Nurturing Hearts and Minds: The Importance of Social-Emotional Education for our Underserved Youth

by Joyce Hyser Robinson


In the heart of our urban landscapes, where life moves at a rapid pace, and challenges are an everyday reality, children face unique obstacles that can impact their growth and development. Amidst these hurdles, social-emotional education emerges as a beacon of hope, offering invaluable tools and skills to empower these young individuals to thrive in their personal and academic lives.

Understanding Social-Emotional Education

Social-emotional education, often referred to as SEL (Social and Emotional Learning), is a holistic approach to learning that recognizes the importance of nurturing emotional intelligence alongside traditional academic skills. It equips students with the ability to recognize and manage their emotions, build positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. For underserved youth who may confront economic disparities, violence, and trauma, SEL is a lifeline to navigate these challenges successfully.

Building Emotional Resilience

One of the most significant advantages of social-emotional education is the cultivation of emotional resilience. Underserved youth often face adversities that can lead to chronic stress and emotional turmoil. SEL provides them with the tools to understand and cope with these emotions, reducing the risk of mental health issues. It helps them develop resilience, enabling them to bounce back from setbacks and confidently face future challenges.

Promoting Positive Relationships

Healthy relationships are the cornerstone of a fulfilling life. Underserved youth can benefit immensely from SEL by learning how to build and maintain positive connections with peers, teachers, and family members. These skills translate to better personal relationships and a more supportive school environment where academic success becomes more attainable.

Enhancing Academic Achievement

It’s no secret that social and emotional well-being can significantly impact academic performance. When underserved youth are equipped with SEL skills, they are better prepared to focus on their studies, manage stress, and make informed decisions. This, in turn, leads to improved academic outcomes, breaking the cycle of underachievement that often plagues disadvantaged communities.

Preparing for the Future

Social-emotional education goes beyond the classroom; it prepares young people for the real world. As they grow into young adults, these skills become invaluable in college, careers, and life in general. The ability to communicate effectively, collaborate with others, and persevere in the face of adversity opens doors to a brighter future.

Closing Thoughts

In our cities’ streets and crowded neighborhoods, social-emotional education is not just a luxury but a necessity. It provides a roadmap for our youth to navigate their challenges, develop resilience, and unlock their full potential. By prioritizing SEL, we invest in the future of our marginalized communities, creating a generation of empowered individuals who can break the cycle of adversity and contribute positively to society. It’s time to recognize the importance of social-emotional education for our kids and ensure that every child has access to the tools they need to succeed, not only academically but in all aspects of life.

The Role of the Harold Robinson Foundation

The Harold Robinson Foundation stands as a shining example of how social-emotional education can be effectively integrated into the lives of the youth we serve through innovative means. Through our camp programs, such as the flagship “Camp Ubuntu,” we have harnessed the power of experiential learning to instill SEL principles. At Camp Ubuntu, our kids are immersed in nature’s beauty and encouraged to participate in team-building activities, engage in reflective exercises, and learn conflict-resolution skills. By creating a safe and supportive environment where campers can express themselves and build positive relationships, the Harold Robinson Foundation nurtures these young individuals’ social and emotional growth. They emerge from these camp experiences with cherished memories and equipped with a robust set of SEL skills that will serve them well throughout their lives. The Foundation’s approach demonstrates that social-emotional education can be integrated into various contexts, including outdoor experiences, to make a lasting impact on the lives of our South LA youth.



by Joyce Hyser Robinson & Amelia Williamson

1. Language Matters

The Harold Robinson Foundation has joined many others in making a conscious effort to humanize our language and retire euphemisms like inner-city,  inner-city children, and underprivileged.  It can be unintentional and out of habit, but we all need to be more intentional about the words we use—language matters. We recognize language has the power to cause harm, particularly in the struggle for equitable systems and industries. How can we truly establish equity when we are always seeking to establish an “other.”  Language has been used throughout our history to divide communities and infer a sense of someone or some communities being ‘less than’ others. Inner-city, underprivileged, minority and poor are a few words no longer used by many organizations because it speaks to circumstances and not who we are as humans.

2. Not all disadvantaged communities are in the inner-city.

Although it may be factual that some disinvested communities are within the inner-city, not all, and perhaps even most of them are not. Downtown/Inner-City/Center City neighborhoods are thriving and have become increasingly wealthy, displacing many long-time residents to more suburban and rural areas. For instance, Watts, the community we serve, has been commonly referred to as an “inner-city” neighborhood. But Watts is about 13 miles from downtown Los Angeles. For context, so is Beverly Hills. 


These are stereotypes, and they evoke racial identification based on where one might reside and gives no historical reference to how and why they exist, which brings us to redlining.

3. Terms like “inner-city” propagate historical biases and institutional racism.

“Redlining, a process by which banks and other institutions refuse to offer mortgages or offer worse rates to customers in certain neighborhoods based on their racial and ethnic composition, is one of the clearest examples of institutionalized racism in the history of the United States. Although the practice was formally outlawed in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it continues in various forms to this day.” 

