Beginning with Dr. Deborah Rivas-Drake’s time as a graduate student in U-M’s Combined Program in Education and Psychology (CPEP), her research has consistently explored the ways that minoritized youths experience and navigate their racial and ethnic identities. After finishing her PhD in 2005, Rivas-Drake continued that research in several venues and contexts, including as a National Science Foundation Postdoc at NYU and an Assistant Professor at Brown University, before returning to U-M as a tenured professor in 2013. She was recently named the Stephanie J. Rowley Professor of Education to honor her contributions to the field. Particularly noteworthy is her 2019 book Below the Surface: Talking with Teens about Race, Ethnicity, and Identity (read more at Princeton University Press), which won the Eleanor Maccoby Book Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) and the Social Policy Publication Best Book Award from the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA).

Rivas-Drake explains that her research focus is a natural product of her own experiences growing up and working as a Latina in academia. “Ever since I was younger, as my identity has evolved, I have thought about these issues in my own life,” she says. “As a Latina, I am very cognizant, for example, of the fact that we are underrepresented in the academy and at my rank. I have always thought about how different groups interact and how people develop their understanding of racial diversity and racial identity. As you grow up, how do you make sense of that in different ways and really unpack the experiences you have had in your school contexts and your peer contexts? Those questions have been very significant in my work. That led me to education and psychology, and my work focuses primarily on 10-18-year-olds—so from elementary school through the high school years.”

Rivas-Drake’s current work revolves around two large-scale, interdisciplinary projects examining how race and racism are addressed (or not addressed) in public schools. Ultimately, the goal is to use that research to develop accessible, practical tools to help parents and educators discuss those difficult topics with children and adolescents.

The first project focuses on the extent to which teachers engage in what is known as Transformative Social and Emotional Learning. More broadly, Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) refers to the parts of the curriculum intended to help children and youths understand and manage their own emotions, develop and maintain healthy relationships, and navigate social stress and conflict. As Rivas-Drake explains, Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (TSEL) is SEL that is specifically “attuned to social injustice and inequities in society.”

“However,” she continues, “a lot of SEL in schools does not take this approach, and we have argued that teaching SEL in a way that is not attentive to those kinds of broader community and social realities does not really prepare students to collectively problem-solve within their communities. That is particularly true for minoritized students who have those kinds of experiences or who understand that there are many people who are oppressed in their communities.”

To assess the ways in which teachers do (or do not) engage in TSEL in the classroom, Rivas-Drake and her collaborators recently completed a study in the Chicago public schools. “TSEL is a relatively recent concept,” she observes, “so there are a lot of questions about what it actually looks like in practice. For example, we observed a teacher talking about bullying, which is what we consider a bread-and-butter SEL topic. But in this case, the teacher said, ‘You know, we have been talking about bullying. But today we are going to talk about something we don’t hear about as much, and that is political bullying.’ And in the same lesson, she talked about immigration and justice, and the kids shared about their experiences. It was a predominantly Latinx classroom and school, and a lot of them had broader concerns about things like ICE raids or other happenings in their community. So the idea is that if you are talking about a topic like bullying but never get to that other layer of societal bullying, you are missing a big piece of the puzzle and not fully meeting their social and emotional needs.”

Based on the Chicago study and existing research in the field, Rivas-Drake and her team are now developing a measure to assess TSEL practices on a national scale. The measure currently considers TSEL across four domains: 1) promoting awareness of diverse racial and ethnic identities and experiences; 2) acknowledging and addressing racial injustice; 3) acknowledging and addressing xenophobia and immigration injustice; and 4) supporting students’ agency, voice, and power.

Although the measure is still in development and the research is preliminary, Rivas-Drake explains that some patterns are already emerging. In particular, teachers appear to engage most often in the first and last domains: promoting awareness of diverse identities and supporting students’ agency and power. It is much less common for teachers to address the second and third domains—acknowledging racial injustice and acknowledging xenophobia or immigration injustice—directly.

“If you think about it, that kind of makes sense,” Rivas-Drake says. “I think it’s a lot easier to say, you know, ‘we all have different identities’ and ‘diversity is important and good, and we should understand each other.’ That feels more like a kind of entry point into the conversation. It’s more comfortable to go into a conversation about having empathy for diverse groups or talking about the traditions in your family. That’s obviously really important too because it allows students to bring themselves into their learning environment, and it shows that the teacher cares about the things that are important to their students and who they are as people.”

“But it’s much harder, you can imagine, to get into the sorts of things that became very prominent for people during the racial reckoning,” she continues. “A lot of folks were just becoming aware of those things for the first time, but these are experiences and issues that racially marginalized families—especially Black and Latinx families—live with every day. And one important thing to understand is that while TSEL does center racially marginalized youth’s experiences and the issues that disproportionately affect their communities, it’s not just for them. I believe that all schools should be providing opportunities for all students, no matter what their racial background, to understand that there are real emotional tolls for kids and families to the things you see in the news. Those issues impact communities and families in a personal way. It’s not this abstract thing that’s happening and that you’re not connected to. You should care about that too.”

Equipping teachers and parents with tools to facilitate those conversations is the goal of Rivas-Drake’s other major project called Stepping Up Against Racism and Xenophobia (SPARX). Funded by the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID) and drawing on experts from wide variety of disciplines, SPARX aims to create a publicly accessible online repository of resources to help parents and educators teach children to recognize and resist racism and xenophobia.

Before the researchers can develop that repository, though, they first need to determine what resources are most needed in the first place. To do so, they are currently interviewing parents and educators from around the country about what they believe would be most helpful. The researchers will then combine information from those interviews with data from the current literature to determine both what kinds of resources are most needed and what formats or media would be most intuitive and effective. An expansive interdisciplinary, multi-year project, SPARX will draw on knowledge from experts on bias development, identity, physical and mental health, community engagement with African-American and Latinx families, and information architecture, as well as a large number of graduate students and undergraduate research assistants.

Rivas-Drake explains that while the scope of the SPARX project can seem daunting, she is motivated by the knowledge that it addresses an acute need for parents and educators in the US.

“When I started this, I’m sure I didn’t know exactly what I was getting into,” she laughs. “But I know that this is needed—I know it is. Part of the reason this project came about is because I do a lot of consulting with industry and with curriculum developers about these issues. For example, I recently completed projects with American Girl and Sesame Workshop, among others. I realized from those experiences that this expertise is really needed, and it’s really needed in a way that is non-technical and accessible to the public. At this point, it’s a slow, steady, and thorough assessment of what people are saying they would like to see, combined with what we know is available from the literature and from other websites and organizations. What are the tools and interventions that are available, and how can we bring them together in a way that makes sense?  Ultimately, this is about providing that information in a way that allows people to take action in their local contexts—in their own families, schools, and communities.”

Note: If you are a researcher who is interested in collaborating with the SPARX project, please contact Deborah Rivas-Drake at At the time of this writing, the SPARX team is particularly interested in collaborating with researchers in the fields of information architecture and UX design.