“Diversity has become a word that is fraught, but the basic idea is that people from
different backgrounds and walks of life, when they come together, can contribute something special and new and different. And when you set the grounding for psychological safety, it is magical. I really believe in the power of diversity, and the piece that's missing that I think many teachers don't realize is the second piece: You have to set the psychological grounding. I have to look at you, Ben, and say, ‘You have something to share that I need, that I want to know.’ And I have to create the conditions to draw that out. That's how innovation is going to really grow.”
—Valerie Purdie-Greenaway

For young people to thrive, they need to experience a sense of psychological safety and belonging.

In these excerpts from our Rooted in Relationships podcast, Search Institute President and CEO Dr. Benjamin Houltberg interviews Dr. Valerie Purdie-Greenaway, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University and Director for the Laboratory of Intergroup Relations and the Social Mind (LIRSM).

Greenaway shares her own life journey, insights from her teacher-mother, and some thoughts on how teachers and practitioners can help students thrive by employing small interventions that add up to big shifts in identity.

Listen to the entire podcast here.


Roots of Curiosity

Ben: What an incredible opportunity to be here with Valerie today. Valerie has been doing amazing work that started with making small changes and interventions called “wise interventions” to make big differences with young people. She has also expanded a lot of her recent research to wider thinking around economics and cultural psychology and microbiology. Her wisdom and tidbits today are going to be applicable for our listeners and the practitioners and teachers as we dive into these topics, but also because of her deep commitment to understanding inner group behaviors and relationships at a time that is so critical for us to have these conversations. Valerie has done an incredible amount of work around the intersectionality of identities and stigmatizing of certain identities. So welcome today, Valerie. And thank you so much for your time.

Valerie: Thank you, Ben. I am absolutely delighted to be here. “Here” is always in quotations, because I'm still in the basement of my house, but I hope you and your family are safe and sound, and I'm just thrilled to be part of this conversation.

Ben: I would love to hear more about your story, Valerie, of what brought you to this point of wanting to become an applied researcher, but also a scientist understanding intergroup connections.

Valerie: My mother, who is now in her mid-80s, was a third grade school teacher. I was really inspired by my mother in a couple of ways. During the summer we'd go help her set up her classroom for the fall. And we'd go to those places that are now defunct, where you get all of the markers and the stickers. And my job was to help decorate the classroom. And I just remember how important the context was, and what she would always tell me was two things: Be nice to the janitors because they actually run the school. And if you're not nice, you will get nothing from them. And I think that has carried forward to me, because I always think about who are the people that have hidden sources of power. The second kind of nugget that she always gave me is that the context drives the class.

She said you have to come in ready to create a learning environment so that students would learn. I remember every holiday we'd pack up gifts, toys, books, some of my clothes, sometimes even lotion and soap. And she would bring it to the kids and families around Bayshore. I think I always thought of myself as an extension of her, as a teacher.

And then fast forward…I went to Columbia University, but I was recruited to play basketball there. So I really didn't sort of think of myself as an intellectual. I thought of myself as an athlete.

While I was there, one of my favorite classes was by Geraldine Downey and Lois Putnam called Children at Risk. Geraldine Downey is now one of my colleagues and dear friends because I'm a professor there today. One of my other favorite classes was with Carol Dweck, on Growth Mindset. And then my third favorite class was Delay of Gratification with Walter Mischel. You don't get much better than that.

Ben: One thing that strikes me as you describe this is that you have a curiosity. You want to understand the ingredients that your mom created in the classroom.

Valerie: Yes. I didn't really think about that at the time, but I knew I wanted to work with children. And after college I went to work for the I Have a Dream Foundation in Stamford, Connecticut.

I knew that all children come into this world ready to succeed. I didn't have the language for that, but it becomes a really interesting puzzle. And as a question of social justice: How do you create equal opportunity?