Considering homeownership has been how most American families have generated familial wealth, black people, for the most part, were denied that opportunity. Their communities lacked investment, and they were left to die on the proverbial vine.

One interesting fact about Watts is that from the 1920s to the late 1950s, Watts was considered a diverse, middle-class suburb. The public housing developments, which later became notorious for gang violence, were built by the city during WW11 to accommodate both black and white migrants coming from the southern states for work. It wasn’t until white flight took hold in the late 1950s and early 1960s when whites started moving out to neighborhoods that did not allow for black settlement when all that changed. When Watts became a redlined city, not only did private investment dry up, but the city began its disinvestment from the community. Residents could not get federally backed home loans or any type of home improvement loan. Watts, like many redlined neighborhoods, fell into disrepair and poverty brought on by these racist policies. Predominantly black communities became synonymous with crime due to the policies that set them up for failure.

Harold Robinson Foundation is doing its part to change the narrative.

Sixty years later, we are still marginalizing, dehumanizing, and “othering” our most vulnerable resident – it has to stop. The elevation in social discord we are experiencing as a country has put a spotlight on our collective failure in the way we see and treat each other. Over the past decades, the social justice movement has been working to change policy and the language we use in addressing the issues we face together. Language can have a negative impact on our perception of one another, furthering the divides and implanting a sense of ‘us and them. The Harold Robinson Foundation chooses our words mindful of the importance of empowering people, breaking down the barriers that separate us, and addressing the historic disinvestment of communities that began with redlining. Change happens from the bottom up. It is up to us as an organization that works in Los Angeles’ under-served neighborhoods to do our part to make that change happen. It takes all of us working together to make a difference. That is what we at the Harold Robinson Foundation call working in the spirit of UBUNTU.



by Joyce Hyser Robinson


For the first few years of the Harold Robinson Foundation hosting overnight weekend retreats for the under-resourced schools in South Los Angeles, our organization did not have a name for our camp program. We operated out of Canyon Creek Complex, a beautiful 82 acre overnight camp and retreat center in the Angeles National Forest. We referred to our retreats as Canyon Creek Camp, but it was the camp’s physical location, not our work’s essence. About three years into our camp retreats and hosting up to 2,000 campers a year, we began to recognize the impact our camp programs were having in the community of South Los Angeles. It was about time we had a name that reflected our work and mission. 


No matter how much we brainstormed, we couldn’t find something that resonated. Roughly a year and a half into the process, I was working on one of my writing projects when I got a case of writer’s block. I started to mindlessly scroll around on Facebook to clear my head when I came upon a post that my friend and now our Executive Director of the Harold Robinson Foundation, Cheryl Bonacci, had posted to her timeline.


This post burst through my computer screen and hit me right in my solar plexus. It’s what I refer to as a “God-shot.”  Like finding a bright double rainbow after a  thunderstorm. THIS WAS IT. I have never been more certain that I had found what we had been looking for this entire time. One word that says so much, UBUNTU. One word that embodies everything we do, everything we preach—the essence of us. A word like that does not exist in the English language, a relatively young language. Only in the ancient languages, African and Aramaic, will we find one word that can have so much meaning. 


Ubuntu comes from the Zulu and Xhosa languages and is one of the founding principles of the new republic of South Africa. It’s about humanism. Something that, sadly, seems to be in short supply these days. The literal translation in Zulu is I AM BECAUSE WE ARE, and it represents the respect, love, kindness, and connectedness we believe should exist between all people.


Thankfully, my husband and foundation co-founder was as convinced as I was that Ubuntu was the perfect name for us. It was a manifestation of our vision. We could not have been more excited to introduce the word and the philosophy behind it to the Harold Robinson Foundation’s Board of Directors.


I wish I could say that the process of adopting the name was an easy one. It was not. It took quite a few conversations to get us there. Our well-meaning board had many and some very fair concerns. They ranged from the word being too difficult to pronounce to an African word and philosophy not being inclusive enough for the Latino population that was also a part of the South Los Angeles community we serve. We felt confident that these were all concerns we would easily overcome.


We consulted with several non-profit and academic world professionals who all agreed that it was a great name, a great philosophy, a philosophy that could live and should live beyond South Africa’s borders. One of the academics we consulted was Dr. Renford Reese. Dr. Reese is a professor in the political science department and founder/director of the Colorful Flags program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the author of American Bravado, Prison Race, Leadership in the LAPD: Walking the Tightrope, and American Paradox: Young Black Men. This was his response to me:


“I just looked at your website and your Youtube video. The camp experience seems amazing! The testimonials are inspirational. I love what you are doing and I fundamentally believe that your approach embraces the concept of “ubuntu.” The concept, like your camps, transcends ethnicity. The problem seems to be the ethnic sound and origin of the name. The word/concept is African and cannot be de-Africanized, so it will always sound ethnic. If this is an inherent issue with your team, it will continue to be problematic. This problem is analogous to naming a K-12 school after Martin Luther King Jr. As soon as the school takes on this name, it takes on distinct ethnic connotations that we do not want to discuss be we all subtly acknowledge, e.g., the school is/or will become black, underachieving, dysfunctional, “ghetto.”  If the reason for the pushback, however, is because of the sensitivity of appropriating an African concept, I do not think this should be a concern. By your foundation using the concept, it means the concept has been manifested in the way of its original intent.”


