When Maureen Costello joined Teaching Tolerance — a program of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) aimed at eliminating prejudice and promoting diversity education — in 2009, there was a tiny staff with limited resources. The program was known almost exclusively for creating informational films and a biannual magazine.
Costello quadrupled the staff, instituted “Social Justice Standards,” and launched Teaching the Movement, an initiative that grades individual states on how well they teach civil rights history. Today Teaching Tolerance provides frameworks for revising curricula and guiding pedagogy.
In transforming Teaching Tolerance, Costello was fueled in no small part by her experience at Seminar College, now known as Eugene Lang College, at The New School.
“My time at The New School reinforced my predisposition towards social justice and my love of education,” she says. “The level of discourse, the demand for intellectual analysis, and the expectation that we students were going to continue to think deeply about things made me never want to leave the classroom.”
Since joining Teaching Tolerance, Costello has continued to strengthen the program. Recently she led the launch of a new mission statement — “We Educate For a Diverse Democracy” — for the program, which moves its mandate beyond providing resources for students and teachers. Costello hopes to “build public will for racial justice, inclusion of all people, and investment in equitable education,” which, she says, “will lead to practices that allow all children an equal opportunity to learn and actively participate in American life.”
“Teaching Tolerance is necessary to help this country grow into a full multiracial and multiethnic diverse democracy,” she adds. “Clearly, the current political and social environment is urgent: The mainstreaming of hate doesn’t stop at schools; neither does political polarization.”
After graduating from Seminar College in 1977 with a degree in philosophy and U.S. history, Costello went to NYU for graduate work in history, then became a history teacher in New York City, where she had lived for her entire life. Nearly 20 years later, and after working in educational publishing, she decided to move to Alabama and become the director of Teaching Tolerance.
Costello plans to expand on her work with Teaching Tolerance, focusing on new ways to engage students and teachers. These efforts include creating a digital literacy project, developing the program’s social media presence, and continuing an educator grants program that supports inclusive education efforts at the local level. As an expert in social justice, Costello also has some advice for future social justice leaders.
“Find issues in your own schools and communities and design campaigns for change,” she says. “Demand that schools teach more than the powers and structures of government, but also the power and efficacy of protest and citizen action. Look at the world you live in and ask, ‘How do the rules and structures I live with every day perpetuate inequality or privilege?’”