New York just became the first state in the United States to make mental health education mandatory for public school students starting at age 3. The policy aims to help destigmatize mental health to ensure a healthier population as youth anxiety and depression are on the rise. This is a huge step for public education as it is historically slow to grow and evolve.
Meanwhile, a world away from the skyscrapers of New York in Oakland, CA, there was a small group of students that made similar recommendations. These students belong to a group called Energy Convertors, a small nonprofit focused on lifting the voices of those most impacted by major systems to engage in rigorous research and offer real solutions to improve them. Throughout 2017–18, these students published more than 100 pieces of original content, mostly in blogs and presentations that spoke directly to their personal experiences in school.
The majority of those articles made strong points about mental health and ways it has impacted them personally throughout their lives. There are students actively discussing suicide, trauma, anxiety, body image issues, and more. These initial articles led these students to engage in a research process that yielded recommendations for education leaders, with the main one being integrating mental health education in public schools.
However, instead of taking these recommendations and building on them, the organization spent more its energy convincing others why authentic student voice was important how to utilize it. When we started Energy Convertors, the premise was simple but ambitious, those most impacted should lead their liberation. Public education has been coming up short for vulnerable populations in this country since its inception.
By giving the end user an opportunity to share their experience, we better poise ourselves for improving and improving quickly. People are nitpicky at times about language, but like it or not, public education is a product. It is a product meant to educate and we are failing at this. The biggest losers of this failed product disproportionately happen to be students and families of color and those living in poverty. So why not ask the people that experience our product day-in an day-out how that process is going? Let us be the Pepsi Challenge of education, we cannot be afraid of the answers that come back. The way Energy Convertors conduct their research and findings is not to judge or attack, it is to help repair and improve somethign that we all should be benefiting from. These students have other groundbreaking ideas if we just choose to listen and engage.