Perspective | Healing beats: Harmonizing mental health, hip-hop, and STEAM education for transformative wellness

Our movement sits at an intersection that might seem improbable: mental health advocacy, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) education, and hip-hop culture.

My name is Valencia Hicks-Harris, and I’m the executive director of Empower All Inc, a nonprofit with a vision to liberate all children to be fully human. I’m also the first Black female graduate and one of the first two graduates from North Carolina State University’s PhD in Educational Equity Program.

And I’m committed to closing the racial and gender gaps in STEAM careers while alleviating the mental health crisis — all through the expressive power of hip-hop.

That’s why we launched the S.M.A.S.H. (Supporting Mental-Health Advocacy & STEAM through Hip-hop) Summit. It’s a movement and an annual event celebrating culture, challenging stigmas, and providing access to holistic education.

In 2024, S.M.A.S.H. will host quarterly fireside chats, as well as the annual summit in November. So far, we’ve seen this convening start important conversations across generations.

Addressing a growing crisis

Mental health has reached a crisis point, particularly among young people. Alarming rates of suicide on college campuses underline the urgent need for innovative approaches to normalize discussions around mental health and promote therapeutic avenues.

Recognizing this need, I teamed up with Transcend Resource Solutions to launch S.M.A.S.H. The inaugural summit, hosted at the Friday Institute at North Carolina State University, featured keynotes from Donovan Livingstone and Hilda Willis. Building on this success, SMASH 2023, hosted at the Emily K. Center in Durham,expanded its reach, hosting renowned speakers such as Ashanti Branch, featured in the documentary The Mask You Live In.

S.M.A.S.H. 2023 stood as a celebration of not only mental health advocacy and STEAM, but also the powerful cultural force of hip hop, marking its 50th anniversary. With over 150 attendees, phenomenal keynote speakers, a talented DJ, panel discussions, and breakout sessions, S.M.A.S.H 2023 was a party with purpose.

Attendees experienced a half-day of artistry, creativity, and inspiration while connecting with a diverse panel of speakers, thought leaders, and artists. The intentional networking opportunities promoted meaningful connections.

The purpose beyond the party

S.M.A.S.H. serves a critical purpose — providing a space for students, teachers, administrators, and community members to engage in constructive learning around the power of hip-hop.

The summit emphasized the transformative role of hip-hop in educational settings. With decades of study, researchers Marc Lamont Hill, Chris Emdin, and Jeff Duncan-Andrade have demonstrated that hip-hop is a powerful tool for teaching communication, critical thinking, creativity, and collaboration. Their research finds that embracing hip-hop in education can enhance critical literacy skills, STEAM skills, and critical consciousness.

With hip-hop as our culturally-sustaining foundation, attendees could let their guards down. The summit highlighted the importance of addressing, discussing, and engaging in conversations about mental health. As Shawn Ginwright aptly says, “Healing is the capacity to restore humanity and care for ourselves and others even amid fear.”

The summit aims to dismantle the stigma and eradicate barriers preventing healing at every stage of life.

S.M.A.S.H. is not just an event but a movement that celebrates culture, challenges stigma, and provides access to holistic education. It is a convergence of passions for those who love hip hop, are invested in mental health, and are interested in STEAM.

I hope last year’s summit — its energy, ideas, and connections — propels us forward, fostering creativity, confidence, and a commitment to thinking outside the box in education, leadership, and belonging.

Valencia Hicks-Harris

Valencia Hicks-Harris, executive director and founder of Empower All, Inc., boasts over 13 years of expertise in elementary and STEM education. As one of the first two graduates in the Educational Equity Doctoral Program from North Carolina State University, she is a trailblazer, dedicated to diversifying the teacher pipeline, increasing representation in STEM, addressing the mental-health crisis facing our youth, and ensuring equitable education for all students.

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