By Elizabeth Lindsey, CEO, Urban Alliance
The last two weeks of May were heartbreaking. Innocent lives lost at the hands of violent individuals deliberately choosing to cause death and destruction. Like many, I am sickened by this. The tragedies in Buffalo, New York, 10 killed, and in Uvalde, Texas, 14 killed, are unspeakable and unimaginable to comprehend. These senseless acts of hate and violence leave the lives of survivors and loved ones left behind forever scarred. As these tragedies remain raw and fresh in our minds, we’re still feeling the lasting impact of the last two years of COVID-19, and on May 25 we marked two years since watching the murder of George Floyd, and other countless acts of violence.
At Urban Alliance (UA), we have seen how the stress, trauma, and uncertainty of the past two years impact our young people. UA connects hundreds of high school students each year to meaningful work experiences so they can get the necessary skills to achieve economic mobility in whatever sector or career path they choose. While we are not health experts, as part of our program, we do provide young people with safe spaces to share mental health information and resources for them and their families.
According to Child & Teen Gun Safety | Everytown | Everytown guns have become the leading cause of death for U.S. children and teens (ages 1 to 19). “Every year, 18,000 children and teens are shot and killed or wounded and approximately three million are exposed to gun violence.”
Not surprisingly, we are also seeing record levels of mental health crises among young people. I applaud the bipartisan passage of the Safer Communities Act to address gun violence and include gun safety, school safety, and mental health resources. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released a 53-page advisory on teen mental health, sharing “From 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%; the share seriously considering attempting suicide increased by 36%; and the share creating a suicide plan increased by 44%.” What’s worse, these staggering statistics were taken before the COVID-19 pandemic.
What can we do as we struggle through this? How do we support young people to navigate through these difficult and challenging times?
With some creativity and investment, we can ensure that the young people who need it most can still reap the benefits of work-based learning during this difficult time.
- I was excited to read about Chicago Public School’s Please Stay campaign, a mental health and wellness initiative that will reach all CPS students. All school districts should be coordinating with individual schools, mental health professionals, social workers, and other experts to preemptively create a culture that allows for and encourages students to learn about mental health and stress management, and that also provides easy access to counselors and therapists for all students.
- The same goes for nonprofits that work with young people too. Organizations like Urban Alliance need to start incorporating mental health supports for our participants and coordinate better with our school partners to ensure that we can connect students to the most appropriate and effective resources. And this is work that philanthropy must support. Urban alliance supporter, the Detroit-based Skillman Foundation, is providing student-led wellness grants for young adults in Detroit. More foundations should follow Skillman’s lead.
- In their April 26th op-ed in The Hechinger Report, Julia Freeland Fisher of the Clayton Christensen Institute and Chelsea Waite from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, write “For a better system long-term, schools should bank on a promising mental health support resource surrounding students: their peers.” Strong peer support networks have been shown to “support learning, prosocial behavior and social-emotional well-being.” Schools and nonprofit partners have a powerful and free tool at their disposal – connections between students. By creating opportunities for students to build peer networks, we can give students an invaluable tool in their mental health resources.
- I believe that as leaders and support systems in our communities we need to extend grace to the young people we support. Yes, part of the work we do is demonstrating responsibility, timeliness, strong communication, and teamwork. And yes, we need to continue to expect excellence from all our students. But we also need to reach out to them, check on them, and extend them support when things seem impossible.
- Finally, this is the time to double-down on our investments in young people, not shy away. In times like this, where we are all struggling with burn-out and a constant barrage of traumatic news, giving young people the opportunity to network with their peers and mentors, participate in internships and summer employment programs and apprenticeships, and give them ability and tools to dream about their future and see themselves in careers that they love, are all surefire ways to counter the devastating impacts of the past two years.
Urban Alliance is a nonprofit that connects high school students to equitable, inclusive career pathways through paid work experiences, mentorship, and professional development. We work with schools and employers to address systemic barriers to economic mobility for young adults of color and to bridge the gaps between education and workforce development for all young people. Since 1996, Urban Alliance has placed over 6,000 young adults in paid internships, and trained 21,000 more in workforce skills in greater Washington, DC (including Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Northern Virginia) Baltimore, Chicago, and Detroit. For more information visit us at www.theurbanalliance.org and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn.