“I want to see schools where mental health issues are looked at just as any other physical challenges. And there will no longer be barriers, stigma or discrimination to stop us," says Quynh Giang, a youth advocate in the Safe to Learn youth-led film, Don't Fail Us. Giang joined forces with three other young people from around the world to share their experiences of violence – whether bullying, discrimination, gender-based violence, or lack of a safe school environment. Their experiences reflect the reality of the millions of children facing violence in and through schools each year. And they are demanding action from world leaders to end violence and transform education systems.
The film, including Giang’s individual film, were launched at the UN Secretary General’s Transforming Education Summit (TES) in September. TES provided a unique opportunity for political leaders to forge a new social contract for education – one where violence prevention is right at the heart of efforts to accelerate progress on education.
Giang was invited to speak on the film and found themselves rubbing shoulders with delegates from around the world. This made them reflect on their role as an advocate and the lasting change young people are trying to bring.
Below Giang shares their personal journey of advocacy, of how the voice of young people was heard alongside leaders setting the global agenda on education.
“Some New Yorkers are born. Some are made. All are welcome.”
The line was written in white bold letters, banging in my dizzy sight and screaming stomach. As I was struggling to get heads or tails of whatever was happening, I followed the crowd to the left, ignoring my body running riot of fatigue. On the second turn, I was struck by the most peculiar thing ever: giant snakes of colorful people slithering through the security gate, all so different, so stunning, so alive!
All of a sudden, I took a step back and held on to my body as if it was about to vanish. I - Asian, crew cut, flamboyant red Japanese coat, blue floral baggy pants - who had just landed 5 minutes ago in a city 14,000km from home, then agonized over how to flee as fast and far as possible.
My name is Quynh Giang, which - in Vietnamese - means pure flowers by the riverside. Since I was a kid, I had a dream of enchanting the world with magic so that the bad guys would be knocked down and humans lived in happiness forever after. At the age of 4, I found out that magic was real and hid itself in form of dancing. I knew the very moment I swung myself in the ballet room that I was born for it, and I could dance to save the world! A dancing heroine, how cool could that be?
However, there came one day, I felt weird. More precisely, things first started with my head, then spread to my chest, my hand, my stomach, then ended up with the whole body. People called it “growing up”, but I felt as if there was something more swelling, taking over and driving me to the edges all the time. I tried to lock that monster up in the closet and continued to cloak myself as a well-rounded student, living up to the great expectation of my parents and teachers.
Everything was still under control, til one day, grandma passed away, which shortly after dad followed her footsteps. The monster was, eventually, let out.
School, ever since, turned into a draining reality, where everyday was a battle between dire fear, anxiety, distress, and the desire to fit in, to be normal, to be back who I was before. The headphone was always at its max volume, the only weapon I had to protect myself from the overwhelming urge to explode at any moment and the hanging shadow of death over my head. Also, I developed an eating disorder called bulimia nervosa, which means more often than not I will throw up all the food I have consumed. The school toilet became my go-to-place, for when I got panic attack, suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, crying spells, purging, or simply when I felt overwhelmingly lonely in the classroom.
Nevertheless, I won…
The noise brought me back to the present. Since everything seemed a bit chaotic, I tried to pull myself together by focusing on some random heads. I loved looking at people’s heads and wild guessed what was happening inside that tiny box. Everyone had a whole universe residing in their head, and it was that mystery and inner gravity that drew us together. Yet, hardly anybody knew this, which made the story sometimes problematic. What I was doing, was to share stories, voice concerns, call for action, and raise awareness of mental health issues. In other words, I was making our universes known.
Yes, I am a mental health youth advocate.
After getting through the gate, I found myself a good spot to wait for the baggage. Meanwhile, I tried to run my mind through scripts I had prepared on the previous 25-hour flight.
Last few months, I was lucky enough to be one of the 4 youth participants co-producing the creative youth-led film “Don’t Fail Us”, where we got to share our experience of violence in and around school, from which point we called on world leaders to urgently act to end violence now. And as I thumbed through pages…
“Josephine from Sierra Leone experienced childhood sexual violence both at home and at school. For years, she suffers from practice of sex for grade.
Falastin, an immigrant from Kenya, had to withstand the great discrimination and bullying from peers due to her background and religion. Her school teachers, despite acknowledging the matter, decided to ignore.
Jesus, a 14-year-old young boy from Colombia, has lost out on school for a couple of years due to refugee status and violence around his school.
