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“We Are the Future:” How Youth Are Leading and Creating Change in Gonzales, CA

Six years ago, Gonzales, Calif., embarked on a journey to expand who had a say in the city’s decision-making. With 1 in 3 residents under the age of 18, 2019 RWJF Culture of Health Prize winner Gonzales knew truly representative policy and systems change could only be achieved if youth had a seat at the table. Thus, the Gonzales Youth Council (GYC) was born, carving a path for youth to lead and creating a powerful platform for them to voice their concerns and shape solutions.

At the start of each new school year, the new GYC Commissioners—typically high school seniors—call the council to order by onboarding new members and leading discussions on the challenges the council wants to address that year. In the past, this 15-member council of eighth- to twelfth-graders has pursued projects on issues ranging from addressing underage alcohol use—which led to a new city law in 2017—to helping students prepare for college and life after graduation—which led to the creation of Senior Swarm.  

When GYC Commissioner Isabel Mendoza, her fellow commissioners Amy Perez and Madisyn Schweitzer, and the rest of the 2019-2020 council sat down in fall 2019 to discuss what topic they wanted to address, one issue rose to the top: mental health wellness. They knew students don’t always know where to find the resources they need to take care of their mental well-being and, with about 94 percent of Gonzales identifying as Latino, Hispanic, or Mexican, the topic is often still stigmatized in their culture. The council set out to rectify that through conducting research and making plans to hold in-person mental health wellness workshops.

And then, COVID-19 arrived during the spring 2020 semester.

With the council and their classmates learning virtually for the remainder of the school year, the GYC had to shift gears—and they had to do it quickly as the pandemic presented new mental health challenges. Since in-person workshops were no longer an option, the council changed their strategy, partnering with Dr. Jennifer Lovell and her undergraduate researchers at Cal State Monterey Bay, to create and disseminate a survey to their classmates. “The pandemic created greater urgency around the topic of mental health among Gonzales youth due to the shift to remote education and increased social isolation,” says Lovell. The research the GYC gathered, with support from the Trinidad & Lupe Gomez Family Fund and the Gonzales CoLab, offered invaluable insights into the challenges their peers were facing and the best ways to disseminate mental health wellness information.

Through a mixture of quantitative and qualitative questions on topics ranging from coping strategies to screen time wellness, the survey painted a more complete picture of the challenges Gonzales middle and high school students faced. The GYC discovered a majority of their peers were finding it harder to learn virtually, especially with 60 percent of respondents feeling responsible for helping their younger siblings complete their online schoolwork. The council took their survey one step further for the high school respondents, incorporating patient health questions to screen for anxiety and depression—and more than half who responded scored above the cutoff scores for anxiety, depression, or anxiety and depression. The survey also helped the council identify what resources students needed—with the most demand for tips on how to stay motivated, how to practice self care, and how to cope with sadness or anxiety—and how to best share that information—via email and social media. 

Armed with this knowledge the council could now tailor their work accordingly. Since the survey, they’ve posted mental health check-ins via GYC’s Instagram stories, shared mental health wellness content on social media, and the City of Gonzales and the Gonzales Unified School District swiftly responded to the needs the council identified by co-funding a school-based licensed clinical social worker. The 2020-2021 GYC Youth Commissioners Aidan Cervantes and Magaly Santos continue to carry the torch on this research. “We’re looking forward to presenting more of our findings,” shares Santos on their next steps. The council will also continue to work to connect their peers to the mental health resources they are looking for.

Opportunities like the GYC empower youth to lead and are an investment worth making. “Many [youth council alumni] come back over the summers … and continue to give back and support other youth,” shares Carmen Gil, director of community engagement and strategic partnerships for the City of Gonzales. Mendoza continues, “offering these opportunities to youth so early on really exposes them to how great community service is, how great giving back to your community is,” and they come back and stay invested. Platforms like youth councils, commissions, school board representation, and more, give young people a place at the table and a way for their voice to be heard. “Youth are not only our future, but they are also our present and as so are considered valuable assets of our community,” explains Gil. “Give us the opportunity for that space, pay attention to what youth have to say. We are the future,” says Santos.
 

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