Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2022 National League of Cities’ City Congressional Conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
As an NLC Youth Representative and a member of the Brighton (CO) Youth Commission, Giana Rocha partners with adult leaders to help youth access the tools they need to be involved and make change. One area for impact: Helping peers with mental health issues know that support is always there.
Chris Riback: Giana, thank you so much for joining us at the studio.
Giana Rocha: Yes. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.
Chris Riback: I am, too. Tell me about yourself. What year are you in school, and what are your interests.
Giana Rocha: Yes, of course. So my name is Giana Rocha. I’m a senior at Brighton high school in Colorado, and I’m extremely passionate about authentic youth engagement and giving back to my community.
Chris Riback: What is authentic youth engagement? What does that look like?
Giana Rocha: Yes, of course. So authentic youth engagement just looks like the youth being engaged civically, and giving back to their community, and the adults giving them the pathway, and partnering with them in youth adult partnerships to make sure that they have the access to tools that they need to be involved and make a change.
Chris Riback: And what type of change are you looking for? Infrastructure, environment, education, opportunity, criminal justice reform, what are the areas that you’re interested in?
Giana Rocha: Something I’m super passionate about, and especially within Brighton, Colorado is suicide prevention and mental health awareness. In Brighton, Colorado, I’m a part of the Brighton Youth Commission, and I’ve served as a chair for the past two years. We host a local suicide prevention initiative called SPEAK. SPEAK stands for suicide prevention education, awareness, and knowledge. It’s a week worth of education and knowledge implemented in local schools to help break down the stigma surrounding mental health. And then at the end of each week, we host a 5k walk to help promote community engagement and make sure that everyone feels like they can be involved and that their voices being heard.
Chris Riback: Does mental health feel like a growing problem right now?
Giana Rocha: Especially right now, I believe so. Yes. After coming back from the pandemic, I’ve seen it myself, and within my community, within my schools, how impacted our young people in our community has just been after the pandemic and coming out of a virtual setting. So I’ve been definitely seen it grow and be a bigger issue within our communities. I’m extremely passionate about it, and I’m so honored to be involved, and be a part of SPEAK week, and to hopefully lead the way towards change, and lead the way towards saving lives.
Chris Riback: Do youths, kids your age, is there a feeling that there isn’t a place to turn? Is there a feeling that my problems are too big and nobody’s going to understand? What’s the opportunity that kids need?
Giana Rocha: Speaking from personal experience, I struggled my own mental health, and SPEAK was a huge thing that helped me cope and helped me realize that I wasn’t alone. So my motto is no one should ever feel alone. And I definitely think that SPEAK helps me elevate that and expand that belief. I definitely think a lot of our generation feels like they are alone in their struggles. And I think SPEAK just helps them show that it’s not as uncommon as it may seem.
Chris Riback: On these councils that you are in, in the work that you’ve done in Brighton with SPEAK, you work with a lot of adults. What do adults not on understand? What do we not get?
Giana Rocha: I definitely think, over the years, it has changed immensely. Coming into the roles I have come into, about five years ago, I joined the Brighton Youth Commission, I was under the impression that the adults never wanted to hear my voice, and that it was a very one sided street in that they just wanted to teach us and nothing like that. But I definitely have seen a huge turnaround, and seen a lot of adults coming towards me and asking me for my opinion, giving me a seat at the table. I definitely think that’s a huge asset.
Coming out of the global pandemic, we’ve seen a certain shift. I wish that adults would still have the same trust in us. Coming out of the global pandemic, I think that trust has been lost. They haven’t seen young people in environments like this. They haven’t seen young people striving and being the amazing people that we are. And I think a lot of that trust has been lost. So if I were to ask one thing of adults is to trust us, and to know that we’ve done this before, and to give us that same pathway that they once gave us before. And we will surprise you for sure.
Chris Riback: Actually, I don’t know that I would be surprised. Now that I’m getting you to talk with you, my expectations are super high, but I understand.
Giana Rocha: That’s exciting. Yes.
Chris Riback: I’ll be impressed. I might not be surprised. And what would you say to middle schoolers or even maybe younger than that? As I was learning a little bit about you from this conversation, one thing that did surprise me, you felt like you didn’t fit in middle school. Seeing your personality right now, it’s hard to imagine you not fitting in someplace. Why did you feel that? And what would you say to middle schoolers now?
Giana Rocha: So middle school, of course, is a tough time for everyone. And personally, I face a lot of issues with my own identity, going to a predominantly white charter school, and feeling like I was left out of the conversation a lot of times, and felt like I was looked down upon. And it was really hard for me to find my voice and find a pathway for me to succeed. From a young age, I always knew that I wanted be a part of something bigger than myself. And I definitely think what I would say to young people, especially middle school, is there is a way, there is a pathway. You just need to look for it. You just need to make sure that you keep using your voice and keep asking questions.
A lot of the times, especially as a young woman, people look down upon you for asking questions or you feel like you can’t ask questions, but you need to. You need to ask questions and ask the right questions to get further in life. I definitely think finding a good community is a huge asset. The Brighton Youth Commission, at first, was just a place for me to feel welcome, and for me to find people that I identified with, and found people that valued my voice, and then it turned into so much more. So if that looks like drama for you, if it looks like sports, if it looks like getting civically involved, you just need to find that, and find something that you feel you can thrive in, and that you feel really fits you, and will help you immensely.
Chris Riback: What do your parents say about the path that you’re on?
Giana Rocha: My parents are extremely proud of me, and I’m so honored to have lived through them and lived on their legacy. As a first generation student, it is really inspiring to see my parents say such amazing things about me. They completely encourage me and have supported me every step of the way. Coming to Washington DC and doing those things. At the beginning, it was a little rocky coming from a traditionally Mexican American home. My dad was like, “You’re going where?” So it was a battle there, but now they support me completely, and make sure that I have the tools I need to succeed.
Chris Riback: And what’s next for you?
Giana Rocha: Finishing out senior year has been definitely bittersweet after coming from this global pandemic. It feels like I’m not supposed to be here. It feels like I missed so much. And it’s been a really interesting journey stepping into the senior position, and saying goodbye to a lot of my roles, and finishing a lot of things out this way. But next, I definitely do foresee myself pursuing a career in politics, hopefully, attending a university in the fall to pursue political science. I haven’t committed to any colleges yet, but I’m definitely hoping to do that soon.
Chris Riback: The bidding is still open for you?
Giana Rocha: Yes, sir.
Chris Riback: Okay. They’ll all compete, Giana, thank you. Thank you for the work you do in your community and for joining us in the studio.
Giana Rocha: Of course. Thank you so much for inviting me, and having me, and giving me the opportunity to share my story, and hopefully elevate other youth voices to one day change the world.