Dr. Sarah Bennison is the co-founder and CEO of the Mattering Movement, an organization focused on combating the pandemic of loneliness and despair—that is, a widespread mattering deficit—that’s harming today’s youth. What follows is a conversation between Sarah and R.E.A.L. Founder Liza Garonzik. This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
Liza: Welcome, Sarah, we’re so excited to have you join us. I’ve been obsessed with the Mattering Movement since you first started. Could you tell us your path to the Mattering Movement? And what is your mission?
Sarah: Well, the mission actually connects to my personal path to the Mattering Movement. I was trying to figure out, in my own career, how to connect my academic background and interest in teaching with genuine needs in the world. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve juggled with this. I started teaching in New York City Public schools in the South Bronx, then eventually moved on to teach graduate students at NYU, who were themselves working in high-needs schools.
In 2017, I had this great opportunity to work with the senior leadership team at Trinity School in New York who were very interested in creating an innovative, imaginative, new conception of what service learning could mean. Trinity is in a very diverse pocket of New York City, and it was founded as a charity school that was part of Trinity Church Wall Street. I ended up creating a program that was rooted in the power of proximity—which is, you know, Bryan Stevenson’s catchphrase, not mine. I developed what we called our Community Circle partners: 15 community-based organizations all within five blocks of the school. On any given day, students could devote free periods to working weekly in the community. Through local work, students were learning about systemic inequalities in the world, including educational inequity, food insecurity, housing inequality, the elderly, and difference and disability.
I was tasked with shifting the culture at that school, which was — as many of these high-achieving schools are — focused on self-advancement, the college process, etc. We made a lot of headway, and if you go to Trinity today, you’ll hear people speaking in a different language about service learning and about the social impact of the work they’re doing.
Anecdotally, I had seen the transformative mental health benefits of this work—not only for kids, but for families, and for teachers and faculty and staff. I started asking myself: How can I take what I’ve done at Trinity and amplify it? How can we expose all different kinds of kids to this? And importantly, how can we engage kids in different kinds of schools, even schools that don’t have resources?
In the Fall of 2022, a friend and I gathered a small group of people across sectors, many experts in their field, to talk about engaging families in meaningful social impact work. The conversation quickly turned to the youth mental health crisis, the pressure our kids are facing, and concerns about how to shift the focus of our kids’ lives toward community, connection, and meaning beyond self-advancement. Jennie Wallace was part of the conversation. She and I immediately connected, because as I was talking, I saw her nodding. And then when she was talking, I was nodding. At that time, Jennie was in the final stages of editing Never Enough, coming off four years of researching families and achievement culture across the United States. What she uncovered in her research is this important concept of mattering. She found that people who have a strong sense of “mattering” were those who are able to navigate the pressures of achievement culture and were less likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and mental health issues. Mattering was a protective psychological buffer against life’s ups and downs.
As we got to talking, I said: I never knew that word, “mattering.” But now I realized everything I had done at Trinity was about allowing people to feel valued for who they are at their core and being relied on to add value to the world around them.
Within days, Jennie and I decided to start a movement around this, and two women who were also at the coffee reached out to join us. Our team of four volunteers started working on the Mattering Movement full time along with an amazing advisory council and academic advisors. Every single day we read about the mental health crisis, and we wanted to take action. The Mattering Movement was born out of all those factors.
Liza: That’s amazing. For folks who haven’t read Never Enough yet—and I hope that all of our readers do read it — what is “Mattering”? Is there a research base beyond Jenny’s work that supports the concept?
Sarah: Yes. In the 1980s, a psychologist named Morris Rosenberg was studying self-esteem in teenagers. He was asking similar questions about which high schoolers struggled with mental health issues and which were able to navigate life’s ups and downs. He found that a strong sense of “mattering” was correlated with lower rates of anxiety, depression, and higher levels of self-esteem.
Since then, there’s been a growing body of literature about this psychological construct of mattering. Some of the leading “mattering” scholars today include a scholar at the University of Miami named Isaac Prilleltensky and Gordon Flett, who has just written a seminal book called The Psychology of Mattering. These are some of the people who are on our Academic Advisory Board.
The research on mattering is a growing field, and it’s becoming a well-known, powerful lens for understanding — in its most basic definition — the feeling of being valued for who you are at your core, outside of any extrinsic factors and regardless of successes and failures and adding value to the world around you. Mattering is a cycle. When you feel valued, you’re more likely to add value. When you add value, you feel valued. With a few, easy steps, you can increase mattering in your own life and improve your mental health. We have toolkits for parents, teachers and kids to teach you how.
Liza: I love the simplicity of the idea that mattering is feeling valued for who you are at your core and feeling as if you have something valuable to contribute. A lot of the key indicators we look for and use to define success in discussion for individual kids are things like: I believe I have a unique perspective to add to the conversation. I think paying attention to how conversation can help us become more interdependent again and help reinforce that individuals matter is so exciting.
What do you see as the relationship between conversation and mattering?
Sarah: I think the work you are doing is the foundation of mattering. I think the power of conversation is that you can actually demonstrate that the person you are talking to is truly seen, heard, and valued. And you’re absolutely right: it’s a skill that comes more naturally for some people than others. But we don’t take time to teach our kids this. And it’s more than just talking. A conversation with the right skills is mattering in action.
Liza: I love that, and it makes me think of Mary Parker Follet, who was a business guru who coached corporate executives on how to lead meetings. She had three principles: 1) expect to be needed, 2) expect to be changed, and 3) expect to need others. And the sign of a good meeting was when those three things happened. That’s something that has deeply informed how we’ve designed R.E.A.L., and I think it’s connected to what you’re saying as well.
Tell me: at The Mattering Movement, how do you partner with schools? What kinds of resources have you created to help schools build cultures of mattering?
Sarah: We are releasing our first-of-its-kind mattering curriculum with a small pilot program in January 2024. By late spring/early summer, we will be offering a full package which is a unit of eight lessons. Importantly, we’ve realized that it’s not enough to just offer lessons for kids — we are also developing lessons for teachers, called our Teachers Matter companion. We want to foster mattering for teachers, and there’s a real mattering deficit, as you know.
The other thing we are working on is our administrator toolkit. The idea here is to offer really accessible tools and resources for things like faculty meetings, cultivating mattering in school cultures, fostering places where people really know each other’s stories and their core gifts and values.
We are also considering a small parent companion, because we see ourselves as sitting at the intersection of schools, parents, and teachers, and we think that mattering is a very powerful common language that can serve as a bridge.
Liza: I appreciate that you’re starting out with the intention to not just focus on student outcomes, but also to take care of the adults who are caring and developing students. Congratulations on this — we are so excited to see where it goes. Thank you so much, Sarah.
Sarah: Thank you for your support! A conversation like this is inspiring and means the world to us. We’re cheering for you and everything you’re doing.