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[UNIFIERS] Dustin Young + Lee Johnson Create Wellness Spaces for Underserved Youth

Our Own is retrofitting American schools to include wellness pods for economically disadvantaged students. 

By Adebukola Ajao, she/her

How can socio-economically disadvantaged students receive a good education when there are so many barriers? Whether it’s local violence, homelessness, not having enough food to eat, racial inequity—or PTSD from it all—Black and Brown students have so many obstacles that prevent them from fully engaging in school settings. To this day, there are many American schools that still feel like prisons, from the metal detectors and cinderblock walls to the cold classrooms and rundown books. Not taking the pandemic and its effects into account only further strains the mental health of these Gen Zers, and their ability to be successful throughout their education is further threatened.

Now imagine a world where every student received a quality education free of bias and full of support for their mental health. 

Dustin Young and Lee Johnson are two Black men building the infrastructure for how wellness can and should look for disadvantaged youth in public schools. The mission-driven duo created a solution called Our Own, a non-profit organization that provides services including mental health support, entrepreneurship development, and nutrition education.

Young, a therapeutic behavioral specialist, and Johnson, a branding expert, are starting with their beloved Los Angeles, where communities of color like Inglewood, Compton, Watts, and Long Beach face a lack of resources coupled with the fact that many failing schools are not holistically addressing students' needs as they should be. Young and Johnson figured since students spend a significant amount of time at school anyway, why not bring the solutions into the spaces they are legally bound to for eight to ten months out of the year? Students in these socio-economically disadvantaged communities of Los Angeles (mostly Black and Brown students) don’t have enough access to physical wellness spaces that could contribute positively to their overall well-being. 

Now, Young and Johnson are building wellness pods for public schools in LA at no cost to the school. These structural wellness spaces have a purpose that’s two-fold.

“We want young people to understand that their wellness is not just a luxury but a necessity, and to help them remember they deserve it,” said Johnson.

Their secondary purpose is to redesign how schools administer wellness in a culturally relevant manner and provide, according to the duo, “a holistic approach to community building, and change up what non-profits look like.” In other words, they are building the blueprint to help youth see wellness in a whole new, welcoming light, all the while creating an innovative space that uplifts the entire community by helping young people as they pave the way for their own bright futures.

According to their website, Our Own’s wellness spaces are designed with modern aesthetics in mind and will feature “individual meditation pods, group meditation areas, yoga mats, and immersive technology.” Not only that, the non-profit plans to curate weekly programming, monthly activations, teacher retreats and training, and wraparound mentorship with students’ wellness front and center.

While Our Own is a non-profit that offers many resources and approaches to wellness from different angles, one of their key projects is the Our Own Wellness Pods for Los Angeles’ disadvantaged students and students of color through structural wellness spaces integrated within their schools. 

In our interview, Young expressed in interest the pods giving the students their own individual time to disconnect from reality. Using touch-screen media players with wireless headphones, students can check out from their regular day-to-day and completely immerse themselves in the space. 

“We will have group sessions, but it is important to create space for students who may just need a moment to gather themselves with a recorded guided meditation, sound bath, or music grooves from a selection of curated playlists,” said Young.

What really sets Our Own apart from other wellness nonprofits is their focus on design. Young and Johnson believe having a well-designed space is better for anyone’s mental acuity, especially that of a young person. 

“If you look good, you feel good. We understand what design stands for us culturally. It’s like getting a fresh pair of Jordans—that feeling is indescribable,“ said Johnson. 

Their fresh design theory is based on retrofitting, which is defined by IGI Global as “an approach to accessibility and inclusion in the classroom which focuses on removing barriers encountered by students with disabilities, after the facts, through individual support measures.”

In the midst of the overwhelming state of the world, in 2020, VSCO reported that Gen Z uses creativity as a form of wellness as they cope with the pandemic and the unforeseen circumstances it has left them in. 

So instead of suspension, Young and Johnson are bringing restorative justice. Instead of trying to resolve the personal issues of students in a cinderblock, white-walled classroom, they are creating a space designed to calm students and provide them with the tools they need to decompress, breathe, and meditate.

“You can’t solve a problem with a single solution,” said Johnson. Students need support that evolves with them. They need support that is intentional and pays attention to their cultural background, and they need different support options to truly help them find their peace.

While Young and Johnson have garnered cool partnerships since their launch, they are still working with limited resources and need support to bring Our Own spaces to schools across the country and help as many students as possible. Our Own is currently in contract with Inglewood Public Schools to begin building at a local high school, with the goal of having 100 pods across the nation in the next few years. To learn more about their important mission and how to support the cause, visit OurOwn.com.

Written by Adebukola Ajao for Youth To The People