David Adams is the Chief Executive Officer of The Urban Assembly (UA) and an inaugural member of New Teacher Center’s Equity Commission. He began with UA in 2014 as the Director of Social-Emotional Learning, where he created the Resilient Scholars Program (RSP), a unique approach to integrating SEL into curriculum and classroom practices across the UA network. RSP has grown into a national program, serving schools and districts in Los Angeles, Houston, Syracuse, and other cities. Later, as the Senior Director of Strategy, David led the expansion of the organization into a model provider of school support, with an emphasis on innovation and equity in public education. In 2021, David received the Champion of Equity Award from the American Consortium for Equity in Education. He sits on the board of CASEL and co-authored The Educator’s Practical Guide to Emotional Intelligence. He is also co-author of a chapter on culturally responsive SEL in urban schools in the textbook, Challenges to Integrating Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Programs in Organizations. David is a Civil Affairs Officer in the Army Reserve and holds an M.Ed in Educational Psychology from Fordham University.
Tell us about your experience as a core member of NTC’s Equity Commission. As an equity advocate, activist, and leader, how did the Commission’s work impact you?
Two words. Rewarding and affirming. In my line of work, it is difficult to not participate in a meeting in which education equity isn’t a topic. It is not uncommon for conveners to tithe a bit of time for participants to pause and share briefly or put reflections in the chat. It was refreshing, however, to have the opportunity to reflect deeply — to connect the personal to the professional — throughout the advisory process. And it was rewarding and affirming to see themes emerge and to have the opportunity to shape them into a powerful point of view.
In these trade-offs, do you see things that are striking or perhaps non-negotiable?
Absolutely. It’s non-negotiable that our public education system always has and will continue to play a profound role in navigating and building community for our country. When we look back, we see it repeatedly happening, such as Brown v. Board of Education and Plessy v. Ferguson. The notion of schools and identity development and how completely intersected it is and must be. Now, the question is how do we navigate that role, given the diversity of our country and the local nature of school systems? The multitude of perspectives and values that we need to navigate and the end state of trying to establish a national identity? I still believe in the role our schools can and do play in meeting that question head-on. We must acknowledge the truth that education hasn’t been solving for the right challenges or pointed toward the right intentions … the Dawes Act, segregation, immigrant experiences, and many more. So what can we do better in our education system to shape and support a diverse and inclusive identity?
What are your reflections on leaning into hard truths about how our education system is designed?
In some ways, the more pressing question to me is why? What problem is the system solving for? Nelson Mandela said it: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” He talked about how we’ve used education to bring out divisions, and now we must use it to bring people together. It takes energy to bring out divisions to ensure that we can have economically and geographically exploitable people in service of a minority. And so we need to define what it is that we want our schools to be able to produce. We need to argue that our schools must be designed to produce not only competitive thinkers but community in a national and a local sense. What does it mean, as Thurgood Marshall would say, to live together and learn together? What does it mean to be in community with people, to understand the perspectives of those who are different? I’ve been in the U.S. Army Reserve for 19 years. Their answer is to put people in proximity. Put folks who are different together to face difficult things together to create cohesion. And I think if we adopted that mindset of how to be in community with people, our schools would look very different and feel very different.
As you speak about the importance of community, there is community within the school building and then the bigger, supporting community that surrounds it. What was different for you and for Urban Assembly during the 2021-2022 school year in how you showed up for students and educators in the context of that community lens?
That’s a great question. Omicron kind of broke our backs. We had to temporarily shift to a school community that focused on watching kids versus teaching kids and reconnecting kids back to the culture of our schools. That was a struggle. It speaks to what we were trying to accomplish in our schools. We are trying to produce young people who can navigate community. And that means you refine their thinking skills, and, as a byproduct, they can contribute to their community via work or other ways of contributing to the whole. It also means they understand and work through differences and conflicts. We saw our young people come back and struggle to work through the conflicts and the challenges of community. Which harkens back to our central question of what the purpose of school is. The literature talks about how relationships drive cultures of learning. But it doesn’t speak to the whole purpose of community spaces and the public education space. That’s why the Equity Commission work is so important. It grounded us in the purpose of schools. Schools are the places where values are developed, oriented, and cultivated. And we’ve got to name that because what we want to believe is that schools are about math and science. And while those are important aspects, that’s not why they’re public. There’s an even bigger extended purpose that academics squarely sit within. And that must happen through the lens of community.
The science of learning and development provides pretty clear guidance on what it takes to support student growth and create the conditions where holistic education can happen. Why do you think the critical, research-proven elements of creating safety, nurturing identity, and focusing on relationships aren’t widely celebrated or understood as the means to a rigorous academic outcome?
