Fellow Dawn Martinez Oropeza Executive Director, Al Éxito
This post shares Dawn's journey as a fellow in the first cohort and was first published in September 2019. Dawn continues to work on this issue as part of the second cohort of fellows.
Dawn had applied to Mid-Iowa Health Foundation (MIHF) to fund Al Éxito and didn’t get the grant. Instead, she was offered another opportunity: a chance to join the HealthConnect Fellowship. With many efforts happening at Al Éxito, Dawn was hesitant to join another thing, but the fellowship gave her time to focus on an issue that needed to be addressed.
“I received a universal call to action,” she said.
Dawn isn’t sure how she made time for the fellowship with a big charge for her role—building the leadership potential of Latino/a youth across Iowa—but she found the experience transformative. The turning point was during the Topos Partnership training when she realized that the issues she is working on as a small nonprofit are issues others don’t even realize exist.
“I’m so entrenched in it,” she says. “The concept that our kids are every day worried about their parents’ status is my existence, personally and professionally, so having it reflected back at me what the reality is out of my bubble has been really helpful.”
The summer before the fellowship began, Dawn was leading a radio program and asked the Latino students on the show to write down a list of everything they wanted to discuss. Mental health came to the top of everyone’s list. “It couldn’t have been any clearer,” Dawn said.
Stress is caused by several issues: living within two cultures, the uncertainty of being undocumented or parents being undocumented, an ever-changing and highly publicized debate about their rights to belong to this country. For those nearing adulthood and dreaming of the future, they may face additional obstacles and are often not allowed to express who they are.
“We’ve had an increase in suicide attempts, and when you constantly ask kids, ‘How are you doing?’ they say, ‘I’m stressed,’” Dawn says. Seven current students in Al Éxito are on suicide watch.
The fellowship allowed Dawn to hire consultants to conduct a study of youth mental health of Al Éxito students. 156 students from 11 programs completed a survey and 60 students from seven programs participated in focus groups.
From the study, Dawn led several overnight camps for students to review the study and identify areas that impact them. Fifteen students self-selected to join the Al Éxito Latinx Mental Health Youth Taskforce that prepared presentations and met with stakeholders on these issues that need to change:
The biggest success is giving kids with mental health challenges more tools to support them, says Dawn. Al Éxito is incorporating stress-reducing exercises into its curriculum and the students are advocating with school administration and city leaders for strategies to improve their well-being. They met with Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education, and when the Make It Okay mental health exhibit came to the Science Center of Iowa, three of Al Éxito’s youth planned the youth-focused learning session.
Even though Dawn has struggled to keep the students engaged with many competing priorities in their lives, she says, “The students surprised themselves with their ability to make an impact for other Latinx students.”
Mentor Rick Kozin has noticed that Dawn’s process of leading youth toward larger system change is a natural skill for her. “Dawn does it because she listens to them and recognizes their strengths and is comfortable with that,” he says.
With concrete data and personal stories gathered through the fellowship process, Dawn has inspired greater champions within her board of directors and in the community, reducing the isolation she once felt in advocating for Latinx youth. The Iowa Office of Latino Affairs started a statewide Latinx Mental Health Facebook group to share information and resources. Dawn was invited to join the Des Moines Public Schools attendance policy advisors’ group and to present at several local and national meetings. She and her students presented at the national Free Minds, Free People conference to researchers and educators from around the world.
“This fellowship gave Latinx issues a broader group of potential supporters, including schools and community leaders, because of the recent focus on mental health,” Dawn says. “Mental health opened the door to allow us to share our stories, data, and action steps to address our needs.”
The fellowship changed Dawn’s understanding of advocacy.
She had her first opportunity to advocate at the state Legislature when MIHF notified her about bills being introduced that would require educators to receive annual education on adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed care. Dawn spoke up at a subcommittee meeting about adding cultural humility language to the bill.
Her view of advocacy has also expanded, recognizing the importance of building champions who she can lift up to be a voice for these issues and to be at tables where decisions are made.
“Having the Latinx Mental Health survey results allows Al Éxito to have a greater, more informed conversation with partners,” says Dawn. “The image of Al Éxito changed in the opinion of schools and partners from a very narrow, small Latino after-school program to a knowledgeable, experienced resource for educators across the state.”
The benefits of the fellowship are “the wealth of knowledge and the experience of the people around the table,” Dawn says. “I wouldn’t have been invited to any of those tables.” The fellowship not only gave her networking opportunities, but also connected her to experienced advocates and resources, who helped her become a stronger advocate.
With a sharp increase in the number of students reporting that they’ve experienced racial attacks, Dawn is hugely concerned. Since the fellowship started, her surveys show a 33 percent increase in racial slurs and attacks on Al Éxito students in school.
But the fellowship has helped her reconsider where to focus her efforts to have impact and how to structure her board to encourage stronger advocates. She is working with a consultant to create a final version of curriculum that incorporates mental health awareness and will continue to focus on pre-service teacher training and economic disparities of Latinx students in schools.
“The expertise and comradery of all the participants in the fellowship opened my life to new thoughts, experiences, and opportunities that did not exist for me before,” she says.
Teenagers in jumpsuits lying on yoga mats, their eyes closed, their bodies still. This is the image Megan Hoxhalli describes as remarkable for juvenile detention, a place where youth arrive shaken, dysregulated, and scared about their future.