During her childhood, unsung heroine Dr. Dena Simmons often slept with the sound of gunshots echoing in the background of her family's one-bedroom apartment. She explains:
"I often went to sleep to a cacophony of gunshots. In those moments, terrified, I remained stiff in bed for fear of being discovered by whatever darkness was outside of the apartment windows. When I started to teach, I made it my mission to ensure that my students felt safe, loved, and a part of our classroom community despite the chaos outside of the classroom walls."
As the product of a single parent and immigrant household in the Bronx, Dr. Simmons has overcome unfortunate circumstances. Her mother struggled and worked multiple jobs to provide her three daughters with the opportunity of quality education. Despite her many hardships, Dr. Simmons has been recognized nationally as a Harry S. Truman Scholar, Fulbright Fellow, and Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow. She now serves as the Associate Director of School Initiatives at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Through her passion, research, and activism, the change she is creating is being felt across the globe.
Dr. Simmons' upbringing is the driving force behind her educational activism and work today. She uses her life to motivate others and to serve as a beacon of hope. As a former Bronx educator, she empowered her students by incorporating their lives into her instruction. She wanted "to ensure [her] students' humanity and dignity in a society that annihilates the lives of Black and Brown youth."
Middlebury College Professor Catharine Wright has witnessed firsthand how Dr. Simmons is creating a brighter future for her students: "She gives her students absolutely everything she has...when she was a young teacher teaching middle school kids in the Bronx, she cultivated their drive to go to college, she had them exchange writing with my students online, and then she brought them up to Middlebury, on a bus, eighth graders all dressed up, with their writings about social change and their ambitions for education and lifelong learning. She inspired me and my colleagues in different departments and offices, including the admissions office, by asking us to help fund their trip--she organized places for her students to sleep--she had them meet up with college student groups, and after they went home and digested their experience, she had her students."
Dr. Simmons' influence spans across the world, not just the Bronx, however. She's reached youth from New Mexico to Antigua to the Dominican Republic. As a Fulbright Fellow in Santo Domingo, Dr. Simmons worked with disenfranchised youth. Her research shed light on the lives of teen mothers and an overarching disregard for Dominican youth. In Antigua, she connected Dominican sex workers with the resources they needed to receive basic medical care and information.
Inspired by her teaching experiences, Dr. Simmons' doctoral research centered on assessing teacher preparedness to address bullying in the middle school context. In her current role at Yale, she strives to provide the same safety she yearned for as a child and later, for her students, as a teacher by equipping school leaders and teachers with the skills they need to not only create physically safe environments for students, but also emotionally safe environments. She speaks about her desire for ensuring student safety in her TEDx talk entitled, "What to do if a student comes at you with scissors?"
It is clear from all that she has accomplished and continues to do that her research and social justice pursuits enrich the lives of many. Dr. Simmons' work and research experiences have been unified by the theme of empowering others and confronting and interrupting multiple forms of violence and injustice. She is an example of an educator creating unique solutions to problems facing the next generation and to make the world better. She advises youth to, "be brave to be yourself, to say, "no," when you need to, to ask for what you want, to set boundaries, to ask questions, to make mistakes and to learn from them, to ask for help, to speak your mind, to fight for just causes, to be compassionate with yourself, and to live unapologetically."
These words are beyond moving; rather, they are telling of the ways in which everyday people are using their lives to uplift others. Dr. Simmons' story shows that giving back should extend through every aspect of our being.