But you really have to start with the mindset that all children are able to grow and flourish, and all children thrive under the right conditions. If you don't believe that, there is nowhere to go after that. I've seen many good teachers. They don't think about themselves as parents, but they do think of themselves as gardeners. That is almost a cliché these days, but if you really believe it, it actually has power and meaning, and there's nothing like having children to realize that you are going to figure out every structure you can put in place to make them succeed.

Ben: Yeah, really tending to the soil that the plant and the beauty of the plant will thrive if it has the right ingredient.

Addressing Inequities

Ben: If you think about positive youth development and its early stages, sometimes there could be kind of a glossing over of the real struggle, or some of the racism and oppression that was happening. But you have an ability to navigate both of those stories: the belief that all, all children deserve love and trustworthiness and opportunity, and also to understand that there are inequities there. How did you start to put those together?

Valerie: The real hall of Famers are my children in the first job that I had when I was director of the I have a Dream Foundation. It seems like a million years ago, but my class was the first class in the United States that had transitioned to a program where sponsors commit up front when the children are in third grade to have a college education—there’s college funding at the end of the rainbow.

And I was with the first cohort that they were experimenting with doing it in a housing project. So I had all third graders who lived in an area, but went to different schools, which presented all of these challenges.

But man, there is nothing like figuring out that the scholarship that you learn in college does not translate into trying to figure out how to put together a summer program for a bunch of third graders in the housing project: It's hot. They don't like you, they want to eat all day. They're like, “We're not doing that. We're going to do hair braiding over here.” And you realize that we're doing something different.

What happened during that period of time is that the inequity was really quite stark. The housing project was right off of exit 6 in, in Stamford, Connecticut. It's no longer there, but it was bordering Greenwich, Connecticut. So I would literally ride my bike three quarters of a mile. I would be at this gorgeous lake, and I'd always tell the kids to come with me. And they were like, “We don't belong there.” Or I'd say, “Come with me downtown.”

They were all children of color, and some were Latinx. We had mentors, one mentor for every child and at the time there were 60, we expanded it to 120 children and the mentors were wealthier than I have ever seen today. I mean, they had boats, they had airplanes. They were mostly really wealthy investment bankers in Greenwich and wonderful people, but they were almost all white Americans. What is that? What is the impact of that?

So, I actually started getting interested in questions that at the time, when I'd go back to the library, there were no answers. That's how I realized that a scientist is a person who has questions that they're just trying to find the answers to. Science is just a set of tools, but if you don't have the questions, it doesn't really matter.

That gap is massive. So all of that together made me sort of think about issues of inequity in a couple of ways. One is my own personal journey. For me, I never would say I felt discrimination. I felt racism, but I certainly felt otherized. And I certainly felt the sort of low expectations. They expected me to be an amazing basketball player, but one of the things that I learned is that you really can't put all of your emotional eggs in a basket of an institution that wasn't designed for you. It doesn't mean you can't care. It doesn't mean you can't be a part of it. But if you put all of your emotional eggs in that basket, as opposed to your church, your community, your family, I feel like it opens you up to the impact of, of that otherism on you.

In a way it's weird that I'm doing research on belonging because I've also done a little bit of research showing that, that kind of slight separation that distance, the little bit of the lack of belonging can almost be a protective factor. But in terms of grades and performance and motivation, can you just sit and work on a paper for 12 hours a day? It's really hard to have that persistence when you feel a slight kind of disconnection.

But for me, I've almost always felt that. A couple of months ago as Columbia campus started to open up and I looked at the steps and I said, my now-13-year-old, basically grew up here. She used to slide down the steps and stand in the middle of the sprinkler.

I was an undergrad there. I played basketball there. I'm now a faculty member there. I'm now a tenured professor. And my now husband is a trustee. What does it take for a person of color to feel a sense of belonging? It doesn't get any better than that.

And I still have that slight feeling of reservation. Greg Wilson calls it uncertainty about belonging. It is bedeviling, I think, but I see it's something that you always navigate, and it also has become a big piece of what I help my students think about.

