Destiny Dashield was in high school when she saw a regal Black woman with big curly hair walking down a hallway. The woman wore high heels as she pulled a small suitcase. Dashield was taken aback by the woman because she went to a predominantly white school and wasn’t used to seeing many people who looked like her.
She followed the woman down the hall and saw she was hosting something in a classroom, so she sat down and observed. The woman was Saran Fossett, the founder of AZIZA PE&CE, a nonprofit that uses fashion, music, art and more to help young women and LGBTQ youths aged 14 to 24 years old address public health and personal development. Dashield continued to go to the nonprofit’s in-school programming, where she could talk openly about a variety of topics like anxiety, depression or unrealistic beauty standards.
Dashield felt like she could really express herself within the group that created “a space where you could be yourself and nobody was there to judge you,” she said. It was just what she needed as she navigated high school, where she often felt like an outcast. For the last eight years, she has nurtured and cherished AZIZA PE&CE’s safe space. She even does her best to help the nonprofit with their programming.
“This is not even a program no more to me. This is like family. This is what I do. This is who I love. I love seeing the youth grow and become their authentic self,” Dashield said.
Dashield wasn’t alone in wanting to find a sense of belonging, a place to talk about real-world issues and how she can overcome them. Youths are navigating mental health barriers that can often be influenced by race, gender and identity. Suicide, for example, continues to be a leading cause of death among young people.
Brad Sachs, an author and psychologist, said society doesn’t do the best job of tending to the needs of children and families. Our culture lacks patience, he said, when it comes to child development and the support families need to function well. The pandemic, he added, also disrupted people’s physical sense of belonging because they couldn’t be around each other.
Family and social environment are key indicators of well-being in children, according to a Forum on Child and Family Statistics report.
“You can’t overestimate the impact parents and families have on healthy child development,” Sachs said.
Darren Rogers, executive director of I AM MENtality, a nonprofit that provides mentoring and leadership development to boys and young men, is adamant about including families in personal growth and development. Rogers said the boys and young men have real conversations with facilitators day-to-day about mental health, and parents are included in those talks. Last year, Rogers said, the group hosted six-week family strengthening sessions for relatives to work on things like talking about finances, making a meal together and other communication skills.
Parent engagement is no easy feat, though, Rogers added. He said 90% of boys and young men involved with the nonprofit are living in single family households. There also needs to better investment in youth programs, he said, because children are still the future “no matter how you slice it.”
“If there isn’t a larger investment in young people’s mental health, we aren’t going to have safe spaces,” Rogers said.
Safe spaces are crucial and are attainable, said Myoshi Smith, a relationship enhancement specialist based in Baltimore who helps with communication skills and conflict resolution. Society, she added, is in a national crisis of loneliness and isolation that was heightened by the pandemic.
“A safe space is a place where you can be your most authentic, vulnerable self, and what that looks like is for every person to feel they are seen, heard and validated,” Smith said.
Safe spaces provide an outlet for people to express themselves clearly, experts and nonprofit organizers say. Not being able to do so can impact someone’s personality and how they function and engage with their communities, according to Janique Walker, a licensed professional counselor and assistant professor with Coppin State University. It can also lead to depression, anxiety, other mental health issues or even addiction.
“It’s important for young people, or anyone in general, to be able to express themselves in a way that’s safe and in a way that’s not being judged,” Walker said.
Last month, a group of young people who are part of AZIZA PE&CE got to express themselves at an annual fashion show, Strut, a fundraising event at the Hippodrome. Kids and young adults wore designer clothes and put on a big production, incorporating music, dance and other art forms. From elaborate, sequined gowns to suits and outfits with splattered paint, young people rocked the runway.
The event was bigger than that, though, according to Fosset.
“When they fall in love with themselves, they commit to being better people for their families, better people for their community, better people for the world at large. They commit to being the change they want to see because of love. It always wins,” Fossett said.
Michael John, also known as Coach MJ, is using mixed martial arts and boxing to let boys and girls 10 years and older better themselves through physical and mental disciplines. Adults can also transition into coaching roles within the nonprofit. John said he started teaching martial arts and later established the The Agoge Project after realizing city kids didn’t have access to many after-school resources or opportunities.
“Martial arts and boxing is a tool to keep them on-task and give other life lessons of being consistent and learning a craft,” John said.
It is not uncommon, he said, to see more kids navigating trauma, especially linked to violence, and mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. Many children, he added, also spend a lot of time unmanaged and unsupported by an adult in their life. Beyond boxing and mixed martial arts, kids also get mentorship, academic support and Spanish classes twice a week.
John said the Belair Edison location is a space for kids to express themselves and learn how to build a network of people who will support them as they navigate life. He stresses to them that “you are the company that you keep” and encourages them to create a community of people who hold a high standard and persevere.
“When you provide kids with resources and love and an environment where they can use those resources to grow, they grow and can compete with anybody.”