Courtesy of Ryan Lash

After nearly seven years of employment at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, Dena Simmons resigned from her post as the Assistant Director last Tuesday, effective immediately, citing her experiences with racism in the workplace.

The YCEI is a community-based initiative housed within Yale’s Child Study Center, the Department of Child Psychiatry for the School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Hospital. Simmons’ role at the YCEI included managing client relations and working on a social and emotional learning program called Recognizing, Understanding, Labeling, Expressing and Regulating, or RULER.

In an email sent last Tuesday afternoon, Simmons announced her decision to the YCEI’s three directors and two YSM faculty members, Deputy Dean and Chief Diversity Officer Darin Latimore and CSC Director Linda Mayes. In the email, Simmons cited a “hostile work environment” where she “experienced racist and sexist behaviors from [her] colleagues.” At the time of her resignation, Simmons was on medical leave following a June 2020 Zoom incident that she referred to in her email as “a racist attack at an antiracism town hall at the Child Study Center,” where individuals Zoom-bombed the event and typed racial slurs directed at her in the chat. 

Although Simmons was on leave for six months and had planned to return this month, she decided to leave permanently so that she could “finally do authentic work at the intersection of racial justice and social and emotional learning without reprimand,” per her email.

“I am resigning from my position at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence because the assault in June was just one of many indignities I’ve suffered while being Black and female among you,” Simmons wrote in her Tuesday email. “Thus, I am leaving so that I can feel whole, so that I can feel safe, so that I can feel valued. I am leaving because I cannot be or offer you my best while feeling threatened, devalued, and tokenized.”

When asked whether the Yale administration had reached out to Simmons to discuss her experiences prior to her resignation, Mayes said that there had been meetings between both parties but declined to comment on “specific conversations and correspondence” because of the University’s policy of protecting the privacy of its faculty and staff.

Six former YCEI employees and one current employee, who requested anonymity due to fear of retribution, spoke with the News about Simmons’ reasons for resignation,  underscoring her legacy of anti-racist work at the center, which includes programming initiatives and a focus on being culturally responsive.

Reasons for resignation

In an interview with the News, Simmons  cited “numerous small attacks [and] microaggressions” that occurred during her employment at the YCEI. Specifically, her resignation email described instances of “unconsented hair-touching” and “constant undermining.” 

Sarah Kadden and Karina Medved-Wu, both former YCEI program managers within the last five years, told the News that at work meetings, other attendees consistently talked over and interrupted Simmons. Sarah Free, who is also a former program manager, mentioned that Simmons often had to explain to peers why she was not comfortable with hair touching. The current YCEI employee who requested anonymity said she witnessed people touch Simmons’ hair.

“The Child Study Center, and all of the programs within the Child Study Center, as well as Yale, as well as the School of Medicine, we do not tolerate discrimination and bias,” Mayes said. “And we really work very hard to create an environment in which everyone in that environment feels safe and so that they can thrive and they can reach their fullest potential.”

Simmons resigned in part because she did not feel safe working at the YCEI.

A racist attack: The 2020 town hall

In her Tuesday resignation email and an interview with the News, Simmons referenced the June 2020 town hall multiple times as a reason for feeling unsafe during her time at the YCEI.

At a virtual CSC antiracism forum on June 16 — a public event open to all of CSC — Simmons recited two poems about racial justice and shared insights related to anti-racism in the workplace. According to Simmons, as she was giving her closing remarks, unknown participants shouted curse words and racial slurs directed at her, “putting the N-word all throughout the chat.” She said these individuals wore masks and meeting attendees did not recognize their names.

“Not only was I triggered in that way, it was a reminder of the lack of protection I’ve experienced at the University,” Simmons told the News. “You never are quite the same after something like that.”

Simmons logged off the Zoom call for a few minutes but returned after colleagues reached out to her urging her to come back. But she said the unidentified participants continued to yell at her when she spoke once more.

After the Zoom call, Simmons received several apology letters from YCEI, CSC and YSM faculty and staff, but she felt this was not enough.

“I appreciate the [apology] letters, but I want action,” Simmons said. “My frustration is that there hasn’t always been action with the words. All I asked for was to be safe, and I don’t think the University did enough to ensure my safety.”

The next day, Simmons was granted a six-month administrative leave.

Mayes referred to the Zoom bombing as “vile and racist,” and said this was the first incident of its kind at the CSC. She added that she immediately reached out to the Yale Police Department to launch an investigation.

According to Mayes, the CSC implemented new security measures following the incident, such as screening participants in the Zoom waiting room before they enter a call and requiring meetings to have passwords. She also said that there were “a number of interventions” following the incident to offer support to the CSC and YCEI community and provide space for people to discuss what had occurred.

“Even thinking about it [the town hall] is so awful,” the current YCEI employee said.

Mayes told the News that prior to the town hall, the CSC had been involved in anti-racism work.

“We were already engaged in a number of anti-racism efforts, and that event [the CSC anti-racism town hall] was one of them in a series,” Mayes said. “We had also engaged in the search for our first Chief Diversity Officer, Tara Davila, and Tara’s focus is on providing inclusiveness in all of the [Child Study] Center’s activities.”

