By Sonia Banker

Sonia Banker is a high school senior in San Francisco and is a part of the ACLU’s Youth Liberty Squad and Arts Justice Council. To hear more student voices on social justice issues, check out the creative journal founded by Sonia and the Youth Liberty Squad at

When the pandemic began in March 2020, millions of California students like me were forced into social isolation. We fell into a rhythm of normalizing the abnormal, waiting for technical difficulties to subside during class, reading textbooks in solitude for homework, then returning to Zoom for the next school day. I began to feel a sense of purposelessness, without face-to-face interactions with peers and teachers.

Some hope was restored in April 2020 when I came across the ACLU of NorCal’s Arts Justice webpage. It was inspiring to see an organization advocating for arts education as a civil right. As someone singing in choirs since the age of eight, I understand the transformational, unifying, and healing power of the arts. Writing poetry, and other forms of art, also helped me find my voice, and  continue to support my wellness.

However, the ACLU webpage shared statistics about California’s most vulnerable students having the least access to arts education. Students who are low-income, BIPOC, disabled, or English learners are significantly less likely to have art access. This inequality exists despite California law requiring schools to provide comprehensive arts education. After being inspired to take action, I reached out to an ACLU lawyer and have worked as the Arts Justice Fellow ever since. 

The survey completed by students across California also found that over half of California’s students might require mental health services as a result of the pandemic.

During my fellowship, I contributed to different initiatives with the ACLU’s Youth Liberty Squad that advocated for arts education, wellness, and student mental health. As part of California’s first Student Mental Health Week in May 2020, I joined students from over 100 schools in signing on to a letter to Governor Newsom and other state officials demanding mental health services and wellness opportunities in schools. The letter included findings from our survey where students reported music, dance, and media arts as three of the most supportive activities during the pandemic. The survey completed by students across California also found that over half of California’s students might require mental health services as a result of the pandemic. We demanded action and a meeting with state officials in the letter. We had the support of over 30 organizations like the California Association of School Counselors and the California Association of School Psychologists.

After receiving little response from state officials, we launched a fall 2020 petition demanding they Support Counselors Not Cops and Arts Not Arrests. We received over 5,000 signatures for the petition that asked state officials to do better for the 400,000 California students in schools that lack a counselor but have a police officer. As a result of our advocacy, I met with representatives in the California Legislature and the State Board of Education. State leaders began proposing historic investments into school-based mental health in 2021, but the arts were still being ignored.

Although this was described as the “biggest appropriation in decades for arts and music programs,” these funds would only serve students in grades K-6.

In his proposed budget for 2022, Governor Newsom allocated $937 million to support the arts through the Expanded Learning Opportunity Program. Although this was described as the “biggest appropriation in decades for arts and music programs,” these funds would only serve students in grades K-6. Furthermore, there was no additional funding or attention to student mental health in the proposed 2022 budget. Dissatisfied with our state leaders again, we launched another petition demanding that they prioritize student health, wellness, and arts education for all students. 

As the pandemic impacted school district budgets, arts and music teachers were often the first in line to be cut. Some California school districts have even proposed laying off all school counselors despite the unprecedented mental health crisis. Cal State University Long Beach and ACLU California Action recently released the first “State of Student Wellness” report detailing the crisis. Report findings from surveys completed by students in 2020 and 2021 show that student mental health needs are at a crisis level and require immediate attention.

  • Roughly one-fifth (22%) of students  felt they might be traumatized because of the pandemic.
  • Over 63% of students reported experiencing an emotional meltdown and
  • 45% of students reported feeling depressed.

This is why we are asking state officials to do better for California’s students. Click here to sign the latest petition or visit

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