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#OTGYpsi: Latinx Teen Empowerment Group helps kids find support and community


Concentrate Ann Arbor

Rylee Barnsdale's Feature Article: Latinx Teen Empowerment Group offers community and mental health support for Ypsi students

Ypsilanti Community High School

Washtenaw County Health Plan

Amplify Colectivo


Josh Hakala: You're listening to 89 one WEMU. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is On the Ground Ypsi. It's a program intended to bring you the stories of the Ypsilanti community. And we bring you On the Ground Ypsi, in partnership with the reporting team at Concentrate Media. Today, we are talking about teenagers and, more specifically, the effort to help teenagers who arrived from other countries and are adapting to a new world and all the challenges that come with it. Today, I'm joined by Concentrate Media reporter Rylee Barnsdale, whose online news site is reporting this week on the Latinx Teen Empowerment Group at Ypsilanti Community High School. Rylee, thanks for being with us.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: And joining us in studio is Priscilla Cortez. She is the facilitator for the Latinx Teen Empowerment Group and is a licensed clinician and therapist for Amplify Colectivo. Welcome, Priscilla.

Priscilla Cortez: Thanks, Josh, for having me.

Josh Hakala: And joining us over the phone is Dr. Fernanda Cross. She is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. And her research led to the creation of this program. Hi, Fernanda.

Dr. Fernanda Cross: Hi, Josh. Thank you for having me.

Josh Hakala: All right. Well, we are going to dive into this with really starting. Rylee, you wrote the article, and this is a relatively new group. And what drew you to write about it?

Rylee Barnsdale: Well, the Washtenaw Health Department has a lot of different initiatives going right now to help improve public health, both physical and mental. And, during the pandemic, there was a very specific need seen in the county's youth populations, so in the schools with teens and kids looking for and needing more mental health assistance than they did pre-pandemic. This youth empowerment group is one of those initiatives specifically aimed at a population that not only has to deal with the trials and tribulations of being a high school student, but also having to deal with things like their peers speaking a different language from them, or even the trauma that can come with the immigration process to the United States.

Josh Hakala: Yeah, we could do a whole show just on high schoolers in general.

Rylee Barnsdale: Yeah, we could.

Josh Hakala: All of that. But what does this group specifically offer, and how many kids does it reach?

Rylee Barnsdale: So, it is a six-week program at Ypsi High School. This is the second go-around of the program, with each iteration having, on average, about 12 students in each meeting. And students are able to receive group therapy that is administered in their own language and with peers who have similar lived experiences to them. So, it's not only creating a safe space for these students to maybe work through some mental health issues they may be experiencing, but also to really create a community of students that understand each other and can support each other. It actually doesn't stop with the group therapy in the schools. There's also an initiative from the health department with the help of the Latinx Mental Health Committee to get students and their families who may not be insured or have health insurance get access to affordable health care with the help of the Washtenaw Health Plan, which is an initiative to sort of expand access to affordable health care means for folks who are low-income or may not be eligible for other forms of insurance.

Josh Hakala: Fernanda, I'll start with you because it was your research that led to the creation of this group. Tell me how it got started and what your findings were.

