Editor's note: This article was sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Tracing the roots of Seika Brown’s activism unearths factors both deeply personal — as one would expect — and “academic.” First, the academic: The now-18-year-old Issaquah High School senior was a sophomore when she was challenged by her psychology teacher to select and research an issue that affected the school and then design and present a practical solution to address it. While Brown notes that some classmates didn’t necessarily take the assignment all that seriously — fellow students presented solutions for plaguing social ills such as the need for better toilet-seat covers, for instance — she thought it was a great opportunity to explore an issue that had directly affected her family life: awareness of and access to mental health resources. Cutting to the personal: By way of explanation, Brown shares that when she was 8 years old, her older brother, then age 12, attempted suicide.
“As bad as it sounds, it was a blessing in disguise, because I was able to grow up in those therapy rooms, doing my homework and seeing those classic posters [that say], ‘It’s okay to not be okay.’ Though it was a traumatic experience, I was exposed to the knowledge that feeling not great all the time is an okay thing,” she says. Brown hastens to reassure me that her brother recovered, “is now living his best life” and is presently studying medicine with the objective of becoming a doctor.
After conducting field studies and other research to inform her psychology final, Brown presented a recommendation to the school’s administration: Her proposed solution was to create a mental health club that would help raise awareness of available resources for the student body. Unfortunately, her plan was met with what she describes as hesitance.
“Of course, I was discouraged, but I didn’t want to just stop there. So, I took it outside of school, and from there I started my own organization. It’s called Archnova — [the name is] a combined form of Latin and Greek root words meaning ‘new beginnings.’ We wanted to be a new beginning when it comes to having more youth engagement around policy changes and the reforms around mental health.”
The work of Archnova’s youth leadership team over the past two years has been impressive; notably, the group worked with state legislators in Olympia to help pass House Bill 1216, which provides funding for regional and state school safety centers and the creation of a student safety and well-being workgroup.
“Helping pass a bill is an immense accomplishment, and it still feels so weird to think that we’ve done that,” says Brown. “Part of Archnova’s mission is to expand and allow possibilities for students to have conversations in these mental health policy changes. One of the things that came out of the bill that we helped pass was that kids from districts around Washington state are now going to be able to be part of these important conversations.”
Brown, who plans to attend Cornell University in the fall to pursue a major in urban studies, has been working with her Archnova team to plot a succession plan for the organization, one that ensures that their proven playbook for purposeful action can be employed by other youth activists all around the world. She explains: “We have changed our direction to [prioritize] giving kids our age the resources they need to start their own things. Because, in reality, it’s up to the kids; in order to pass the torch, we need to create a toolkit.”
To do so, Archnova is partnering with universities and with mission-aligned organizations — such as global mental health platform citiesRISE and the Youth Activism Project, which supports youth leaders to execute policy advocacy and community organization efforts — to fund, develop and ultimately make available its toolkit. Brown says that the toolkit will help guide and support the work of youth activists working on mental health issues throughout our global community. “I have complete faith in the youth of my generation: If they’re able to see that there are resources out there for them, they’re going to be more likely to take initiative to make a difference.”
I ask Brown if she has any advice for youths who might be trying to figure out how to get involved in issues that matter most to them. She responds, “Every single person out there is a changemaker, regardless of their age, regardless of what they do. It’s important to realize that you playing your part — you being you — is already making a difference. It starts within you, when you realize what really matters to you.”
As the publishing of this profile coincides with the annual “Superheroes” issue of ParentMap, it seemed fitting for me to ask Brown a final question: “Who is your personal hero?”
Not surprisingly, she immediately names her brother, saying: “My brother once told me that every person can help, regardless of where they are in life, regardless of if they’re at a high or a low. As you grow through life, he said, you’re going to face challenges, but if you look at life with optimism and see every opportunity, if you see every pain that you go through and every trial that you face as a reason to persevere, to gain wisdom and knowledge, then you’re going to be able to be great and do great things.”
In a time of unprecedented existential threat and uncertainty, the heroic siblings Brown remind us of the power of humanity and of optimistic service to one another.
This story is featured in the April issue of ParentMap magazine. Our inspiring Community Issue is filled with superheroic stories, as well as top tips to keep you safe and entertained at home. Check out the full issue here.
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