Addison Pickrell, a senior at Rohnert Park Tech High School, has had his fair share of stress in recent years.
Recurring wildfires that have plagued Sonoma County and neighboring areas since 2017 have forced him and his family to frequently evacuate his northeast Santa Rosa home, he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has also had a negative impact on him and other students, as remote learning has resulted in a loss of the social interactions that typically define his high school experience, he added.
“I’ve had my own mental health issues and seen an environment where a lot of students I know have issues with that as well,” Pickrell said.
It’s stories like hers that inspired local psychologist Dr. Daniela Dominguez to start ¡DALE!, a youth program that trains Sonoma County high school students to be leaders in their schools through educational justice projects.
The program, which enters its second year in September, includes coaching sessions and mentorship opportunities with organizers who have a track record of promoting their causes in the community, Dominguez said.
Winners receive a $1,000 stipend for their participation as well as transportation support to attend monthly meetings. Educational justice projects are done in teams, which receive an additional $1,000 to mobilize their work.
Projects over the past year have ranged from providing free access to menstrual products on campus to setting up ethnic studies classes at Roseland University Prep High School in the Roseland neighborhood of Santa Rosa, Dominguez said. Pickrell was among the students who participated in the program’s first year.
“What we’re trying to create is a pipeline of youth organizers,” Dominguez said. “Rather than feeling these systems are ingrained…they learn that creating small fissures within their schools to interrogate inequities leads to rich conversations between team members and their classmates.”
Dominguez’s work with a group of students in the Sonoma Valley last year was part of the inspiration for the ¡DALE! program, she said.
The group met Dominguez at the Hanna Institute in Sonoma as part of a different program designed to connect high school teens and reduce social isolation associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Attendees included students who were undocumented and living in rural areas, she said.
A conversation with Montserrat Archila, a Providence St. Joseph employee who at the time was working with youth in Healdsburg, made it clear to the woman that youth in both communities faced similar challenges, Dominguez said.
“We were hearing about the digital divide and also concerns about loneliness, social isolation, feeling really overwhelmed, anxiety, and some symptoms of depression,” Dominguez said. “They were opening up and talking…and they just needed a space to say what was in their hearts and what was on their mind.”
Pickrell, the tech high school student, learned about the youth leadership program from a poster he saw on campus last year, he said. He was intrigued by the opportunity to participate in student activism and decided to apply.
He and three other Technology High students who were in the ¡DALE! recognized the need for additional mental health support at their school and decided to make it the focus of their project, Pickrell said.
While the groups worked on their projects, they attended monthly meetings that included lessons on how to promote their ideas, as well as advice and insights from guest speakers such as Bettina L. Love, author and pioneer in introduction of abolitionist education in schools.
“We just had a lot of different speakers who spoke to us about their journeys and supported us, making us feel validated in ourselves and in our ability (to implement change),” Pickrell said.
Addison and his team contacted the Sonoma County Office of Education about the need for additional mental health support on his campus, he said. In response, the office saw an opportunity to direct funding from a state grant for social-emotional learning — an educational method that integrates interpersonal and emotional skills into school curricula — toward technology high school, a said Addison.
That funding now pays for a weekly 35-minute program in which all students on campus work on their social-emotional learning skills with a teacher, said tech high school principal Michelle Spencer.
Although an agreement between the school and the Sonoma County Office of Education to finalize the exact dollar amount of the program is pending, Technology High School expects to be able to operate the program for the next two years, added Spencer.
In addition to the changes each group brought to local schools, the program also helped build the confidence of those who participated, Addison said.
“We had a lot of in-depth discussions and conversations that allowed us to be more open with our team,” Addison said. “Mentoring gave us the opportunity to explore ourselves and kind of explore how we see ourselves going forward as leaders.”
On The Margins, a coaching and therapy company that works with marginalized communities, founded by Dominguez, oversees the ¡DALE! program.
A $250,000 grant from Community Foundation Sonoma County with additional funding from Providence Health is paying for the program, Dominguez said.
Applications for the second year of the program are open until August 31. More information is available at dalesoco.com.