Dr. Fernanda Cross: So, back in 2020, as a brand-new assistant professor at the School of Social Work, I started talking to these families, to Latinx immigrant families, parents and adolescents, who are from southeast Michigan. So, a lot of the families live here in Washtenaw County. And in the past, my research had focus on the immigrant parents themselves. I did not include adolescents at first. And parents were telling me about their own experiences as immigrants. Most parents were undocumented. And so, we heard a lot about, during the Trump administration, their fears of deportation, family separation. And the parents would talk about how that was impacting the kids. And so, my next step was to talk to the kids and learn about their experiences through their own perspective. So, in 2020, I was interviewing parents and adolescents living here in Washtenaw County. And what I learned from the adolescents themselves was that they were indeed struggling with anxiety and depressive symptoms, and that was already existent prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it really got much worse during the pandemic because a lot of the factors that were leading to their mental health issues were coming from their witnessing of their parents' marginalization or their own experience with inequities, and this realization of differential treatment and differential opportunities that members of their ethnic racial background, you know, other immigrant families, other immigrant kids experience. And so, as adolescents, they're interacting more with the world, right? They're going spending more time outside of their homes, engaging with others. And they're developing this greater awareness of of what's going on around them. And so, when they're starting to make sense of all of that and realize that, "Wow! Here, my group, being part of the Latinx community, it means that we experience some inequities that members of other groups don't." And so, that was impacting their mental health. And the kids we're talking about that which matched what I had heard from their parents in the past and what the parents are telling me during that time that I was interviewing them in 2020. But thenm the kids were going bit further. They were saying that in dealing with all of that, they felt very isolated because they could not talk to other people about their fears about family separation and deportation because that meant disclosing their parents' undocumented status and the kids' own undocumented status for some of them. You know, for their own protection, they wouldn't do that for the protection of their family. And so, they were going through all of that on their own and feeling very isolated, not being able to connect with other people. And the kids were also saying that they they did not even want to talk to their parents about it, because, if they shared that with their parents, if they disclosed to their parents that they were struggling, that they were afraid that their mental health was getting impacted. They felt like they were overburdening their parents and that the parents were already working so hard, going through so many difficulties during the pandemic. Many of them lost their jobs, could not make ends meet. They were not eligible for any governmental support. So, the last thing they wanted to do was to share more difficulties with their parents. And so, with all of that learning, all of that from the kids, when the Latinx Mental Health Collaborative got formed in 2021, we knew that we had to do something to support the kids' mental health.

Josh Hakala: Can you explain how the group works?

Dr. Fernanda Cross: So, the collaborative combines...it's a group of people that work with the Latinx immigrant community or Washtenaw County in different ways. You know, in my case, I do research with them. We also have one of the females who provides numerous services to the Latinx immigrant communities. We have the Washtenaw Health Plan. We have Amplify Colectivo providing therapy services. We have the Washtenaw Health Plan. And so, we all got together and decided that we would combine efforts to support these kids.

Josh Hakala: These support services are difficult to access for just about anyone. But with the kids that you're reaching out to, there are even more barriers, right?

Dr. Fernanda Cross: As we were talking about their needs, we realized that we would have to overcome a lot of the obstacles that anyone encounters when they're trying to access mental health, right? We have an incredible shortage of therapists. And when we're talking about meeting the need for therapists who are bilingual and bicultural, so that the kids could open up and really share their struggles, you're looking at a much smaller pool of providers. And so, we also knew that a lot of these families do not have health insurance or any type of health coverage. We knew that it would be hard for the kids to get to the therapy or to even find time to go. And so, we were trying to overcome a lot of these obstacles. That's when the idea to collaborate with Ypsilanti High School happened because Buenos Vecinos already had a relationship with the school. And so, through this group, which we called the empowerment group, we are able to bring qualified, bicultural, bilingual therapists to the school during the kids', you know, like, it could be during their lunch period or during a time where they would not be missing an important classes, which was prearranged with the teachers or others who were in charge of helping find the best time for the group. And we also provided lunch because that was a way where the kids could form community and get to know each other. And they were able to open up better while they were eating. And so, when we started doing this, we were trying to bypass a lot of the obstacles by bringing the services to the kids. If the kids didn't have health insurance, we then connected them with the Washtenaw Health Plan, and we're able to to support them and any family member that needed access to health coverage with the help of the Washtenaw Health Plan. So, we had all of that in mind to support the needs of the students that, you know, we had heard from them. We had heard from their parents. We knew that they had a lot of really deep needs for mental health support. And so, that's what we try to do with the groups.

Josh Hakala: Priscilla, you started the pilot program, and you've had two pilot programs going. What did you learn from it, and what did you hear from some of these kids?