Another argument that I believe may have swayed our board’s decision was NBA head coach Doc Rivers’ adoption of the Ubuntu philosophy during the 2008 Boston Celtics’ championship year. Doc and the entire Celtic team credit the spirit of Ubuntu for their achievements that year.

The word ubuntu is even engraved into their championship ring.

In 2014, we finally named our signature camp programs Camp Ubuntu and Camp Ubuntu Watts. To proclaim that the new name was a resounding success is not hyperbole. The community of South LA  embraced it wholeheartedly. Some schools made it the word of the year, some teachers adopted it in their classrooms, and others used it as their graduation theme. Parents told us that they used it at home too. It did not take us long to recognize that we made the right decision.


In 2014 Harold Robinson Foundation/Camp Ubuntu won a prestigious award from the American Camp Association.

During our camp retreats and at summer camp, Ubuntu is spoken and discussed daily. We use it as a rallying cry during team-building activities and at the ropes course when someone achieves their goal or overcomes a fear with their fellow campers’ help and support. We use it to encourage our campers to challenge themselves and step out of their comfort zone. 


One of my favorite stories and a great example of the power of how we use and teach ubuntu happened at one of our weekend retreats. We were hosting the 5th graders at 99th St. Elementary school, and they had their school football team and their coach Mr. Sanchez at camp. The football team had to leave very early on Sunday morning to go back into the city to play in a championship game. The team returned to camp later that day victorious. They had won the game, and they credited the spirit of ubuntu and what they had learned about it at camp. The story goes something like this;


With only a few minutes left in the fourth quarter, our team was down by 12 points (2 touchdowns), and it didn’t look good for them. The kids were getting upset and losing their energy when they were in their huddle; before the next play, one of the kids said to his fellow teammates, “remember the word we learned at camp the weekend?’ They all replied, “UBUNTU!” The captain said, “yes, that’s right, we have to come together as a team cause if one succeeds, we all succeed!  Let’s go. We can do this.” They put their hands in and yelled Ubuntu on the count of 3.  They broke out of the huddle and took their positions on the field. Right before the snap, the Coach yells out, “UBUNTU!!” That very next play, their Quarterback throws the ball downfield; the receiver catches the ball, and the player runs it in for a touchdown. Now the score is 12 to 6. They kick the ball to the other team, and the defense holds the other team, and they get the ball back with 15 seconds left in the game. Our team catches the punted ball, the coach yells out UBUNTU, and as their player is running it down the field, he jukes out everyone that comes near him. He runs the whole length of the field to score another touchdown. The game is now tied 12 – 12 at the end of the 4th quarter. They’re going into overtime. Our team wins the toss. As they are about to run their first play Coach Sanchez once again yells, “UBUNTU!!” The Quarterback throws downfield, the ball is caught, and the player runs it in for the touchdown. The team goes crazy. They’ve won the championship!! The kids are celebrating on the field, jumping up and down and yelling UBUNTU. The coach from the opposing team walks over to congratulate Coach Sanchez. He says to him, “Great job, Coach. I gotta ask you a question. What the heck is the ubuntu play?”   


Through ubuntu, young people learn that we must rely on and support each other to ensure success as an individual, as a family, as a team, and as a community. Through these philosophies, our students recognize that they play an essential and valuable role in their community.  


I strongly believe that our country cannot thrive if our disinvested communities, families, and children fail. The Harold Robinson Foundation is spreading Ubuntu all over Los Angeles, and it’s beautiful to watch all of the very diverse communities we work with embrace this humanist philosophy. 


If we unite, we can make our community, our country, and our planet a better place. 

Shola Richards Tedx on ubuntu. 

In the Media

Inner City Youth are Getting Off The Streets and Into The Outdoors With The Harold Robinson Foundation

Joyce Hyser Robinson, co-founder of the Harold Robinson Foundation, joined us with details on the’The Markham Project’. The project includes hosting a weekend retreat with 100 students from Markham Middle School. Through this project Joyce shares the importance of getting inner city youth out of their negative surroundings, exposing them to nature and to help promote confidence, trust and team building.
If you are interested in getting involved with the Harold Robinson Foundation you can pre-register for their “Pedal On The Pier” event taking place on June 1st, at the Santa Monica Pier.