‘This is who I am’: Black students find support, culture, purpose through peer group
Credit: Amari Akua
Black students face ever-increasing rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. But one group of young people is working hard to reverse that – one personal connection at a time.
Black Students of California United, a Fresno-based nonprofit, is a network of hundreds of Black middle and high school students throughout the state who meet regularly to brainstorm about policy and take action on issues affecting them – from mental health to gun violence to substance abuse to school funding.
The key to the group’s success, students said, is that the message comes from young people themselves, not well-meaning grown-ups.
“It’s much more authentic this way because a lot of times, when adults are talking it can come out like a lecture. Like, ‘Ugh, I don’t wanna really hear it,’ ” said Tinsae Birhanu, a senior at Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove and the lead health ambassador for the group. “But when it’s peer to peer, it’s more real and you’re able to relate because you have that shared commonality of both being young, so you’re open to their advice.”
Through social media, conferences, opinion pieces, college tours, movie nights and other events, the students involved with Black Students of California United have made inroads at hundreds of schools across California, even those with very few Black students.
Students have met with Gov. Newsom about the need for school funding that prioritizes Black students, they’re preparing to meet with Angela Davis in March, and they’ve inspired countless young Black youth of all backgrounds to become politically engaged.
With a focus on social justice, civil rights and health, the group has core three initiatives: a youth senate, modeled after the California Legislature; health ambassadors, who promote physical and mental health; and a Black male mentorship program. The goal, according to the group’s website, is to connect and inspire young Black people to “improve the quality of all Black lives.”
“We want students to leave inspired, to be their best selves, to know who they are and where they came from,” said Angie Barfield, interim executive director. “It works because it’s student-driven and gives students a place to belong and grow.”
The group was founded in 2016 by five students in the Central Valley “who saw a need for a place where young Black minds can support each other and create change,” Barfield said. It’s now grown to hundreds of students, many of whom find the group through their schools’ Black student clubs.
The group is more necessary now than ever, she said. The pandemic, spotlight on police violence, dearth of Black therapists and persistent inequities and racism have all contributed to a rise in depression and anxiety among Black young people.
Although Black youth for years tended to have lower rates of drug and alcohol abuse, depression and suicidal thoughts than their peers, the rates have been steadily rising. The suicide rate among Black youth has doubled since 2014 is now twice the statewide average, far exceeding all other groups, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Jamila Jabulani, network membership manager of the California Black Health Network, said student-led groups like Black Students of California United play a crucial role in educating and supporting young Black people, particularly on issues related to physical and mental health.
“Black youth reaching out to their peers about mental health can help remove the shame and cultural stigma some have when seeking treatment,” Jabulani said, noting that her group also supports peer groups for Black people experiencing mental health challenges. “Peer-to-peer conversations can help eliminate barriers to care, such as fear, mistrust, and culturally insensitive service providers.”
For Tinsae, the group has offered a chance to appreciate Black culture as well as delve into issues she cares deeply about: mental health and social justice.
Born in Ethiopia, Tinsae said she often felt disconnected from Black Americans and had a hard time navigating her path in school. Finding friends through the organization gave her self-confidence and a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what it means to be Black.
“Freshman year I was too scared to join my school’s Black Student Union because I was afraid the other kids wouldn’t consider me Black,” she said. “But joining (Black Students of California United) really allowed me to connect with other people who share the same mindset as me, who are passionate about the same things. We talk a lot about social justice and civil rights. The group has helped me tangibly apply what I’ve learned and actually work to make change.”
Now, as the group’s lead health ambassador, she organizes regular meetings for Black young people to gather virtually and in person to talk about all matters related to health, especially mental health. The topic is sometimes hard to discuss in the Black community, she said, because “Black people like to be strong, hold their heads up high,” not admit if they’re feeling unsure of themselves. Her native language doesn’t even have words for depression or anxiety, she said.
“The stigma is really there,” she said. “That’s why I think it’s so important to talk about it, share what resources are out there, help bridge the disparities. Because some people don’t know that there’s help available, and they feel alone.”
Bennie Williams, a senior at Morehouse College in Atlanta, said that his experience in high school with Black Students of California United, particularly with the advisors, played a significant role in his success today. Without their guidance and encouragement, he likely would not have enrolled at Morehouse, he said.
“I probably won’t know for years the full impact BSU has had on me,” he said. “Even now, they keep checking in, staying in touch. I can’t thank them enough for the relationships. … All students should have this opportunity.”
Williams was only one of a handful of Black students at his high school in Stockton. He often felt overlooked by teachers and that he lacked a community of peers he could relate to. An advisor for the school’s Black student union pointed him to Black Students of California United, where he immediately felt at home.
He started out in the youth senate, eventually becoming vice president. He helped plan conferences and forums, met Gov. Newsom at a Congressional Black Caucus dinner, pushed for increased school funding and learned invaluable professional skills – networking, communication, workplace etiquette, the art of a well-written email.
“At BSU they held us up, they gave us affirmation,” Williams said.
There were social and mental health benefits, as well, he said.
“Talking to people at BSU was a breath of fresh air. I didn’t have to code switch. I could be my authentic self,” he said. “And they de-stigmatized mental health issues. I’m not ashamed to ask for help if I need it.”
He plans to graduate in May with a degree in political science, and then pursue either law or journalism.
Hannan Canada, Tinsae’s classmate at Cosumnes Oaks High and the group’s president, said the friendships and mentoring she’s experienced at Black Students of California United have had a deep impact on her life. As one of only two Black students at her middle school, she felt isolated and disconnected from Black culture when she started high school. That changed when she found Black Students of California United.
“I felt like I had my first Black friends,” she said. “And I was shown all these different things about Black culture and everything that’s possible, and I felt like, ‘Oh, this is who I am.’ And then seeing all these Black students thriving and doing so many things. … this program definitely pushed me.”
Hannan has written numerous blog posts for the group’s website and has overseen the publication of the group’s first newspaper, where she worked on a powerful piece about the traumatic effects of police racial profiling. Other stories included a guide to Black-owned bookstores in California, a profile of a girl named Tae Thomas who plays on her school’s football team, and mental health tips.
“I’ve grown so much and learned so much about Black culture,” Hannan said. “Now here I am president of the organization, and I’ve never been happier.”
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