Loren Muwonge has lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin all her life. A senior in high school, Loren’s passion for the future of her city is as striking as her résumé. In addition to being a star student in the top percentile of her graduating class, Loren is the district 2 representative for the Milwaukee County Youth Commission, where she promotes civic engagement and provides a student perspective to policymakers charged with advancing educational and racial equity among Milwaukee youth. She is also a member of the Student Enrichment Program for Underrepresented Professions (StEP-UP) at the Medical College of Wisconsin; a Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) scholar at Princeton; and an active volunteer for her church’s community outreach programs. In October, she spoke at a national policy summit on young adult mental health sponsored by the Jed Foundation.
When Loren speaks about what compelled her to advocate for education reform, equity and inclusion, and mental wellbeing on the national stage, she emphasizes the local roots of her activism. A 2018 study by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program found that Milwaukee had the highest “black-white segregation” of any American metropolitan area. This modern reality is largely due to decades of redlining, the discriminatory practice of denying loans and services to certain neighborhoods classified as “hazardous” to investment—the effects of which Loren has personally witnessed. As a Youth Commissioner, her initiatives include addressing and repairing the harm wrought by redlining in Milwaukee, as well as education reform, equitable resource distribution, and mental and behavioral healthcare access for low-income youth and students of color.
During her Youth Commission’s swearing-in ceremony, Milwaukee County Executive David Crowley, who himself served on the county’s first-ever youth commission, remarked of the initiative, “Too often young voices go unheard; their problems, they go unaddressed, and a vicious cycle of disengagement and neglect perpetuates the problems that we see each day.”
In hearing her story, it is clear that Loren’s voice, and those she amplifies, will not go unheard.
LearningWell had the privilege to interview Loren Muwonge, and the following is a summary of our conversation.
LearningWell: What would you like LearningWell readers to know about your background and how you began your advocacy journey?
Muwonge: I come from a redlined area in Wisconsin, one of the most segregated places in the nation. So, it’s really obvious and sometimes discouraging to see how that segregation manifests in my community, where some neighborhoods look better than others, and the areas that look worse and have fewer opportunities are the ones that are predominantly populated by minorities and people of color. That has led a lot of my advocacy work—seeing how redlining affects quality of life for residents, such as low-income communities having worse air quality than their suburban counterparts.
LearningWell: How did your advocacy work begin to include student mental health?
Muwonge: I’m very inspired by Fred Hampton [of the Black Panther Party]. I was impressed and inspired by Hampton’s efforts to improve the success of his community by creating a free breakfast program for school children. I looked at my community, my peers, and their needs and I began to identify that my community can’t truly thrive without accounting for the mental health of the students. And for me, it really just became a matter of, okay, right now there is a need to improve mental health, especially in my district, in relation to the pandemic and the rising crime that we’re seeing with school shootings. I realized the best way that I could help was accounting for the mental health of my community by directly listening to the concerns of my peers.
LearningWell: Why is it important for education policymakers, administrators, and faculty to hear student perspectives on mental health and wellbeing?
Muwonge: We are the people directly affected by education policy, and while professionals may be able to look at data to assess trends—they might even spend time in the classroom, proctoring, observing—they can’t experience it firsthand. The data doesn’t replace the firsthand experience of being a student at this moment in time. We live in an evolving nation, with new factors affecting education, such as A.I., the rise in school shootings, and the student experience during the pandemic. It would be to their benefit if policymakers would talk to those directly affected, since we can provide feedback, voice our concerns, and give a human perspective that the data can’t.
LearningWell: Based on your K-12 experience, do you believe that student wellbeing is a priority in American education?
Muwonge: I do not believe that student wellbeing is a priority in American public schools. There are many aspects to that issue, including the hours that teachers are working. I believe that teachers in America are undervalued, and they’re not given adequate support, whether it be for school supplies, resources, or fair pay. And I think that truly seeps into the education that students receive, because teachers don’t have enough time to account for factors such as wellbeing, especially since there are many parameters set in place that make it difficult for teachers to help and intervene. And then there are limits on their time; they have so much curricular content to get through, and they’re not being adequately supported themselves.
LearningWell: Much of LearningWell’s audience is involved in higher education. What would you like them to know about the student experience? As you prepare to head to college, what do you hope to see on campus in terms of mental health, equity and inclusion, or student wellbeing?
Muwonge: I’d like them to account for the fact that while everyone who pursues higher education has worked hard to be there, not everybody has been adequately supported to thrive in that place. And it’s important to consider the fact that many people may not have the necessary K-12 education that they need to succeed in higher education. They may not have the financial support that they need to thrive, whether they struggle with tuition costs or just being able to afford groceries, transportation, or visiting family back home if they attend college out of state. Again, everybody’s worked hard to be there, but not everybody’s being adequately supported to thrive. What I hope to see when I get to college is financial freedom, financial security for myself and my peers. I’d like to see universities place an emphasis on requiring all students to pursue an internship or some sort of professional experience within their college education, because analyzing the statistics of our nation right now, a college education in most cases isn’t enough. Many colleges do have access to different internship opportunities, but not all students utilize them or even know about those programs. If colleges were encouraging or even requiring students to gain exposure in their fields, I believe it would help set their students up for success.
LearningWell: You’re now a high school senior in the midst of the college application process. Do you anticipate that institutions’ mental health programs and resources will have any bearing on your college decision?
Muwonge: A lack of mental health services would be extremely deterring. I’ve done some research into wellbeing resources, and it has weeded out certain colleges. If I find that they aren’t able to adequately support and account for my and my peers’ mental health, especially when you’re considering out-of-state colleges where you won’t have in-state insurance, or you won’t have family close by, it affects the decision. If you are low-income, it may not be as easy to afford mental health services, and it’s important for me to go to a university that will accommodate that. If I’m investing into this university for my education, I’d like to see that what I invest is going to serve me and my peers.
LearningWell: Do you plan on continuing your advocacy work when you go to college?
Muwonge: I’m intentional about making a home somewhere that has convenient transportation and is a walkable city. That way I’m able to contribute to different communities and local organizations, so that I can continue serving in a way that is bigger than myself and bigger than my college campus.