To a certain extent, they’re invisible. So that’s, I think, a challenge. Creating a strong environment of learning, people know it when they feel it. And you can describe it. There are systems of description. But they’re not used with a lot of fluency outside of the research community. The instructional approach of a teacher, how I’m teaching, feels more concrete to people than the context in which students are learning. And both matter. Imagine you’re learning to drive, and I’m your driving instructor. And you’re nervous, you’re driving, and I’m all over the place. I am not creating the conditions for you to learn the things you need to learn because you’re so busy reacting to our poor relationship, our power dynamics, your identity, and my emotional state. Now imagine the opposite experience. You are more open to the learning process because my emotional state is grounded, and I’m pulling on all the levers to put you in position to be curious, confident, and safe. We can make that same argument about public education. We all need a warm, supportive and inclusive environment to facilitate knowledge transfer and learning. It’s not soft. It’s a critical part of the learning process and can be the difference between engagement and distancing for students.
And for students experiencing systemic marginalization or carrying identity-rooted trauma, how do you teach for that context and bring together technical and practical and emotional supports?
I’m with it. I’m with it. To further that analogy, let’s say your mother was in a car accident. And so driving in and of itself is a challenge. So these are real things, and we’re dealing with people. And that’s not weakness, it’s just the nature of the learning process. Humans matter. People matter. All problems are people problems, and all opportunities are people opportunities. And teaching is a people business, and that’s where teachers struggle. They struggle with kids and themselves. And that’s ok. It’s what we do to respond with the right scaffolds and values and vision that’s key.
Self-examination is foundational but also a confrontation that many seek to avoid. How do we gain ground on understanding how we show up as educators to disrupt things that stand in the way of creating optimal learning environments for systemically underserved students?
You have got to watch your kids, and you have got to watch how they react. You have to take that information and then get to know them. And get to know yourself in their context. Teaching is watching your kids and making adjustments — not just about content, but about ourselves and how we show up as people — to maximize their learning. Equity has a lot to do with that, understanding where kids are coming from. Social-emotional learning has a lot to do with that, understanding where you’re coming from, how your self is in the space and how the kid’s self is in the space. And then your content, knowing what you know, and then being able to connect what you know to what your kids know. It’s a complicated task, lifting up student learning. And I have nothing but respect for the teachers who kick butt at it.
What have you seen that gives you hope for the transformations the Equity Commission, NTC, and Urban Assembly are trying to enact?
I’m super hopeful about our educational space. I know folks are struggling; our teacher pipeline is drying up. We’ve got a lot going on. But we’ve always made progress when we’ve named the right problems. And I think today, with things like the Equity Commission, we are naming the challenges that matter. Whether that’s looking at community schools and how we support the whole family and get local investment in what’s at stake. I’ve seen the science of learning and development coming into the conversation more. Where folks are grounded in cognitive and social-emotional science to understand how people learn, that’s been good. We’ve seen in proof points and research what we’ve long known — zero tolerance doesn’t work. There are signs around us.
It’s not as fast as I want it to be. But folks like NTC have shifted their work around centering students and how kids learn. More and more people say relationships matter in learning, and we’re now supporting the development of well-rounded skills that facilitate learning via relationships and connection. I’ve seen this in classrooms, schools and entire districts. It’s exciting.
What are you most hopeful or excited about where NTC goes next, and/or where you think it should be going next?
That’s such a good question. It’s all about operationalization. NTC needs to keep supporting teachers to get clarity and move into action. They don’t need ideas; they need operationalized systems to execute those ideas. I need to know what to do for my classroom context through the lens of equity. And I have to have a process in place to practice it and practice it and practice it. The more NTC can help people understand, see examples or observe models of practice, and dig into the decision-making, it will be a game-changer. We have to operationalize everything with resource constraints and show that it’s possible, even without limitless resources. As a whole, the sector’s great at coming up with concepts and frameworks. But we don’t operationalize them; we just whack people on the head with them. The best thing we can do for teachers is give them absolute clarity about making it happen.
How do we root ourselves and anchor examples of how you make it happen?
In the Army Reserve, we follow the value that you leave no man behind. It’s a value. It costs lives; people have died because of it. Values aren’t just things you put up on the wall. They have a cost. And that’s why they’re important. And I believe this applies to the equity space. What are we willing to pay for this? What is it going to cost us to live these values in the real world? If we’re not willing to be at that level of commitment, then it’s just not going to happen. We have to commit to this moment and keep it going forward. No matter the cost.
* All photography, unless otherwise noted, is credited to Urban Assembly