Hawi Desta and Sam Bass came to California from opposite ends of the globe. Desta’s family emigrated from Ethiopia in search of a better life. Bass’s family relocated from Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina wiped out their town. Growing up, each developed mental health issues in response to the world around them and suppressed their emotions. Now both in their early 20s, they are mental health advocates through their work with Youth Power Fund.
Youth Power Fund is a network of funders and individual donors, including Blue Shield of California’s youth mental health initiative, BlueSky. Using youth-participatory grantmaking, eight young people and seven funders shared decision-making power to award $30,000 grants to 29 youth organizations committed to creating more equitable social, economic and political systems.
Desta is a Youth Power Fund lead fellow, and Bass served as an emerging organizers fellow through his job at Youth Alliance, a Youth Power Fund grantee. Both share the experience of growing up in communities of color where mental health wasn’t discussed.
“For me, I’ve had the dual pressure of living up to the myth of the strong Black woman as well as the immigrant hustle mentality,” said Desta. “I always felt the need to prove that my parents’ sacrifice wasn’t in vain. I never gave myself a break, and I disregarded my mental health. It just wasn’t spoken about, so I thought my depression was laziness.”
Bass pointed out that there’s a lot of mental health stigma in communities of color, which is further amplified by toxic expectations of men. “For males, the only feeling that’s OK to express is anger and aggression. If you’re sad or anxious, you can’t talk about that, and I suppressed my mental health problems until college, when I started having panic attacks.”
Both Desta and Bass describe understanding their mental health as a process of learning and unlearning. They now work passionately to educate their peers and younger youth, help them unlearn harmful beliefs, and expand access to healing services.
Bass organizes boys’ groups in several Bay Area schools and uses his own lived experiences to offer guidance. He encourages the young men to open up about their struggles, and teaches them about healthy masculinity through culturally rooted, indigenous-based restorative practices. “I try to be a positive role model, and sometimes it’s the only safe space for them to explore their mental health concerns.”
Youth Power Fund touches the lives of thousands of young people through their grantees such as Youth Alliance, almost all of them youth of color. Many are from low-income families and have never had access to mental health or healing services. This is why healing practices are a part of everything the organization does.
Desta is one of the coordinators of the annual Youth Organizing Institute, where dozens of California youth come together to discuss their shared lived experiences and the social issues they’re facing. The Institute offers healing clinics that include meditation, acupuncture, massage, breathwork and sound baths.
“Often, youth who come from our economic and racial backgrounds don’t have access to these services,” said Desta. “I was filled with awe for them to experience healing for the first time. And it heals me to watch others experience that joy, which is the power of mental health advocacy.”
Youth Power Fund’s work aligns with the three pillars of BlueSky, Blue Shield of California’s youth mental health initiative: access, awareness and advocacy. BlueSky invests in programs like Youth Power Fund that expand youth-led advocacy, where young people educate and empower their peers to utilize resources to support their mental health.
“Mental health advocacy is more important than ever, especially in historically marginalized communities that do not normally have access to services to manage their well-being,” said Ola Jimoh, Social Impact senior specialist at Blue Shield of California. “Youth Power Fund has created a safe and welcoming space for youth to use their voice to influence change for themselves, their peers and their communities.”
For Desta and Bass, they are doing just that. “We’re breaking the cycle of generations,” said Bass. “We’re spreading healing, and it’s beautiful.”