June 23, 2023

By Courtney Wise

Good morning, MindSite News readers!

We have an original story for you on Emani Davis, whose Black Panther father — imprisoned for 24 years — inspired her to become an activist. Plus: An on-the-ground report from USA Today on what is happening in schools post-Covid, a push for mental health support for troubled kids in North Carolina, and a catchy self-affirmation for wee ones from rapper Snoop Dogg.

Activist at 14, burned out by 26. Today, Emani Davis teaches that to change the world, you must also take care of yourself.

Emani Davis speaks at an annual Galaxy Gives gathering in Miami Beach in July 2022. Photo courtesy Emani Davis

Changing the world is hard work. If you’re not careful, the stress of it can take you down. It’s why Emani Davis founded the Omowale Project, a nonprofit committed to supporting Black and Brown activists who have been affected by incarceration, as she was as a child during her Black Panther father’s 24-year imprisonment. These days, she told MindSite News, Davis works closely with activists like Devon Adams, who after his 22-year stint in prison, now focuses his time on restorative justice work and rebuilding critical relationships that disintegrated during his time behind bars. It’s a huge readjustment, which Davis helps Adams navigate.

Davis’ father inspired her to begin the Omowale Project in 2020; it’s his name the nonprofit carries. That year, in the face of protests following the killings of Black people including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, she noticed that the activists in the streets “were not sleeping, not hydrating, hypervigilant, [and] running on cortisol poisoning. We respond this way because we have to,” she said, “but this time we were in a global pandemic.” That’s where her work with the Omowale Project comes in. “For directly affected BIPOC leaders to lead, they must experience in real life what they are trying to create in the world,” Davis said. “I want everyone I know to embrace the idea that us caring for ourselves is part of us caring for this movement.” Read writer Nell Bernstein’s story of Davis’s journey here.

“Distracted students, stressed teachers”: USA Today takes an in-depth look at schools post-Covid across the country

Over the course of six months last school year, USA Today sent education reporters into four public elementary schools in California and Virginia. They observed students, teachers, and principals at work, and even asked those they spoke with to keep journals of their experiences. Why those states? California and Virginia held fast to virtual classrooms longer than other states, and Virginia schools showed some of the steepest drops in students’ test scores when compared to others.

Now that the students have left school for the summer, reporters prepared an exhaustive report of what they found in a strikingly photographed five-story package. Here are some of the findings: Students are more frequently absent, and when present, they find it hard to focus, having been away from the structure of classrooms for so long. Teacher shortages are common, and there aren’t enough substitutes to provide coverage. Federal COVID dollars are helpful to a point, but they’re soon to run out and mostly fund jobs too few people are willing to do. That’s all just the academic part. Practically, schools are still faced with children and families whose home lives were upended by parental job loss, illness and death during the pandemic. Some are in precarious living situations; others don’t have enough to eat; still others are grieving.

To manage these challenges, teachers have become creative at managing stress. It’s a necessity; according to a survey of American educators conducted last year by Rand Corporation, nearly 3 of 4 respondents reported frequent job-related stress, compared with one-third of working adults overall. Twenty-five percent of teachers and principals said they’re suffering from depression. To reduce her stress levels, Daisy Andonyadis, a sixth-year teacher at Cora Kelly School for Math, Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, exercises first thing in the morning. “Just being able to breathe – the exercise really helps with that,” she said.

There is joy in being back in the classroom, but everywhere students and faculty turn, there are still echoes of the pandemic’s effects. E.M. Downer Elementary in San Pablo, California is lined with pictures of empty play spaces captioned by students. “We had to go to school at home for about 13 months,” one wrote. “My goal for this year is to actually learn,” says another, “because I didn’t learn last year.” 

Many children are forced into the criminal justice system before they can get mental health help. North Carolina officials hope to change that.

Victor Armstrong  said he often encountered children cycling through the same traumas their parents survived while he worked for child protective services. “This was a mother who was struggling herself with drugs and alcohol, and she did not want to deal with her child’s sexual abuse,” Armstrong told WFAE. “And I was trying to say how we’re going to get her treatment, and she said, ‘No, I was raped when I was her age, and I’m fine.’” It was clear to Armstrong that the mother wasn’t fine, and all he could think about was how their experiences mirrored one another. 

“All we see is the end result,” said Armstrong, former Director of the North Carolina Division of Mental Health for the state’s Department of Health and Human Services. “And oftentimes what we’re actually responding to and treating is the worst possible outcome of this combination of very, very complex things. And what we don’t know is, what would have happened if we had the right resources for the mother or the child – or for both?” The right resources are hard to come by, he said; in many cases, insurers won’t treat children until they’ve become mentally ill enough to receive severe diagnoses. “We’re oftentimes trying to force [children] into the resources we have,” he said.

Childhood trauma and toxic stress from adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include abuse and neglect, are linked to a higher risk of chronic disease and mental ills throughout the lifespan if unaddressed. Ben David, the current district attorney for New Hanover and Pender counties, says we need to address  the trauma experienced by both children and their caregivers. “What we’ve come to understand is that a lot of times we shouldn’t be asking what’s wrong with you, but what happened to you?” David said. He leads a task force on Adverse Childhood Experiences Informed Courts, a two-year effort that officials hope will find creative solutions to help families in court because of trauma. For instance, the courts mandate that parents who lose their children due to substance use or mental illness can retain visitation rights as long as they receive treatment for drug use and mental health while their children are in foster care.

“What we’re hoping to do is to literally bring that baby and that mother into court and say, ‘Make me a promise: Stay alive, stay alive next week. Stay alive,’” David said. “‘Two weeks from now, we’re going to see you every other week over this next year, while you’re getting drug treatment, while you’re getting mental health counseling, while you’re getting your life right.’

In other news…

There’s certainly more research to be done, but science supports the theory that practicing positive self-affirmations contributes to better mental health. That may explain the recent expansion of music filled with positive affirmations for the youngest among us, from popular YouTube channel Gracie’s Corner, and now, even rapper Snoop Dogg. His children’s playlist from Doggyland productions includes this 1:20 second bop that is sure to start off yours and your child’s day with a smile. 

Ways to protect your child’s mental health this summer: Earlier this week, CNN spoke with Neha Chaudhary, a Boston-based child and adolescent psychiatrist (and MindSite News advisory board member), about ways to promote good mental health in your child and you this summer. She offered five suggestions, including developing a somewhat structured summer routine, working on something that offers them a sense of control and mastery, learning and practicing new coping skills for when the school year and stress levels pick back up, letting loose and engaging in play for fun, and deepening connection with others—which time and play helps with a lot.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...