Wise Interventions

Ben: What an amazing context to your work. Thank you for sharing that vulnerability as well. I'm sure there's so many listeners out there that can relate to that piece — that really feel it in their hearts. I want to talk a little bit about how you leaned into this complexity, the idea that the practitioner has wisdom. And that there are ways to embed science into practices that have big differences. I think of the work that you've done around decreasing the trust gap between African American students and white students— the trust-restoring practices. And the self-affirmation exercises and grading practices. I found all three of those to be just fantastic.

Valerie: I have never met a practitioner who’s just a practitioner. They are scientists. So part of the complexity is re-imagining the ecosystem, the source of power related to practitioners and scientists.

I tease my mom all the time. I was like, “You know, you are a scientist.”

That shift in mindset of who is the storehouse of the knowledge, I think will also start to shift the kind of ecosystem and allow people who are interested in schoolwork as well as community work to work together. I'm not saying that I've invented this idea. It is happening, but I think we need to connect.

When you think about the specific research that I've done, it's very much in collaboration with a whole host of people: Jeff Cohen, who's about to come out with a fabulous book. Dave Yeager, Dave Sherman, Greg Walton. There’s a newer generation of scientists, and all of us have been working for a very long time on a very small problem, which is how do you leverage change in the context of classrooms?

I've always been interested in how you reduce opportunity gaps between African Americans and white Americans. And also when you look at women and girls in STEM, relative to men. What we have found, really inspired by, my advisor, Claude Steele is that many different types of disciplines focus on the social structure. But what psychologists can bring is to combine the social structure with students' interpretation of what is happening to them, their perceptions of what's happening to them. And also the perceptions of the interactions that they're having.

There are a wide variety of things that you can do to do that.

For instance, I've done research for quite a long time on self-affirmation theory, which is a very simple, small writing exercise that's designed to reduce stress. To reduce students' relationship to stress so that it's like, “I can cope with this stress.” The way it happens is when students are writing about their values — they value their friends, their family, their religion, music, taking a mask off, all these kinds of things— what it does is that in moments of stress, it kind of makes you see the bigger picture. So that I am more than this teacher yelling at me. I'm more than this ERB SAT tests. I am bigger than that moment. I'm a whole person. That's kind of what's happening at the unconscious level. You're just writing a little short paragraph about your friends and family or music, but it has a deep, psychological impact.

One of the things we know about being a member of an underrepresented group is that there is this high attunement to what's going on around you now in the leadership context that actually can be good. That can actually be a good leadership skill over time. But when you're trying to focus on a test or learning something or you have to learn a really challenging activity, trying to figure out just when to raise your hand or not raise your hand — that added level of attunement can be distracting and stressful because you're trying to figure out what's happening to you or might happen to you in the environment.

And that gets amplified after about 12 years old. Transition from this is happening to me to this is happening to my people. This is a whole ’nother thing. I'm constantly talking to my daughter. She’s starting to learn things about race, and saying, “White people do this, Black people do that.” And I say, “Wow, we are not doing that in this family. We're not doing that. That is stereotyping. This is what Mommy studies. We are going to have a more sophisticated conversation about how identity works.”

Ben: There’s nothing like young children to test your research, that's for sure. I love this idea of taking the heat off. When you think about self-affirmations and expanding people's self-narratives to understand meaning and value in their culture, I wonder if that's communicating, “I see you. I care about you more than just your performance in this classroom.”

Valerie: Absolutely. But the trick is when it comes from the teacher in sort of an explicit way, it can have some backlash effects. There's research by David Sherman and colleagues showing that when you tell people that an affirmation intervention is designed to help you, it doesn't actually improve performance.

Master teachers understand that their gift is, “I can see you.” and they figure out ways to affirm who a child is in the moment when, when they need it. And what this exercise is doing is drawing on the wisdom of these master teachers and then sort of almost like, you know, skimming the psychology off, off the top. The way I think about it is that when you see these opportunity gaps, differences between students of color and white students — sometimes you see it between boys and girls — the first thing that I think about is: What is the impoverished nature of the environment psychologically?