And me, an adolescent who constantly struggled with school and learning loss due to mental health issues and lack of support.
Although our experiences are individual and unique, they reflect the global reality that 246 million young people are facing every year.”
…my heart grasped. Despite hundreds of times I had read through and watched their stories, I was still left with a mix of emotions and doubts.
What had we been doing wrong that we had to suffer that much from such early ages? We were supposed to have a safe and protective environment for our well-being and development. We were supposed to have full access to child rights. We were supposed to be listened to. We were supposed to be loved.
I then remembered, I was in New York for a mission: To say to world leaders “Don’t Fail Us”!
As I stood in the cooling breeze at JFK AirTrain station, sloppy bundles of baggage in one hand, note of subway information in the other, I knew there was no way I could get back.
The next 10 days in New York were…peculiar.
I shook hands with a lot of strangers whose names were so hard to remember and positions were too high to figure out. I made friends, I met Emily and Chloe from Safe to Learn, and Emma, Kate, and Jess from UNICEF, then I got introduced to Joy Phumaphi - Board Co-Chair of the End Violence Partnership, a very kind and heartwarming lady. I was one of hundreds of delegates at Transforming Education Summit who drowned in admiration and inspiration when the Secretary-General of the UN got to speak. I even had a conversation with Queen of Spain who I thought was the name of a band at first, because who would believe that one day I woke up and talked to the Queen about mental health anyway? But I did, New York loved to surprise you!
Amazing as it may sound, I was washed away with vulnerability and fear when I started introducing the main film. For the first time ever, I traveled half the world to bring our hidden secrets to the light with nothing but a heart and hope. I was unarmed!
What if they did not trust us? What if the film was not enough? What if nothing would change after all? Or if I could have made it better?
And when the individual film about me was launched at the Mental Health Event, I finally collapsed in tears, in front of so many ministers, world leaders, and peers. I received lots of compliments on the film and some said it was possibly the best short film they had ever seen for years. They loved how it reflected reality, in such a relatable, truthful way. I cried, because that was when I knew, my voice was heard! And soon, all our voices would be too.
I learnt that although we do share the same goals which is to promote children's rights and empower children, we have very different levels of youth advocacy, due to our various backgrounds. Therefore, we should really take our domestic culture and political differences into consideration before expecting what a UNICEF Youth Advocate should do. For example, while I am trying to inspire and spread the words about mental health, my friends have more opportunities to join the legislation, and work with the government. Others find it easier to become ambassadors of NGOs or private sectors. None of these is less significant.
I learnt that our advocacy is not a project, it is a journey! Rather than calling for action and making it good for 3-6 months, what we really need to focus on is sustainability and practicality in the long term, for a lifetime.
I learnt to be more confident in myself and that what I was doing was not trivial at all. When you step outside, it is always easy to feel so small that you start to question your ability, but it does not work that way. We come from various backgrounds, we are different, and everyone has their own unique story.
And yet, the world is so vast that no matter how hard I try to make sense of it, I am just a dot on that map of people, emotions, languages, cultures, nature and millions of other fractures. I did not know what I did not know, and thanks to the trip, I now know that I know nothing. The journey of becoming a cartographer on our own can sometimes be scary, daunting and challenging, but at the end of the day, you get a life, and that is the fun of it.
I am aware that what I was and am doing now is just the start of something new, nicer, better and bigger. I myself can not change the world, of how we live, we think, we feel, we are aware of. But together, we can turn it into a safer place, a cradle of happiness and well-being just like what I have long been dreaming of.
“Some New Yorkers are born. Some are made. All are welcome.”
The line once again banged in my sight, and I knew it was true, all were welcome in New York. There I stood, at the security gate, sloppy bundles of baggage on one hand and a pizza on the other, all I knew so well “It is just the start, it always is!”.
Goodbye New York, for now!
The demands of Giang, and fellow Safe to Learn film advocates are echoed in the Safe to Learn Call to Action. This sets out in high-level terms what needs to happen to end violence in schools and calls on governments to strengthen legislation, policy and investment to prevent and respond to violence. And the Together to #ENDviolence Policy proposal to make schools safe, non-violent and inclusive is calling for political action – for governments and donors to invest and plan to update their education sector plans, implementing measures to make all schools safe for girls and boys.
With young people like Giang, End Violence continues to amplify the calls to action of children and bring them to leadership around the world – be it for safer schools, safe online spaces, home and communities. Read more what End Violence is doing to make schools Safe to Learn, and meet other inspiring young people End Violence is working with to drive change.