Youth for Healthy Schools

Campaign Spotlight: Youth United for Change

Youth United for Change (YUC), based out of Philadelphia, PA, hosts Nick Ospa one of the Healthy Communities III Fellows. Youth United for Change (YUC) is a democratic organization primarily made up of working class youth of color, which builds the “people-” and political power to hold school officials and government accountable to guarantee the educational rights of Philadelphia public school students. YUC wins positive educational policy changes through school-and community-based organizing.

Healthy Communities III is a fellowship program connected to eight youth organizing groups in the West, South, Northeast and Southwest. Each group hosts a Healthy Communities Fellow who leads their school and community wellness work and connects it to state and national strategies for change including community education and engagement and policy development and implementation.

In our Campaign Spotlight, we learned from Nick and some of the young people at YUC about their current campaign, which aims to improve mental health structures in Philadelphia Public Schools:


YUC at the Schools Reform Commission Budget Hearing

YUC at the Schools Reform Commission Budget Hearing

What is your campaign goal for a healthier school environment?

Our new campaign initiative aims to improve mental health support structures within Philadelphia public schools. Our demands are:

  • We want the District to implement a mental health criteria towards creating a healthy schools baseline and a holistic healthy schools action plan and policy
  • We want to ensure that any school intervention,include an assessment & action plan for the mental health impacts on students and all school stakeholders prior to implementation
  • We want a designated mental health space in every school for students to de-stress when they need to – a number of schools in the District have already experimented with this practice
  • We want all schools to abide by mandatory testing maximums so no student has to deal with an uncapped amount of tests in a day
  • We want the District to conduct quarterly stress surveys for students to identify common stressors and give us more direction for action steps in order to lessen any unnecessary and unhealthy stress on students
  • We want every school to make transparent and simple access and rights to all mental health support services that are available to students (Main office, web profile, code of conduct)

Why did you choose this as your campaign goal?

This is best illustrated through some testimonies written and publicly delivered by YUC students involved in this campaign:

Brian Harrell testifying at the School Reform Commission Budget Hearing

Brian Harrell testifying at the School Reform Commission Budget Hearing

“As a student standing here not only for me but for many other students apart of YUC and not that feel their voice is not heard and school makes them feel small and hopeless, I would like to be that voice and hopefully one of the voices that lead to a change for all of us students. We have noticed that schools aren’t really set up as places that help students develop to their fullest potential. The way the current school system is set up is extremely harmful to our mental health.

Currently the tone in schools is overly demanding. For example, in my school I notice that many teachers give high value projects and give all of them the same time span to be done. Why are teachers giving such stressful deadlines which lead to students mental health being negatively affected. It makes students feel small and disconnected from everyone around them and frankly, it feels like no one that can do anything about it really cares. People in power see kids speaking out as whining, but in reality, we just want to improve a common thing that affects all students, which is the unsupportive and toxic mental health culture in schools.”

-Brian Harrell

“Students are staying up until one in the morning to do projects. They’re skipping meals to do homework. They are unable to turn to support systems when they have familial problems because there are very little opportunities to build relationships with trusted adults in schools. Many kids, as well as adults, don’t feel comfortable going to a stranger when they are having an emotional crisis, but that is exactly what schools are telling students to do. There aren’t opportunities for students to develop a relationship with counselors. Friends of mine have even said that the only time they have gone to the counselors in the past three years of their high school career was just to get an SAT fee waiver, showing our testing culture has a higher priority than something we haven’t been talking about in schools: our mental health culture.

Mental Health doesn’t just concern people with depression or anxiety–those are mental illnesses. Mental Health affects everyone. It affects students and teachers, janitors and principles, parents, even counselors. I have it, and so do you. That’s why a mental health culture HAS to be implemented into schools. It’s daily impact on all of us is too big to ignore any longer.
And, frankly, City Council, I’m tired. I’m tired of my friends calling me in the middle of the night saying, “Help. I’m having an anxiety attack.” I’m tired of seeing my friends breakdown in front of me, but counselors not being available to them. I’m tired of excusing myself from class to cry in the school’s bathroom. I’m tired of hearing the words “I can’t take it. Why should I be going to school if it just makes me feel worthless.” School is supposed to open doors and give insight on life. So why does it instead make some students think they should take their life?”

-Yesenia Rodriguez

What strategies are you using to reach your campaign goal?

We launched an online photo campaign called the #AddressOurStress challenge where we asked young people to share photos of themselves with lists of the stress f actors affecting them at school.

We had 63 total student participants across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. These participants included students from five other youth organizations including VietLead and Asian Americans United.

This photo campaign raised YUC’s social media presence, particularly on Instagram, which we had never used before – in the first week alone, we got about 100 new followers. From this, we were able to see who supports our campaign, which is an indication of our power.

YUC blog photo 5 YUC blog photo 4 YUC blog photo 3

What role are young people playing in this campaign?

Students were a part of the decision to embark on this campaign. Right now, the focus is delving into the content of mental health and allowing students to develop a deeper understanding of the what mental health is and what it means to them. Since it can mean many different things to different people, students have developed an organizational definition so we all have a shared understanding of what we are referring to. They define mental health as the ability to react to internal and external circumstances through our emotions, thoughts, and actions in order to maintain a healthy well-being.

They will continue to build up their expertise on the subject through group discussion, research, and meeting with experts, allies and decision makers.

Students have taken the lead delivering public testimonies at the City Council School District Budget Hearing and the School Reform Commission Budget Hearing.

Over the summer, students put together a presentation for principals on our campaign platform in information sessions. There was more interest from principals than could attend the sessions so we are going to make some one on one visits with principals as our next step. We hope to incorporate the feedback we receive from principals into making our campaign demands stronger while also leveraging their support to the school district. Another possibility is getting a couple of schools to pilot a mental health program using all of our platform items.

“We need more than just more counselors. We instead need solutions that get down to the roots of the problem – the damaging mental health culture in schools and not simply someone to try to clean up the problem once it’s already happened.”
-Brian Harrell

What are some of the challenges of this campaign and how are you addressing them?

We imagine we may be up against a culture of stigmatization that still exists. This may mean that some of the very people we are trying to organize are opposed to engaging into dialogue about mental health. It’s also going to be a challenge to shift the narrative around mental health to a narrow focus on mental illness and disorders and not the nuanced way that mental health is a status that everyone has and one that flows on a spectrum We will need to convince decision makers that investments in a proactive mental health culture is as important as support services for those who are struggling the most. Most of all, we are going to have to find a will from all school officials, administrators, and staff to do things differently than they have always been done in order to upend the aspects of standard school culture that are inherently antithetical to maintaining an environment that is proactively conscious and cultivating positive mental health.

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