In a recent event hosted by Hello Insight and Youth INC, entitled Youth Workers Speak Out: The Impact of Race and DEI on Mental Health, five amazing frontline staff shared their experiences of working in this field throughout the pandemic and alongside the ongoing racial tensions in the country. They also told stories of the delicate balance between taking care of their own social and emotional well-being while supporting that of their young participants.

I think as a human being you have to know when it is time to take a pit stop. You can’t be injured in a sport, like if you are an athlete and you're injured you can’t go back onto the field because you are going to get injured even worse. …I needed to be a light for myself. I needed to be friends with the person who I look at in the mirror every day. Because if I can't do that for myself how can I do that for a young person?
- Jeremiah Thompson, Opening Act, New York, NY

This forum was the second of five entitled Elevating Youth Development: A Series of Discussions about Race and DEI Across the Nonprofit Sector. The idea for these conversations evolved out of meetings with field leaders who are passionate and committed to creating community spaces to address these issues. Key members included staff from LEAP, Dream Yard, Opening Act, and Trailblazers. The group met for several months and determined that the conversation needed to include multiple stakeholders who span the full ecosystem of influencer, impacting young people and their experiences of DEI and race in out-of-school time programs — from young people, to frontline staff, to program leadership, funders, and policy makers.

The most logical place to begin was by amplifying the voices of young people who set the stage for the series on January 14, 2022, focusing on the impact of race and DEI on mental health. From their perspective, this is the central issue affecting not only their lives but also those of their peers - check out this blog to learn more.

On March 16, 2022, we continued the conversation with frontline staff, engaging folks from Guitars Over Guns, Opening Act NYC, Read Alliance, Ifetayo, and Rose Community Development. We talked about how to support young people’s mental health while navigating their own challenges with similar issues. This blog provides a brief overview of their answers to key questions asked by Marc Fernandez, Youth INC, and our own Dr.  Kim Sabo Flores. Check out the video to hear the complete session.

What Can We Do To Support Young People’s Mental Health?

Like young people, these youth workers felt it was critical to create more intentional time and space to talk about race, DEI, and its impact on mental health during programming. They also made it clear that adults should ask for permission before engaging young people in conversations about feelings and emotions, allowing them to decide when and where they are ready to talk.

What works for me is, I ask for permission… I would like the same respect so I am going to give it to them.
- Caleb Alcime, Guitars Over Guns, Miami Florida

Lisa Killingsworth, Read Alliance, advises that giving young people the time and space to identify and process their emotions is critical.

Silence is loud!  So, I always try to give a space for silence when working with young people because when you are trying to fill time with a lot of words …it doesn’t give youth a lot of time to process their feelings and to figure out what they want to say.
- Lisa Killingsworth, Read Alliance, New York, NY

All of the youth workers agreed that they needed to be on their own “healing journey” to support young people.  Without these experiences, they would not be able to be open and vulnerable. But more than that, without support, engaging in these topics of discussion would be overwhelming and scary.

If you don’t do the work you won’t be in a position to help or serve anyone. So it is a really scary position to be in but I put my big girl panties on and that is essentially what we have to do
- Makeda Abraham, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, Brooklyn, NY
How can we expect young people to be open and vulnerable with us, if we as adults are not willing to be open and vulnerable with them?
- Ana Meza, ROSE Community Development, Portland Oregon

A wonderful tip made by Caleb Alcime from Guitars Over Guns is to use music to tap into young people’s thoughts and feelings. He takes time to ask young people what they are listening to and why. As Caleb says:

Everybody knows  a song can express how you feel when you don’t have the words to say it.
- Caleb Alcime, Guitars Over Guns, Miami Florida

What Can Organizations Do To Support Staff’s Mental Health?

When asked what organizations can do to support them in their efforts to support race, DEI, and mental health, these youth workers asked to be treated respectfully and with the same intentionality that they described when working with young people. One audience member said that she was impressed by the fact that…

Some of the best practices that they have experienced from their supervisors include: doing regular wellness checks and putting their “Humanity first,” They appreciated it when supervisors just called to ask “how’s it going?”; or “what can I do to support you?”

When I have had personal situations come up, I’ve been able to go to my executive director. There is no way to repay that. I feel so grateful and fortunate for that…
- Ana Meza, ROSE Community Development, Portland Oregon

The deep trusting relationships that these youth workers had with leadership in their organizations was critical, allowing them to just sit down and talk about both personal and professional matters. The fact that almost all were alumni of the program really strengthened these bonds.

I think it is a perk to be an alumni. …They have seen  me grow up. To this day I am able to sit down with the CEO and COO who were my mentors as a 14 year old…They’ve got my back.  So, I’m very thankful for my organization.
- Caleb Alcime, Guitars Over Guns, Miami Florida

One of the greatest challenges to tackling issues of race, DEI, and mental health were funder mandates and misaligned vision, mission, and goals. These youth workers shared how stressful it is when staff are asked to do things that they do not believe are in the best interest of young people or are in conflict with their mission. This stress impacts their own mental well-being and morale.

I think that one major way that folks can help the mental health of their workers is not applying for and accepting grant funding that doesn't align with your program. It can be extremely stressful on the people who are putting on the program and the children.
- Makeda Abraham, Ifetayo Cultural Arts Academy, Brooklyn, NY

We hope this series provides a space for the greater youth development community to listen, learn and grow together. Our next event in the series, Executive Leadership Speak Out, is scheduled for May 25th, 12:30 - 2:00 PM EDT. This session will focus on youth leaders and what they need from their own boards and funders to feel prepared and supported in their mental health.

Register for the event here!