Comfort, Solace and Wholeness: A Conversation with Gisele C. Shorter


Dr. Gisele C. Shorter leads the K-12 portfolio of giving at the Raikes Foundation, which invests in youth-serving institutions and systems to ensure they are more just and equitable. Gisele works with partners to help build an education system that ensures the intellectual, social, emotional, and cultural growth and well-being of all young people, particularly those who have been most marginalized by the education system.

Q: The lessons from the science of learning and development are inherently hopeful. What are the strengths that young people and their communities are bringing to this crisis?

COVID-19 is forcing us all to live in a shared reality of anxiety and trauma. And while the impact is falling disproportionately on communities of color, it is also worth noting that many of these communities have developed their own ways to support one another during times of trauma. For example, my community of Harlem has informal ways to support friends and neighbors to share resources and expertise, particularly for the most vulnerable. This informal system maps to what science tells us about what is essential for humans to learn, grow, and thrive. The ability to be seen, supported in love and authentic relationship, and invest in shared humanity and success has enabled me and others to navigate the worst of this crisis. Harlem and communities across the country have yet again rallied to support their own. That is the strength and legacy that Black and Brown youth and families bring to this crisis.

Q: What’s one piece of concrete advice drawing from the science of learning and development that you would elevate for every educator or other adult supporting young people?

The concept of epigenetics offers a powerful opening for deep and abiding impact on healthy human development. It posits that experiences and relationships shapes both gene expression and the expression of our individual potential. There are 25,000 genes in the human genome, yet fewer than 10% ever get expressed—why is that? It’s because genes are chemical followers—based on the context in which we live, learn, grow—that inform who we become through many complex neurobiological interactions. I love the idea that who we are and who we become is in relation to the nurturing, access, and opportunities that we are afforded. It offers a powerful opportunity to leverage school design to manifest the limitless potential of each and every person.

Q: What is the education issue that is around the corner that you hope people start addressing now? How would knowledge from the science of learning and development help us advance equity as we take it on?

Our educational system has a responsibility to support adults within the system to address their own trauma resulting from COVID-19 and experience(s) of and with systemic racism. It’s not just students who need support processing the dual crisis. It is an outdated notion that adults show up fully prepared and ready to work and student’s alone are in need of support to address trauma, adversity, and loss. If students bring a backpack full of emotions and needs into schools, adults bring a briefcase — or maybe even U-Haul — full of things into their work environment. For too long we have localized problems with students and communities and have not fully acknowledged or accounted for the role of systems in setting conditions for individual and collective success or failure, facilitating healthy and dynamic interactions between adults and students. The reality is that adults must be healthy and whole in order to successfully support students to well-being and connections.

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