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Students and community members march past East High School during a Black Lives Matter demonstration on June 7, 2020, to emphasize the need for more Black educators in schools in Denver. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Carmen Rodriquez has long been quiet about the day-to-day challenges she experiences living with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Slowly, she’s started to open up about the stubborn struggles they’ve created for her life as she’s found ways to cope.

“Personally, I have been through a lot with mental health struggles, and only recently, in this past year, really gotten help for it and learned the language of getting help,” the 15-year-old said.

Now she’s ready to be a little louder.

Carmen, a sophomore at Paonia High School in Delta County, is joining 59 other high schoolers who are part of Colorado Youth Congress to begin their own conversations about how to better address issues of mental health and racial justice. In adult circles, students are often left out of those kinds of conversations, even as they’re the ones directly affected by the decisions made.

“We need to honor the voices of those most impacted,” said Sam Battan, founder and executive director of Colorado Youth Congress, which elevates the voices of Colorado students in issues shaping their schools and communities.

“The current reality is that adults in the education system don’t do a great job at listening or responding to the voices of youth,” Battan added, noting that part of the problem is that many organizations are not set up to do youth engagement well. Another problem, he said, is a pervasive mindset “that adults know what is best for youth.”

Colorado Youth Congress has launched the Systems Change Network, a virtual collaborative of students, educators and advocacy organizations that gives students the rare opportunity to drive discussions about mental health and racial justice. Both issues have become increasingly important for young people after a year disrupted by a pandemic and a summer marked by protests calling for more racial equality and an end to police brutality against people of color.

Carmen, who helped lead the network’s first Zoom meeting last week, now speaks confidently about how important prioritizing her own mental health has become. After Carmen started to see a therapist and was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder last summer, she no longer shied away from talking to friends and peers about seeking help through therapy. The more she casually dropped it into conversations, the easier it became to talk about — and the more it eroded her own stigma of needing help in the first place.

Carmen Rodriquez struggles with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. After seeking help from a therapist, she’s become more vocal about her own mental health challenges. Carmen, a member of Colorado Youth Congress and a sophomore at Paonia High School, wants to see the entire system for managing mental health be revamped. (Handout)

For her, anxious thoughts are a near constant. She’ll often feel an urge to touch any objects she encounters a certain way — for instance, recently while shopping at Target she was drawn to a rack of sweaters and couldn’t pass by without touching every single one. It feeds into satisfying a need she can’t explain, which leads to a lot of frustration when she is simply trying to maneuver through the tasks and expectations of her day-to-day schedule.

This time last year, Carmen said, her mental health had sunk to its lowest point. This year, her mental health has blossomed — so much so that she’s never felt stronger, “which is very, very hopeful and nice,” she said.

She noted that when adult organization leaders try to inspire change, they in many cases invite students into their spaces as just a voice or a number rather than as people whose perspectives are seriously considered.

Mohamed Ibrahim, another member of Colorado Youth Congress, has felt that same kind of dismissal from adults, who he said will open up conversations to young people just to have them in the room.

“Something that’s affecting us should have some input and perspective from the students, themselves,” said Mohamed, 17.

Now, it’s time for the adults to take a step back and listen, students say.

Through the Systems Change Network, they plan to meet monthly through their computer screens, with two distinct campaigns of students devoted to mental health and racial injustice. Students haven’t yet determined what they want to accomplish within each campaign. For the next year, they’ll mostly listen to one another and learn about what is contributing to mental health and racial justice issues in Colorado, Battan said. In the following year, students will shift to focus on helping create solutions that will address the root of the problem behind both issues and tackle them at a system level.

Students bring a unique sense of urgency, Battan said, and since they often don’t have a seat at the table of many conversations, they’re building their own. With that approach, he hopes their voices break through the adult noise barrier, emphasizing how important it is to listen to students and what they need and ensure that those lessons inform policy.

As students gathered on Tuesday, they brought energy and a shared passion for change. Mohamed, a junior at Wiggins High School in rural Morgan County, raised concerns about suicides among young Coloradans. He’s seen students in his own school suffering while also being well aware of shortcomings in the resources offered to help them.

For instance, some students hesitate to confide in school counselors or school resource officers with their struggles, worried that they are required to report them to authorities or family, he said.

Suicide has rattled neighboring northeast Colorado communities this school year, but the devastation has crossed district lines. Mohamed said that in the past month and a half, two students from nearby schools died by suicide within about a week of one another.

“Those are the trendlines that we’re trying to prevent,” he said, noting that online learning has disconnected students, only adding to their hardships. The Wiggins High School community banded together, and a student organization reached out to offer to support to those schools that lost students.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a member of Colorado Youth Congress, is committed to improving mental health resources for Colorado students. Mohamed, a junior at Wiggins High School, has been vocal about concerns with youth suicides in the state, particularly after two students from schools near his own died by suicide in the last month and a half. (Handout)

Part of the problem, Mohamed said, is a lack of adequate state funding for schools. He’s particularly concerned about a lack of funding for resources in rural districts to help students cope.

“We’re so disconnected from the rest of the world,” Mohamed said. “We kind of live within our own communities.”

Carmen is a proponent of “revamping the whole system” for managing mental health, noting many components are outdated or don’t work.

Students are just as fired up when it comes to fighting for equity and equality for students of color in Colorado. Samson Kidane, a Colorado Youth Congress member focused on racial justice, aims to amplify the voices of students of color so that they can openly share what they want to see for their community. 

Samson Kidane, a member of Colorado Youth Congress, is adding his voice to a statewide youth movement for racial justice. Samson, a junior at DSST: Byers High School in Denver, said that Colorado schools need to hire more Black educators. He also wants to give students of color more of an opportunity to weigh in on community issues and decisions. (Handout)

He also stresses the need for Colorado schools to hire more Black educators and ensure that policies and legislation benefit all people in an equitable way.

One of the central goals Samson, 16, is chasing: “making sure that everybody really has the opportunity to succeed in school.”

Samson, who is Black and is a junior at DSST: Byers High School in Denver, sees race as a fundamental part of many different issues in the country. He spent many of his school years as the only Black student in his grade, which he said put him in a position to be the authority on Blackness and race for his classmates. That weighed on him, and he questioned his own identity when he didn’t match up to his classmates’ definition of Blackness.

Once he transferred to a high school with a more diverse student and teacher population, he became more comfortable with who he was as a Black person.

The Black Lives Matter movement that gained momentum last summer and rising hate crimes against Asians amid the pandemic motivated Kelly Hoang to become more involved through Colorado Youth Congress and be more vocal in students’ pursuit of racial justice.

Kelly Hoang, a member of Colorado Youth Congress, is pursuing racial justice alongside many of her peers throughout the state. Kelly, a junior at DSST: College View High School in Denver, is passionate about pushing racial equity both in schools and across the entire state. Her motivation stems from both the Black Lives Matter movement that gained traction last summer and a jump in hate crimes against Asians during the pandemic. (Handout)

Kelly, a junior at DSST: College View High School in Denver who is Asian American, said she hopes that the Systems Change Network will help spread more awareness about why issues of racial inequality are so prevalent and will push racial equity both in schools and across the entire state — “as far as it can spread.”

Students aim for their voices to travel that far as well.

“We are told that as youth, we are the future,” Kelly, 16, said, “so it makes sense that youth are at the table when discussing about the future.”