anyone of anything. Instead, they focus on exposures, impressions, and increasing the availability of the product in a person’s heart-mind. When we believe our one conversation with a centrist will change a person, we get frustrated when that inevitably fails. This backfires on our intention.

Rather, by having conversations with them that normalize our ideology, this shifts the Overton window such that maybe intersectional Socialism, or a moneyless, classless, stateless society is not so extreme. My point is: If every time a member of the general populace has an encounter with the movement, they walk away feeling heard, held, met, enlightened, and empowered, we will grow into liberation at a rate that oppressors cannot oppress.


Social Emotional Leftist, M.Ed.

Pierce Delahunt

Written by

Social Emotional Leftist: Traveling Guest Speaker on Social Emotional Learning, Activism, & Social Justice


Social Emotional Leftist, M.Ed.

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