I think about this even more today, because some of the things that we as scientists thought would work don't work. It doesn't help to put up more posters of Michelle and Barack Obama. It becomes another thing that teachers do. And then the “I see you” power of it is gone. So as a scientist, you kind of have to figure out what different sources of stress are and what are those different elements.

One of the things that I've been thinking about a lot lately is, how can we build affirming moments in what we call ecologically valid ways— ways that are just really genuine and authentic, sort of beyond these exercises.

For young kids, many of them students of color, you can be in an environment where you kind of wonder: “Is this a place where I'm going to be discriminated against? Is this a place where I'm okay?” It is just a crime that children should have to have that question.

And if you don't do anything, we have data after data piece after data piece, showing that particularly for African American kids in middle school, trust erodes pretty rapidly from sixth grade to ninth grade.

We have interventions that try to use small shifts in psychology to change the way students perceive their teachers. And we show that when you can sort of shore up trust that way, it also improves performance and reduces discipline rates. But these small changes, particularly in middle school, have dramatic effects.

And the reason why they have dramatic effects is not because we're amazing scientists, but because of the complexity of the system. In New York city, for instance, you know, the difference between that nudge that gets you into a higher ranking school versus a school those differences are minuscule. Those small nudges actually matter.

So for me, it makes me hopeful, because human thriving is not about big things. It's about the whole thing.

Exploring Hope

Ben: I love that idea. Because that hopefulness is the same thing I felt. I remember when you shared that there are things that we can change when we're intentional about them. And for me, as a white male, there's a onus of responsibility for me to understand where my biases are coming through. Where are my blind spots? If we can engage even in what we do in our daily lives, that can make a real difference. We're talking about a lot of great things, but that intentionality is so critical.

Valerie: I think so, because the next thing that I worry about is almost like “belonging overboard.” What I mean by that is that teachers today are learning about critical race theory and their own pedagogy the question of what is appropriate to tell children and not tell children. Maybe I seem Pollyannaish, but I want children to believe that good things will happen to them.

And I want them to believe that when you water the soil, they will thrive and they will grow and they have to believe that.

And so when teachers talk about the George Floyd verdict in school, I wonder because on the one hand, it's really important, but is that really the place? Because it's so important for children to feel like they can sort of imagine all sorts of amazing things. And it happens in school. I think about this because there's a really cool study that was done many years ago about exactly what you're talking about. It was looking at white teachers versus African American teachers. What he found is that many African American students just look at other African American teachers and they assume that there's going to be a sense of connection.

And when they look at white teachers, they assume there's not going to be a sense of connection. What's cool about this study is that it shows that when the white teacher sort of shows in a variety of subtle ways that they are not down with stereotypes, that they believe in them, students' levels of trust increases and their performance increases.

And you get the opposite effect with the African American teachers. When you believe that they are going to be sort of racist or that you believe that they're going to stereotype you, then your performance drops and your lack of belonging increases. I say that because, again, it's the small things.

I'm not white, but you know, based on this kind of research, you don't have to do a lot. You have to be decent, and you're gonna do well here. It makes me sort of think about all of the other things that we're introducing in school. What are we doing in terms of sense of belonging and connection?

Positive Identity for Muslim Youth

Ben: I really want to move also to what you mentioned earlier and thinking about intergroup relationships and a study the John Templeton Foundation funded to look at positive identity in Muslim youth. Talk to us about some of the findings that are coming out of that study and what has emerged.

Valerie: This is a very interesting program of research and a real intellectual stretch. For me, it was absolutely 100% generated by my doctoral student who just defended Maneeza Dawood. She is the first Muslim woman in our doctoral program at Columbia psychology to graduate.

She was also an undergrad at Columbia, and worked in my lab before, and she has helped me so much in thinking about a few things. One is how impoverished the science is around religion and the real shortcomings that the science has when you just focus on Christianity.

