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Welcome back, we have reached episode #80 on the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning podcast. You can watch this interview on YouTube here. 

My name is Andrea Samadi,  I’m a former educator who created this podcast to bring the most current neuroscience and educational research, matched with social and emotional skills, with interviews from experts from all different fields, to bring awareness, ideas and strategies to our most pressing issues that we are facing, as educators, or parents, to keep all of us working at our highest levels of productivity. I’ve been interested in understanding why some people reach such high levels of achievement, and others don’t…since the late 1990s, and recent discoveries in neuroscience has accelerated our understanding of this.  I do appreciate the feedback I’ve received through social media. It helps me to know that these topics are helping to bring some new thoughts, ideas and hope when times have never been so uncertain.

Today we have Samantha Wettje, the Founder of the 16Strong Project[i], created in 2018 at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  If you are in the field of education, you will have heard of the importance of understanding ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences that we did touch on with our last episode) and our next guest is on a serious mission to help our next generation of learners recognize and navigate the challenges they might be facing as a result of ACES in their life.

When I received an email from one of Samantha’s colleagues about her 16Strong Project, I remember exactly where I was, because it really is true that when you attach emotion to a memory, it’s something you don’t ever forget. When I read that Samantha had created this project in response to her experience of living with a mentally ill and addicted parent, I literally stopped what I was doing to read more. Is all I needed to see in the email was ACES[ii], (that we just spoke about with Eric Jensen on Episode #79[iii],  Harvard and Project…and I was writing an email back to find a time that we could speak so I could learn more about the 16Strong Project, and here we are.

Welcome Samantha, it truly is an honor to speak with you today. I do hope that we can use this platform to help more people learn about this incredible initiative you have created in response to one of the largest problems facing young people today.

Q1: Can you give some background as to why you started the 16Strong Project, and what does 16 Strong mean to you?

Q2: I felt connected to this project BEFORE we spoke on the phone because I had been thinking for quite some time that I needed to find someone that I could speak to on this podcast who had defied the odds that we hear associated with ACES. It’s not an easy topic to bring up with someone, so it was just an idea circled on chart paper on my wall. Find someone to talk about ACES. Eric Jensen opened the conversation in EPISODE #79, giving a brief overview of what ACES are, and the fact that a higher score predicts later life adversity. I know when you are launching a project, it might seem like the project is important to you but will the rest of the world agree. How did my response to your email give you more awareness about the importance and urgency of the 16Strong Project?

Q3: I follow the work of Dr. Daniel Amen[iv], probably one of the most famous psychiatrists and brain disorder specialists in the country. He has been working with Justin Bieber on his brain health, (he likes to call mental health brain health since when our brain works right, we work right—so his work is all around keeping our brain healthy). Something I found interesting from his work is that it is being “normal” is a myth. He says that “51% of us will have a mental health issue in our lifetime”[v] (post traumatic stress, depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorder) just to name a few that are the most common issues he sees young people for. I know how important this topic is to him, so I do want to share your project with him (he dedicated his End of Mental Illness[vi] book to his nieces Alize and Amelie who had a difficult upbringing and within the dedication to his book he says “Your history is not your destiny. Let’s end mental illness with your generation.”  What is different about your program from other youth mental health programs you have seen so I can continue to share your work with others who might also like to help bring more awareness to what you are doing?

Q4: I had a chance to read through your website and some of the stories written by students about their personal experience growing with these ACES in their life. I only had ONE ACE growing up, and that was painful enough as a kid. They do say that “to name it, is to tame it” so I can see why these stories would help young people to not just bury the emotions they have connected to what they are feeling. As an adult, these stories were eye openers for me to see how some of these ACES impact young people, especially when you put 2 or more ACES together (like the impacts of drug and alcohol use on a child) it was one of the most painful things I’ve read. Can you explain more about your Every Voice Heard School Initiative[vii] and the awareness you are looking to create with this? How can teachers contact you about this to share a student’s story?

Q5: For anyone listening who is familiar with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, they would know of Professor Stephanie Jones[viii] and her EASEL Lab.[ix] I was sent her “Navigating SEL from the Inside Out[x]” report from a respected colleague who wanted to be sure I had read it. (all 349 pages of it). Can you give an overview of Professor Stephanie Jones’ EASEL Lab, and the work you are currently doing with her now?

Q6: Tell me about your Youth Advisory Board[xi] and who you are looking for with this?

Q7: What do your workshops look like?

Q8: What is your vision for the 16 Strong Project and the legacy that you would like to create with our next generation of students?

Thank you so much for taking the time to share this incredible, timely and important project. For those who want to learn more about your workshops, they can go to your programs page at to learn more.  Wishing you the best of luck with this project that I know is important and needed, especially in our world today.


What’s Your ACE SCORE?



[ii] Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences

[iii] Neuroscience Meets SEL Podcast Episode #79 with Author Eric Jensen on “”Strategies for Reversing the Impact of Poverty and Stress on Student Learning”

[iv] Dr Daniel Amen

[v] Dr. Daniel Amen, Thrive by 25 Online Course

[vi] Dr. Daniel Amen, The End of Mental Illness

[vii] Every Voice Heard Schools Initiative

[viii] Stephanie Jones, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

[ix] EASEL Lab

[x] Navigating SEL from the Inside Out: Looking Inside and Across 25 Leading SEL Programs.

[xi] Learn more about 16 Strong Youth Advisory Board