February 16, 2021
An Artistic and Student-Led Approach to Addressing Issues Impacting Black and Brown Youth: The Paragon Project

For as long as he can remember, Fort Hayes Metro Education Center assistant principal Dr. Tony Anderson has been passionate about music. As a kid growing up in Columbus, you’d often find him listening to the likes of KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane and other artists who were shaping youth culture worldwide in the ‘90s. Dr. Anderson always found music to be therapeutic, but it wasn’t until he was a teacher that he considered meshing social and emotional wellness concepts and music as a way to address the issues impacting youth.

In 2015, when Dr. Anderson was hired at Fort Hayes, some students came to him wanting to create an artistic response to the growing racial unrest. A short time later, The Paragon Project was born with a goal to use music to address social issues impacting youth. The Paragon Project, which recently released its fourth album and is written and performed by Fort Hayes students, uses hip-hop and R&B to tackle important topics like peer pressure, depression and drug and alcohol use.

“My work as a hip-hop educator started with Black boys, but my work today with The Paragon Project involves Black and Brown students of all gender identities. The projects that this group creates could be shared with other practitioners around the country to educate them about the issues and ways to approach topics related to socioemotional wellness with the populations they serve,” said Dr. Anderson.

A free discussion guide comes with the latest visual album to provide a deeper look at each song and to help promote conversations about family relationships, drug use, and mental health concerns between teachers, parents, caregivers and students.

The track titled, “I Need New Friends” talks about the peer pressure to try drugs. The song is about a girl that is facing peer pressure from a group of classmates that are making unhealthy decisions. The discussion guide notes that teenage drug use among African American youth is on the rise and provides risk factors for substance abuse as well as protective factors for substance use.

Targeted efforts like these to prevent drug misuse in African American communities is important as Ohio ranks fifth in the U.S. for the number of African Americans that died from an opioid-related overdose in 2018. Death rates involving synthetic opioids have increased by 818% among the African American population over the last few years as well.[1]

The Paragon Project’s culturally responsive approach to addressing depression, drug use and other issues impacting Black and Brown youth has been very impactful, to say the least.

Emma Arnold, a student at Fort Hayes, singer and multi-instrumentalist, said being a part of The Paragon Project has allowed her to voice her feelings in a healthy way. “I’ve never been in an environment where people understood me, and it warmed my heart and soul to know there are people who understand.”

Fellow classmate, rapper and multi-instrumentalist Tavian Gray said, “Being part of The Paragon Project is a way for me to communicate to those who feel that they don’t have a voice, especially dealing with mental health … I want those that felt they don’t have anybody to run to, I want them to understand it’s OK to talk to people about [mental health issues].”

Even students who are not part of The Paragon Project can benefit from the initiative through the albums and discussion guide. For example, the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health (ADAMH) Board of Franklin County – a member of the Opioid Alliance – recently used the album and discussion guide to address issues facing students enrolled in virtual or on-site summer day camps supported by ADAMH.

“ADAMH is proud to sponsor this program that allows teens to explore their own experiences and hone their skills while inspiring other teens to address key social and emotional learning competencies of self-awareness, social awareness, responsible decision-making, self-management and relationship skills,” said Dr. Kevin Dixon, ADAMH vice president of community and cultural engagement.

The Ohio State University, Central State University and other schools around the country have also conducted focus groups to discuss the album’s content. You can view recap videos from some of these sessions here.

Dr. Anderson is proud of his student’s work and credits many people for the program’s success, “The Paragon Project is the culmination of the hard work of the students, their teachers and the wonderful parents and families that collectively entrusted me with their dreams. I’m just fortunate to be positioned to help them.”

If you work with urban youth, resources are available from The Paragon Project to address mental health, drug prevention and other issues impacting teens. Visit www.theparagonproject.org for more information.


[1] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The Opioid Crisis and the Black/African American Population: An Urgent Issue. April 2020.

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