Educator, activist, and scholar are all titles that describe Dena Simmons. Whether she is working with teenage mothers in the Dominican Republic or shaping our nations’ future in a middle school classroom in the Bronx, Dena Simmons finds a way to bring an element of kindness and humanity to all of her life’s work.
From humble beginnings in the Bronx to becoming a Fulbright recipient and earning a Truman scholarship Dena Simmons is shining example of a what a young woman can accomplish when empowered by education.
Simmons shares with Her Agenda the valuable lessons she has learned on her journey thus far and how she has joined together with other women to fight social injustice around the world.
Her Agenda: Why did you decide to become an educator?
Dena Simmons: For as long as I could remember, I have always wanted to be an educator. My mother’s dedication and hard work to provide my two sisters and me with a good education instilled in me the importance of education. My mother’s struggling to send my sisters and me to the neighborhood parochial school sent us the message that we mattered. Education has empowered my family and me, and because of that, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to empowering others, especially those in marginalized communities like the one in which I was raised.
I want to provide others with access to knowledge and to resources that could improve their lives and allow them to experience their visions of success. Being an educator allows me to work from the heart, and that type of work is the work that wakes me up each morning.
Her Agenda: Education is a field of predominantly women, do you feel women educators are supportive of each other?
Dena Simmons: Women educators have been very supportive to me, especially other women educators of color. I owe much of my success as a teacher to the other female teachers in my school building. These amazing women supported me and shared with me their pearls of wisdom and resources. I am forever appreciative to them.
Her Agenda: You were involved with bringing health services to teen moms in the Dominican Republic what was this experience like for you & the women you came in contact with?
Dena Simmons: In the Dominican Republic, I pursued research with a Fulbright grant to learn more about the experiences of teenage mothers. Particularly, I was interested in the relationship between education, socioeconomic status, and teenage pregnancy. My experience in Santo Domingo not only exposed me to the society’s blatant disregard of pregnant and parenting teen mothers, but also confirmed my commitment to advocating and fighting for social justice.
While at the maternity hospital in Santo Domingo, I had the honor of working with a mostly female medical staff. Despite the lack of resources at the hospital, my colleagues were caring and loving to the girls that came in each day. My colleagues became my family and taught me how to create a work environment conducive to building community and to supporting each other so that we could do the best work for those we serve.
Her Agenda: What are some challenges you’ve faced in your journey as an advocate & educator? How have you overcome them?
Dena Simmons: One of the biggest challenges is how often people discourage me from dreaming big or speaking my truth. I often use these experiences to motivate me to prove to others that what they think is impossible can be possible.
Another challenge is a lack of financial resources. In this work of public service, there is always lack of funding to sustain meaningful work. Oftentimes, money runs out or a grant is up, and this greatly impacts the sustainability of any project. On top of that, funders sometimes disempower the grantee because they are very clear about how they want their money to be used.
Another challenge that I have faced is self-doubt. I cannot tell you how many times I get in the way of myself or how many times I think I am not good enough. However, when I feel like that, I step back and reflect on what I have been able to accomplish. I express gratitude for what I have, and I surround myself with my wonderful family and friends. Then, I remember that I am not alone and that I should keep trucking when things seem challenging.
Her Agenda: It has been said the best teachers are life long students. What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned on your journey thus far?
Dena Simmons: I have learned many valuable life lessons on my journey thus far. The first is to be patient. It is so important to take the time to learn and to experience the world before jumping into something without the necessary reflection and research. So much learning happens through experience.
Another lesson that I learned is to express gratitude. I did not get to where I am today without the support, guidance, and help of others. My mother provided the foundation, and my many teachers and mentors added bricks of wisdom along the way. Expressing gratitude allows me to focus on what I have, and not on what I do not have.
A third lesson that I have learned (and am still learning to do) is to ask for help when needed. It takes so much courage to ask for help and to allow one’s self to be vulnerable. What I have learned in the process of asking for help and expressing my vulnerability is that it allows me to more deeply connect with people.
The last lesson I have learned is the importance of staying true to who you are. Never do anything that is not in line with your beliefs just so that you could fit in or get the job. In anything that you do, be who you are and keep it real.
HA: How did you get involved with Camp Campbell? What made you want to join the community? What have been the benefits?
DS: I became involved in Camp Campbell through Faith Popcorn’s Brain Reserve. Eventually, I was invited to be a part of Camp Campbell, and I accepted the invitation. I was excited about the prospect of voicing my concerns about the obesity epidemic in our nation to one of the largest food providers. I also was interested in gaining a network of women in my age range who are doing meaningful work in their fields. In fact, meeting the other members of Camp Campbell has been such a highlight. Another highlight of this program is learning from the CEO, Denise Morrison, who is full of stories and wisdom and shares advice so openly with us.
HA: Do you have a personal or professional motto?
DS: I have two principles that guide me professionally and personally. The first one is to practice kindness. I believe that we should be kind to others even if they are unkind in return. The act of kindness allows us to see people and to acknowledge their humanity.
This brings me to my second guiding principle, which is the importance of bringing humanity to the work that we do. As a teacher, I was sure to share as much as myself (within the boundaries of a teacher/student relationship, of course) with my students so that they saw me as Dena Simmons and not simply their math or literacy teacher. I wanted my students to see that I laughed, cried, failed, and succeeded like they did. I wanted my students to know that I valued their lives and experiences. I provided my students with a safe space and many opportunities to share who they are with me. Oftentimes, we forget that our work impacts people, and if we remember this, we could be more kind to others and honor their humanity. Whatever work we do, we must work from the heart.
Editor’s note: Camp Campbell is a united a community of next generation women leaders and entrepreneurs in the areas of food, innovation and social entrepreneurship.
The founder of Her Agenda, Rhonesha Byng, is a finalist in their contest to search for a new member. Vote for her to become Camp Campbell’s latest member HERE.