Destigmatizing access to mental health services for youth

An interview with Jessica Greenawalt, co-founder and executive director of The Arthur Project.

Jessica Greenawalt

Jessica Greenawalt Courtesy of the Arthur Project

As the mental health needs of New York City youth have deepened, so has the response of The Arthur Project - a therapeutic mentoring program serving the city’s most vulnerable youth. New York Nonprofit Media spoke with Jessica Greenawalt, co-founder and executive director of The Arthur Project about her path to co-create an innovative model that destigmatizes youth’s access to critical mental health services. Utilizing social work students as therapeutic mentors, The Arthur Project also serves as a training institute for culturally responsive social workers who are equipped to meet the evolving needs of New York City residents. 

Greenawalt - a licensed clinical social worker who holds a doctorate in sociology and social work - talks about her path to The Arthur Project, and what's in store for the program in the coming years.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

I’d love to learn more about your professional background. When did you know you wanted to be a social worker? What initially drew you to this field?

I’ve always known I would be in some kind of helping profession ever since I was a child –  probably not coincidentally because my mother is a social worker and there was a general ethos of social justice in my household growing up. It’s a path I’ve stayed on for almost twenty years - both because I really enjoy being in a field that recognizes the power of human relationships and also because I feel compelled to leverage my abilities in service of a world where everyone has access to the opportunities I’ve had the privilege to enjoy.  

When did you know that your next move would be to start a new organization? What need or opportunity did you see that you believed couldn't be addressed through existing organizations?

Starting a non-profit organization was something that always lived in the back of my mind, but it was serendipitous that The Arthur Project is where I took that leap. I was introduced to my other co-founders (Jeff Muti and Liz Murray) at a time where I was asking myself big questions about how to apply my newly earned Ph.D. and my years of experience working with youth. When Jeff and Liz asked if I’d help launch a therapeutic mentoring organization serving New York City middle school students, it felt like the answer to my big questions. One of the things that excited me most was that we were carving out a space between mentoring and mental health services where New York City’s most vulnerable youth could access quality therapeutic services under the umbrella of a fun, engaging, culturally responsive mentoring relationship. It was exciting to create a model which destigmatizes mental health support and makes it accessible to young people, at a particularly tumultuous time in their development.

Could you describe the work that your organization currently does? Why middle school?

The Arthur Project provides therapeutic mentoring services to middle school students in the Bronx and Brooklyn. We specifically support young people who may be academically disengaged, have unmet social emotional and/or mental health needs. We choose to focus on middle school students specifically because they are the most fun and (thankfully) keep us all from becoming tragically uncool. Anyone who’s had the honor of knowing a middle school student understands they are on top of the latest information, trends and technologies. 

They also happen to be at a point in their lives when so many things are being shaped and discovered. It’s a great time to be in their ecosystem and connect them with a caring, supportive adult. Our hope is that we can make an impact during this particularly flexible time of development. Middle school age programming is also persistently underfunded, so we were eager to step in and fill that gap a little. 

I know from personal experience, and so I always ask this question! Starting a new nonprofit is not an easy road. From where do you draw the strength, purpose or inspiration to pursue this vision?

It probably sounds corny, but I draw purpose from the kids – both the ones we serve through The Arthur Project and my own. You only have to spend a little time with young people to feel the gifts of their energy, optimism, and brilliance. Just having relationships with young people compels me to be part of creating a future free of systemic barriers and with real opportunities for healing, growth and exploration. 

I also draw purpose from my colleagues – the program staff at The Arthur Project are some of the most competent, dedicated, passionate, fun, women I know. I’m humbled to be a part of such a powerful collective and feel a responsibility to support them and their wellness, in addition to that of the mentors and kids. 

What have been the biggest surprises for you in launching or leading this organization?

This doesn’t exactly answer your question, but I’ve realized that the more experience I have, the less I know. Leading an organization requires such a diverse set of skills – I’ve learned that my role is more to harness the expertise of others rather than try to be an expert in everything myself. I feel grateful to be on a lifelong journey of learning and to have so many wonderful teachers around me. 

What’s next for The Arthur Project? Are there big leaps ahead for the organization, challenges you’re looking to overcome, places where you’re planning to grow or deepen your impact?

The Arthur Project is on the brink of implementing a three-year strategic plan – a plan that includes goals to deepen our impact on a programmatic level and scale and disseminate our model. Additionally, we are strategically exploring how we can solidify our standing as a training institute for culturally responsive social workers. We’ve developed such a rigorous practical learning experience for social work students, and we are eager to institutionalize our practices.  It’s an exciting time for the organization but with these strategic goals comes the need to expand our capacity and resources. We are excited to strengthen our relationships with current funding partners and establish new partnerships that can transform our collective work and impact. 

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you change for young people in New York City?

How big is the wand? All jokes aside, I of course would want to create a more just, more equitable society for all people - young and old. Pain and hardship will always be a part of life, but if I could wave a wand and eliminate systemic barriers to health and happiness, I certainly would take that opportunity. I guess another way of saying it is that I’d create more opportunities for joy and for liberation.