Priscilla Cortez: Yeah. So, the first pilot we finished at the end of the academic year in 2022, and we just got done with the second pilot in 2023. And the pilot program in the school. I will say, you know, being in the community, knowing a lot of the families, I am one of the few, as you heard, for them to say, there's not a lot of bilingual therapists serving in the community. So, it is a small community. And I personally just knew that there was a lot of need from what I'm hearing in my practice already. And so, being able to sit and interact and engage and build community really is what it felt like to be there with the students. And, oftentimes, students, like, you know, walking into the school, they, you know, see a familiar face. I could see them growing closer to each other in a place like Ypsi where, you know, it's a big school. You don't know a lot of people. You know the others who speak your language. But, you know, there's not like, you're trying to get your work done, you know, in between hallways. So, like, this was really a time that they got to interact with each other and kind of just be themselves, like a lot of humor, you know? And I mean, think about, like, jokes. You know, like, there's jokes you say. There's cultural things that you understand that is just a part of being a teenager, and maybe you don't even get to express it really in that way. And I know we mentioned trauma and a lot of really hard things that students have gone through. But, really, like, having a space to celebrate the joy and the resiliency it was really special, and that's something that I hoped for. But it was clear right away, which is why I was really excited to get involved and continue the work in the second pilot and hopefully another pilot that we're going to start up in the fall.

Josh Hakala: So, how big of an impact is it for when you come into a new school, really just with any teenager being new to any school, it's tough to find those social bridges too, and now, to have this group to sort of give you that foundation and for people to speak your language?

Priscilla Cortez: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's awesome, you know? And, you know, I'm also Latinx, and I think there's just so much richness to the culture, and we kind of miss it. And you forget that, yeah. Like, you know, everyone from, like, I don't know, Bad Bunny to, you name it. I mean, he's really popular now. People know him. But, yeah, it's fun to engage with not just teenagers or adolescents, but to see them be more themselves. Like, they're not just the trauma that they've experienced. They're people who are growing and learning and thrive out of connection with others like all of us.

Josh Hakala: And you're listening to On the Ground Ypsi on WEMU. I'm joined by Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale and Priscila Cortez, the facilitator of the Latinx Teen Empowerment Group at Ypsilanti Community High School. And Dr. Fernanda Cross. She is an assistant professor in the U of M School of Social Work. And, Fernanda, it's a little personal for you. You came to this country from Brazil, and you had to navigate similar challenges. I know the world has changed a little bit in the couple of years since you arrived. But, can you talk a little bit about that and some of the challenges that come with being that new kid on campus?

Dr. Fernanda Cross: Yes, I can definitely talk about this. I can relate a bit to these kids while I came here older. I was not really a high school student. I was a little older, but I had to face language barriers and cultural barriers. I had to, like, learn and find my way here as a young adult coming to this country to learn English. And so, I had to rely on a lot of people--a lot of people--that had arrived earlier or that had immigrant parents and were born here and were now able to help the newcomers. So, I relied on a lot of people when I arrived, and I have to say that, at that time, things were already difficult for immigrants. But the things that the kids nowadays and the families are experiencing, especially since the Trump administration, it's very different. There is a lot of direct maltreatment and explicit xenophobia about immigrants and, you know, just this negative perception--this negative portrayal of immigrants. And we feel it. We all feel it. Even if you have not directly experienced it, it's in the air. Youexperience it vicariously. And so, I could not relate to the kids as being a high school student, but being an immigrant or, in the case of some of these kids, some of them had emigrated as a young kid, but they were experiencing their parents' immigration, you know, as adults and all the difficulties associated with that. I can definitely relate to some of their experiences. And now, I feel the need more than ever to really support this community because I'm part of it. I'm a Latinx immigrant like them. And I know how much support our community needs, and I know all of our strengths. I know what we're capable of. And if we are able to support the kids, they would be able to accomplish so much more and really be able to demonstrate their strength and just have a better experience--better outcome--for their lives.

Josh Hakala: And, Priscilla, with your as a therapist, you've talked to, you know, dozens and dozens of kids over the years. And I know that, as parents, we try to shield our children from certain things in the world that are traumatizing. But I have to think that that seeps its way into their lives. They're aware of, like, what Fernanda was talking about, about the negative perception of immigrants in certain communities. How much does that impact of the children, and how do you address that in this group?

