Two Female College Students Building Machine In Science Robotics Or Engineering Class

How Do We Create Belonging?

How Do We Create Belonging?

Two Female College Students Building Machine In Science Robotics Or Engineering Class

A conversation with Sandra Victorino, Co-founder of the Latino Mental Health Network, Director of Workforce Development, Diversity Inclusion & Community Relations at Care New England

What brought you to your current position at Care New England?

So right now I'm the Director Of Workforce Development, Diversity Inclusion & Community Relations at a health care system in Rhode Island.  I've been in the mental health and behavioral health field for the last 15 years. For a long time I was doing direct service work and I kept on continuing to provide, provide, provide, and do and do and do. And it was one individual at a time. My current role really helps me serve the community as a whole and doing more of that advocacy work and making sure I'm providing and creating a sustainable system.

One of the things that I continued to do is make sure I provide individual therapy because I need to stay in it. And I need to see what's happening at the ground level in order for me to be able to continue to create change at this other balcony level.  

How would you characterize the experiences of young people in families, in the schools in Rhode Island?

I think some people don't feel like they fit in. It's created for an individual like me. I say I was a perfect student for our educational system because I needed that structure. But I see these young people and they need activity, they need engagement and community. Their community is who's going to support them and who's going to teach them and who's going to push them forward. 

First-generation students and professionals don't have a connection to place and belonging, and if they don't know what resources are outside of our schools, then how are they supposed to access them? There are so many potential contributors, but the ways to connect are unclear. There are few unifying forces among community organizations, and schools could play that role as nexus, the connecting locus. That's where there's a missed opportunity.

I mean, for years I wanted to be an optometrist and ophthalmologist, because that was the first doctor I went to see at three years old. So it was in my brain that it was an accessible profession—I knew that I could do that. If a student doesn’t ever see those people or those professionals, then they can’t imagine that future for themselves. Unless we're bringing in community and we're exchanging and flowing that way, then we're not providing for all the needs. 

Do you think it is important to bring community—youth activism, business, arts, nonprofits, public health professionals—into the schools?

Yes, I do. It's not the traditional way of thinking, and it'll take a little bit of adjusting, but I feel in the long-term it will help some of our communities that have been either missed or not seen.

There are many youth nonprofit programs near our schools. How much are those nonprofits able to collaborate with nearby schools? Not all children/youth can go to afterschool programming for different reasons, such as helping out at home or having to work in order to help out their families. Are those programs part of our school's education system, and if not, how can they be incorporated? Schools are community hubs, how do we treat them as a resource for the community? 

Do you think the education sector is ready to listen to young people? 

I don’t know. I don't think it's a sustainable process right now. I think it's one-offs. I see a lot of one-offs in Rhode Island and I think it needs to be more of an overarching approach.

It was by chance that I ended up being in a school that decided that they were doing this initiative that year. And I just connected with it. I shouldn't be a kid that just got lucky. And I feel like that's who I am. I'm a kid that just fell into people that then ended up leading me into this path. And it shouldn't be left to chance. Someone's future shouldn't be left to chance.

At The Reciprocity Project we’re trying to disrupt the school system to involve the community. If we have success for families and young people, what will be different down the road?

I think there will be agility—an ability to modify and change. Becoming a whole community means being involved in providing and supporting each other, versus perpetuating the silos that exist. We need to go back to a village model or a collective model. I think we've been so focused on the individual that this is why so many of our children are being left behind.

And I see that in adults. They don't know how to create that collectivism because they weren't really taught how to do that. And it's necessary. I think it's important because there's so many people that are struggling with mental health as well. And if we don't have that integration, the community therapists can't do all the work. And the community needs to be part of that work because together we take care of each other.

For more information about The Reciprocity Project's work in Rhode Island, click here.

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