Part of the broad scope of this research was to develop a measure to try to understand what is Muslim adolescent identity. The broader project is really trying to ask the question of what is the relationship between many of the character values that the John Templeton Foundation cares about: Are they already part and parcel of Muslim adolescent identity? And I love that question because, again, it's another way to think of a group that is otherized as thriving.

The second piece is that we have been blessed and been able to, to work with MIS— the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament, which is a tournament Maneeza was part of that literally takes Muslim youth from all over the country. They are incredible. People don't know this, but there are many religious-based competitions. What's nice about this one is that we were able to kind of interject ourselves and study Muslim identity. We're able to look at social networks and we were interested in a second question, which is political engagement. As you can see from the news, the common stereotype is many Muslim youth are disengaged from American politics, but our data does not share that at all.

In fact, they're highly engaged and they are engaged in American politics, and doing things in their community to really increase political engagement. The idea that this is a group that is anti-American is not consistent with what we're finding at all.

The third piece is to really try to understand the relationship between identity, how it flourishes in the context of these religious tournaments — and then how does that help students cope in school?

And what we see is that even though there are very high levels of outright bullying, Islam as a religion really is one form of a protective factor.

The youth, the directors of the MIS program, the mom that has been helping us, they are the scientists because they're looking at this Duke Christianity measure that we added the word Muslim to, and they're like, “We don't know what this is, but how about think about this?”

They're like, well, why don't you do some narrative storytelling? Why don't you just have the students on Zoom, bring photographs of things that mean something. I think that the impact of this is going to be tremendous, both for the research community and for really rethinking about collective networks and religion and the impact of religion as a sort of a protective factor. And I also think that it's, it's an empowering research message for the Muslim community.

It goes back to how we started this podcast. It's about the soil, and here the soil is Islam.

It's protective, even in the context of schools and classrooms.

Science as Social Justice

Ben: It really is. I was struck by that project of really moving a group of stigmatized youth and highlighting the character strengths that are in the community, and connected to community. For these youth in the tournaments, it was really about how they carried that sense of identity back into their schools.

I think that work is so powerful, Valerie, of saying every kid matters. And it goes back to that idea from your mom that context drives the class.

Valerie: Context drives the class. She would say that, and I do continue to believe it. I'm also aware that I'm part of a generation. There's a younger generation that is much more impatient, feeling that change can't happen over the course of a seven-year study.

But I stand by the idea that. Science is a form of social justice. You know, people come to me for a reason, and people come to scientists for a reason. We have an incredible responsibility, but we also have a role to play, because our data is by far from perfect, but it can help you say something.

The fact is you have better and better models in schools of not just that teachers care, but what does good caring look like? A lot of that comes from the relationship between the scientists and practitioners.

So I think that, that work is incredibly important. I had some really honest conversations with some of the people at the John Templeton Foundation, because studying virtues, you know, there's something about the sound of that. That kind of sounds like you're Pollyannaish, that you can't understand what's actually going on.

What I have found is that this funding has just been an incredible opportunity to offer grounding. It's gotten me thinking about questions like “Do people who care about diversity? Is that a virtue?”

Ben: I think there's so much more there to dive into, but we are going to close it out. What are one to two things that you're passionate about, that you feel deeply about when it comes to practitioners or teachers that you would like to share with them as we close out this podcast?

Valerie: One is that diversity has become a word that is fraught, but the basic idea is that people from different backgrounds and walks of life, when they come together, can contribute something special and new and different. And when you set the grounding for psychological safety, it is magical. I really believe in the power of diversity.

The piece that's missing that I think many teachers don't realize is the second piece. You have to set the psychological grounding. I have to look at you, Ben, and say, “You have something to share that I need, that I want to know.” And I have to create the conditions to draw that out. And when you put the psychological safety together with the diversity, that's how innovation is going to really grow.

It's a singular message of hope and promise about a cosmopolitan, diverse group of young people that are going to hopefully flourish and thrive in the future.

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