Priscilla Cortez: That's interesting you say that, because I think that that's probably one of the first things I notice when I work with young immigrant youth, is in some ways, you know, you've got, like, a 14, 16-year-old that there's a part of them that's been categorically grown up really fast. And, although, many of them haven't had direct conversations with their parents about what's going on, they absolutely know what's going on. And they behave in a way that really protects that. And, for mental health outcomes, that can be really tricky because, if you're dealing with things like, you know, anxiety, going through a depressive episode, I got to be strong because I got to be strong for my mom, I got to be strong for my family. Sometimes, they're the only ones in their family here, you know? So, really, while, like, strength and resiliency is a part of their lived experience, truly out of necessity, it can also sometimes create a barrier to really take care of that part of themselves.

Josh Hakala: Fernanda, I know that there are plans to expand this group. What do you see as the future for this organization?

Dr. Fernanda Cross: That's a great question. As we started implementing the groups last year, we realized that there are a lot more kids that need the support than we can help at a time. So, there is a limit to the groups. You can't really have 20 kids in a group because that defeats the purpose of a smaller group where they can share and they can feel more connected to each other. So, as we consider expanding, we definitely think that it would be great to have more than one group happening simultaneously, so more kids can benefit from the support. When we're at the school, we hear and we see other kids that are asking, "Hey, can I join? Is there room for one more?" So, we know that they would like to be a part of the group, as well as we hear from teachers and staff that are talking about, "Oh, I have this student that would really benefit from participating in it." And so, we definitely want to continue offering these services. But, ideally, this would become a part of the school programming. Bringing the services to the school and supporting the kids would be yet another class or another period in their school day. And then, while we are focusing on the Latinx kids, it does not have to focus only on these kids. You know, it would be wonderful if other groups could start providing these services for African-American kids, for kids from any other backgrounds, where they are not able to get these needs met and, you know, kids that are struggling, kids from other communities, kids from other marginalized communities that are experiencing the need for mental health services and aren't able to get the support they need. We would definitely like to have more groups offered and to have this be something that's long-term, perhaps an ongoing relationship between Washtenaw Health Plan and Ypsilanti High School and Amplify Colectivo and the Latinx Mental Health Collaborative. It would be wonderful to have this be something that's self-sustaining and long-term.

Josh Hakala: And, Priscilla, you're providing all kinds of support through this organization. Are there any aspects of it that, you know, looking ahead, if, you know, I know you want to start additional pilots and then you want to maybe expand it? Like, what elements of the social fabric that you're trying to improve or even, you know, the types of mental health challenges that people have or these kids have that you would like to see addressed that just aren't getting addressed?

Priscilla Cortez: That's a great question. For sure, I think school is just a natural place where young people come to contact with. But, if there were other community spaces, I think that's kind of true of all population groups. But, if there's other community spaces where we can engage with them in positive and, like, culturally specific ways, you know, it's funny because, like, the fair that happens at Pioneer High School is, like, all the rave--like, all the kids are talking about it and they want to go and they're going to go with their friends and, you know, like, ways that they can engage in the community and just be present and visible, I think can be really helpful. So, I mean, I see this, obviously, I think through coverage and having maybe radio shows like this bring awareness. I don't know. I'm also always trying to find talent and retain talent. I think we need more bilingual, bicultural therapists who are wanting to stay in the area. I myself am a transplant from Texas, and I wanted to stay in the area because I knew there was the need. And I think that there is more. Maybe it means engaging with community partners like Packard Health and, you know, the fair and things like that to create awareness and presence. It would just help to make that connection smoother and more like a natural part of the fabric of people's day-to-day.

Josh Hakala: Priscilla Cortez, the facilitator of the Latinx Teen Empowerment Group at Ypsilanti Community High School, and Dr. Fernanda Kross. She is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work. And, as always, Rylee Barnsdale from Concentrate Media. Thank you, all three of you, for joining us today on On the Ground Ypsi.

Rylee Barnsdale: Thanks, Josh.

Priscilla Cortez: Thanks.

Dr. Fernanda Cross: It's been a pleasure. Thanks, Josh.

Josh Hakala: This is On the Ground Ypsi. I'm Josh Hakala, and this is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.

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Josh Hakala is the general assignment reporter for the WEMU news department.
Concentrate Media's Rylee Barnsdale is a Michigan native and longtime Washtenaw County resident. She wants to use her journalistic experience from her time at Eastern Michigan University writing for the Eastern Echo to tell the stories of Washtenaw County residents that need to be heard.
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