UC Santa Cruz and United Way invest in youth perspective in researching mental health throughout local communities

Rebecca London, associate professor of sociology, is the project lead at UC Santa Cruz.

Mental health has seen a major research resurgence since the initial COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns began nearly three years ago. Now, local experts in higher education and the nonprofit sphere have banded together to empower young people to decide on and delve into that topic area across Santa Cruz County.

Beginning in early 2021, the University of California, Santa Cruz partnered with the United Way of Santa Cruz County’s Youth Action Network, seeking to support youth empowerment and leadership. By way of a three-year, $650,000 grant, the partners have continued pushing forward with their research project goals, with UC Santa Cruz faculty and undergraduates working with local high school and middle school students in Watsonville, Scotts Valley and Live Oak.

As part of that vital work, the partners were recognized as the United Way Partner of the Year last Friday, April 28th, at the United 4 Youth Celebration & Awards Ceremony at Hotel Paradox. The sold-out event, formerly called the Community Builders Awards, sought to recognize and celebrate the outstanding United Way Champions committed to youth well-being and success in Santa Cruz County.

Rebecca London, associate professor of sociology, is the project lead at UC Santa Cruz, and works alongside Steve McKay, associate professor of sociology and the director for the Center for Labor and Community, and Regina Langhout, professor of psychology.  

As London described, the organizations came together in 2020 to develop a research project, which would elevate youth voices and leadership: “This was a change for United Way, after CEO Keisha Browder took the helm…Keisha wanted to create a new vision for how United Way would interact with the community.”

Another impetus for the organizations’ collaboration was the connection with a former student of McKay, Gabriela Sanchez Ramirez. Sanchez Ramirez had previously participated in a community-engaged research project on affordable housing back in 2018, called No Place Like Home, and soon thereafter began working for United Way.

With those shared relationships and vision in mind, the partners built a proposal for grant funding and continued to generate a research agenda that was directly determined by and useful to local community organizations. From there, London says they worked to identify and bring together up to 60 youth countywide to develop the research project on a topic they felt was important.

The students chose to focus on mental health, naming the leadership group Jóvenes Sanos. Langhout said the youth had an expansive understanding of mental health: “The youth wanted to talk about everything from the challenges of income and housing instability, to immigration raids, to how institutions in the county support us. They linked all of these issues to mental health and community well-being.”   

The students looked to conduct their research through a community-wide survey, which launched in late March and early April 2023. The students developed the survey with Langhout and UC Santa Cruz undergraduates in fall quarter 2021 and winter quarter 2022, and McKay’s spring quarter seminar is connecting with the students to go out into the field for surveying and data collection.

Overall, the team aims to receive 1,000 responses; thus far, students have garnered over 364 responses.

On the United Way side, Director of Community Impact Sarah Emmert oversees the project as a community fellow, with four UC Santa Cruz research fellows sharing further insights. McKay said that that level of collaboration with United Way makes the process better for everyone: “It makes the research better because the community and organization are directly involved in guiding the research and analyzing the results…this can be really and truly research and data led.”

Amanda Gamban, Resource Development & Marketing Manager for United Way, said the partnership and research thus far has helped to highlight youth voice. Pamela Velazquez, Senior Community Impact Manager for United Way, agrees that the work thus far demonstrates just how imperative it is to have these students, many of whom are BIPOC and first-generation youth, at the forefront of the research efforts. 

“One of our main goals is to support the students in seeing themselves in higher education and bridge the gap between South County and UC Santa Cruz,” Velazquez said. “It will be really exciting to see what systemic shifts we can make in the community from our data collection.”

The project’s funding comes from the highly-competitive Institutional Challenge Grant, supported by the William T. Grant Foundation, Spencer Foundation, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. The grants aim to assist universities and community organizations to work together to reduce equity and access for youth populations.

The project helped to establish the Campus + Community center in the 2022-23 school year, with London serving as its Faculty Director. The center is dedicated to supporting ethical and mutually beneficial engaged scholarship at UC Santa Cruz. 

For the project’s future, Dr. Saskias Casanova of the Psychology department and Dr. Jessica Taft of the Latin American & Latino Studies department will take over the project with their courses to help local youth in disseminating the findings and advocating for change.

As London shared, the partnership since initially coming together with United Way in 2020 has been rewarding, and the UC Santa Cruz team is deeply grateful for having the chance to work with United Way on this important research mission.

“We want to make it so that youth are empowered to go out and do this kind of research,” London said. “By reflecting on this project and process, we’ll be able to improve this work and continue to do it better in every iteration moving forward.”

As McKay said, “we’re looking forward to the action phase, and to make the research as actionable and useful as possible.”

“This partnership is going to keep generating deeper relations and deeper projects, and that’s what’s exciting about the long-term relationships between all of us,” he said.