Youth organizers in Detroit give public a look at "Your Brain on School" in new art exhibit
Youth organizers from 482Forward and Congress of Communities came together to give the community a snapshot of their school experiences in Detroit public and charter schools.
Over the past six months, the group of young people has been working to bring their experiences in school to life. Their interactive "Your Brain on School" art exhibit opened for the first time this weekend at the We The People headquarters in Southwest Detroit. It is an interactive art project where the audience goes through several experiences that have become normal to students today.
You start the exhibit being told to “put your bags on the table” so that school security guards can search your belongings. Then the participants have to experience what students go through when they are late to class or do not understand the coursework, and they get to see a series of lockers marked with the feelings of the students involved with the project.
Chinelo Onuigbo is a program director at Congress of Communities. She helped envision and create the exhibit alongside the youth organizers. Onuigbo said the project was an extension of the student’s campaign to allocate more funding for mental health resources in school.
“Mental health funding is needed so that schools could be properly equipped to handle the trauma and stress that comes with being in school regularly, not to mention during a pandemic.”
She said students chose to focus on how their school environment affects how the brain functions overall.
“The idea really started by talking about the brain and how education can impact the brain on a physical level and your thoughts and your mental wellbeing.”
Students decided to create a giant version of the brain to communicate the effects that schools can have on their development.
Funding mental health in schools
Over the past few years, student organizers and educational advocates have been demanding the state of Michigan fund more mental health programs for students. The instability caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in combination with teacher burnout and the continued lack of investment overall in schools, has left students to deal with the pressures of the educational system largely alone.
Prior to 2018, the state of Michigan had zero dollars allocated to mental health programs in schools. Advocates like Congress of Communities and 482Forward started a campaign advocating for a $300 million investment into mental health resources and social-emotional learning in the state's schools.
Last week, Governor Gretchen Whitmer released a state budget recommending $300 million be allocated to mental health resources in Michigan schools over the next two years.
Advocates within this campaign see this as a step in the right direction, while also hoping to start more conversations around what the implementation of these funds will look like.
The student organizers responsible for the "Your Brain on School" art exhibit hope their work will aid in some of those talks.
Estefani Cobarrubias is a student in the Detroit charter school system. She said the group of students worked night and day to bring this exhibit to life. This project was special for her because it gave her a chance to talk about the issues going on in the charter school, something she has rarely had a space to do.
“I think it's really hard for youth to even get considered seriously in this work. We're kind of always put to the side because we're not serious most of the time,” she said.
Cobarrubias said she hopes conversations sparked by the project help bring safety for immigrant students, families, and staff in Detroit.
Perriel Pace is one of the student organizers for "Your Brain on School." She attends a public school in Detroit. Pace says the art exhibit is about showing people students matter.
“I really want them to feel and understand. What are we saying? What the message is we're trying to get through? What students going through when they actually go to school? I really want them to feel how we feel without being actual students.”
Pace said she hopes community members, the local school board, and state policymakers come to the exhibit and leave with a better understanding of the importance of mental health resources and social-emotional learning in school.
“I want to have more ... social-emotional learning in schools so that students and staff can build a close relationship with each other. And that way, students feel comfortable, go on to speak to their peers or an adult or any type of authority in the building.”
The art exhibit's organizers hope to continue to bring this project to different areas across the Detroit and the state.