Workplace culture at the YCEI 

Despite the anti-racist efforts described by Mayes, six former employees and a current employee expressed concerns to the News about YCEI matters related to diversity, equity and inclusion. Free, who resigned in 2019, said she did not feel emotionally safe and constantly felt hindered by what she considered “rigid” power structures within the institution.

“By the time I resigned, I had almost completely withdrawn socially,” Free said. “So much of my final time there was about self preservation.” Free said that her goals within the YCEI — including ideas for curriculum change — were ignored.

Three former employees also complained about YCEI staff resistance to the inclusion of content in the curriculum related to racial equity and LGBTQ liberation. According to Free, Kadden and Medved-Wu, these examples were usually discouraged and often rejected due to fear of having RULER — a program that Simmons worked on — banned in certain schools.

Medved-Wu recalled working on YCEI curriculum where she included a novel about a transgender child’s journey to acceptance that she said was age-appropriate. But after submitting the curriculum, Medved-Wu said she had to revise it to include an alternative because she was told that her inclusion of “The Other Boy” by M.G. Hennessey could be viewed as “controversial.” 

According to Mayes, after George Floyd died at the hands of police, the YCEI developed resources to support schools with an anti-racist agenda in mind, such as a guide to help adults have difficult conversations with children and a report on the adverse effects of COVID-19 and racial injustice.

The YCEI launched a climate assessment for their workplace in September 2019, with Latimore — the YSM’s Chief Diversity Officer — interviewing several former employees. The climate assessment is being conducted by the YSM Office of Academic and Professional Development, or OAPD, in collaboration with the University’s Office of Institutional Equity and Access and has since moved on to focus on current employees.

According to three sources and documents shared with the News, there were two climate assessments, one with former employees and the most recent one with current employees. Mayes has maintained that there is only one climate assessment.

Latimore was not available to comment for this article, but Mayes said the full assessment was “quite close to completion.” She also explained the findings will only be shared with employees in leadership positions “who have an opportunity to make [the] changes” recommended by the report from the assessment. Although former employees wanted updates about the report, Mayes said it will not be available to the public or to former employees due to privacy concerns, and that former employees can speak with the OAPD about it.

Simmons, on the other hand, said that she decided to share her experiences with workplace racism to help others. 

“This wasn’t about me, if it were about me I wouldn’t have said anything, because honestly I have everything to lose by speaking my truth,” Simmons told the News. “I did it for all the BIPOC people behind me who look up to these institutions as saviors, so that when they look up and they talk about their experiences, they can do it and say that they enjoyed it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that’s my truth.”

‘Compassionate, anti-racist, supportive’: Simmons’ role and legacy

In an interview with the News, Simmons said that she encouraged her fellow YCEI workers and RULER curriculum trainings to take an anti-racist lens.

“I often tell my colleagues that you can’t be emotionally intelligent without being culturally responsive,” Simmons said. In 2019, she published an article titled “You can’t be emotionally intelligent without being culturally responsive: Why FCS Must Employ Both To Meet the Needs of Our Nation” in the Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences.

Lori Nathanson, a former YCEI postdoctoral fellow, director of research and director of partnerships, recalled that Simmons spread this message while working at the center. Nathanson added that Simmons’ voice “was really important in recognizing the foundation of a lot of education programs, including emotional intelligence and social and emotional learning, that without social and cultural context can actually be really harmful to Black and Brown children.”

Kadden expressed similar sentiments.

“Working with Dr. Simmons was a privilege,” Kadden told the News in an interview. “She was a leader in the center and, in my experience, a very compassionate, anti-racist [and] supportive, directly to each individual… [but also] to the center, to the whole group and to our large network, like all the teachers and schools that we worked with.” 

According to Free, Simmons was an example of the work Free desired to be a part of at the YCEI. Since Simmons was her supervisor, they were often paired together for teacher trainings, one of the main components of the RULER program. She said she and Simmons had similar values and goals within the YCEI, which led them to develop a close relationship.

“[Simmons is] one of really the few people I’ve ever met whose actions very deeply and truly aligned with what her stated values are,” Free said.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence — formerly the Health, Emotional and Behavior Laboratory — joined the Child Study Center in 2016.

Beatriz Horta | beatriz.horta@yale.edu

Zaporah Price | zaporah.price@yale.edu

Clarification, Jan. 26: The article has been updated to clarify that Simmons was at YCEI for 6 years and 7 months, not 7 full years, that Simmons’ leave following the 2020 anti-racist town hall was a medical leave and that Nathanson was also the YCEI’s director of partnerships when Simmons worked at the center. Additionally, it has been updated to specify the racial slurs directed at Simmons at the forum.

Clarification, Feb. 4: The story has been updated to clarify that the workplace climate assessment has two parts — one with former employees and one with current employees.

Clarification, Feb. 10: The story has been updated to clarify Mayes’ statement that there is only one climate assessment.