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Mental Health, STEAM And Hip-Hop: Doctoral Student Valencia Hicks-Harris Works to Empower All Through Non-profit Organization

In the back of the room sits a DJ booth, hip-hop playing out of the speakers. At the front, past rows of educators, K-12 students and members of the local community, there is dancing. The dancers are from Vernon Malone College and Career Academy and Right Moves Dance, and sometimes they are joined by whoever else in the room wants to get up and move their feet along to the music.

The music and dancing is all part of the Supporting Mental Health Advocacy and STEAM Through Hip-Hop (SMASH) Summit hosted by the non-profit Empower All Inc. Valencia Hicks-Harris, a doctoral student in the NC State College of Education’s Department of Teacher Education and Learning Science’s Educational Equity concentration, co-founded Empower All Inc. with Amanda West and Emily Wade and serves as its CEO.

When Hicks-Harris was dreaming up the summit, her priority was to provide an opportunity to discuss mental health, especially as it related to K-12 students of color. But, she wondered, would that be enough for people to show up? Hicks-Harris decided to add a STEAM component and create a hip-hop summit with as many panels as dance parties. The day of the summit, at least 100 attendees were there.

“Who doesn’t love hip-hop?” said Hicks–Harris. “Who doesn’t love music?”

With keynote speakers Dudley Flood, a former educator who led desegregation efforts in North Carolina schools; Hilda Willis, a producer, director and performing artist; and Donovan Livingston, senior director of the Emily Krzyzewski Center, Hicks-Harris and her Empower All Inc. co-founders put on an event that centered on inspiring students of color while addressing the issues that affect them.

“When we heard from panelists who talked about mental health, which can be heavy, we immediately were brought back up because there was an artist who performed a musical selection,” she said. “So it was truly, truly phenomenal.”

The SMASH Summit, held in November at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation, which is part of the College of Education, was the one of the largest events hosted by Empower All Inc. Hicks-Harris was inspired to start Empower All Inc. while reading works by Paola Freire, bell hooks and James Baldwin in a course taught by Assistant Professor Crystal Chen Lee. For the first time, Hicks-Harris said, she was able to put words to experiences she had felt her whole life, and she decided to take action.

“I cannot wait four years to graduate from a program to begin this work,” said Hicks–Harris. “I can’t wait four more hours, four more minutes. I have to put boots on the ground and do something now that’s within my reach. That’s how Empower All was born.”

Her goal in starting the non-profit was to bridge the gap between the home, the school and community, and she decided to draw on her experience as a former STEAM program leader at Holly Grove and White Oak elementary schools to make it happen.

“Our mission is to empower all to be fully human through a holistic approach, which encompasses the cultural affirmation and belonging, the emphasis on STEAM, the social, emotional learning (SEL), and the mental health piece, which we know is more important now than ever,” Hicks-Harris said.

In practice, that has meant supporting teachers through lessons at Wake County elementary schools, partnering with Biogen to build STEAM kits and teaming up with A Place At the Table to pass out the kits, while also providing food and coffee.

In addition to Hicks-Harris and her two co-founders, Empower All Inc. includes a youth council, composed of high school and middle school students, as well as interns from the College of Education’s Students Advocating for Youth (SAY) Village, all working together to make an impact in the community.

“The College of Education pushed me to action,” Harris-Hicks said. “You can only do so much in the constraints of a classroom. It pushed me to step out, to have a wider reach and a wider scope of influence.”

Hicks-Harris plans to hold the SMASH Summit again next year, and she is already thinking of expanding it farther.

“Who knows, maybe we’ll go on tour — it’d be Smash Raleigh, Smash Durham, Smash Charlotte,” she said.