Communities: Buffalo, NY, Charleston, WV, El Paso, TX, Fitchburg, MA, Louisville, KY, Philadelphia, PA , Watsonville/Pajaro Valley, CA,
In the words of a Charleston, WV youth activist, “It is important for youth to have a voice in the fight against childhood obesity because we are the ones living it. In order to combat the problem, those who experience the problem must be involved in the solution.” Engaging youth from low-income groups and communities of color who are most affected by childhood obesity in advocacy efforts is a promising strategy for childhood obesity prevention for a number of reasons (Millstein et al., 2011). Youth experience the long-term health, psychological, and social impacts of obesity most deeply (Davis et al., 2007). Advocacy involving youth has the potential to maximize change and impact as decision-makers may accept the genuine nature of their motives, and be less likely to reject their requests (Studdert et al., 2006). Additional benefits of youth engagement include improving a variety of developmentally relevant psychosocial processes including self-esteem, self-efficacy, and feelings of empowerment (Chinman & Linney, 1998). Lastly, studies show that young people tend to possess enthusiasm and optimism that has been harnessed to promote community-based changes (Winkleby et al., 2001).
Buffalo, NY: A Youth Voice in Planning and Land Use to Shape a Healthier Buffalo
The HKHC Buffalo partnership planned, marketed and executed a three‐part visioning series to create a community‐wide vision for a healthier Buffalo. In acknowledging the importance of youth buy-in, they worked closely with their partners to determine the best ways to get Buffalo youth out to the meetings. More than 125 people participated in the visioning events, including more than 40 youth in independent youth sessions. The resulting collective vision is displayed at City Hall. The partnership then turned to more specific healthier land use and zoning planning, entitled the Buffalo Green Code. HKHC Buffalo wanted youth to find their voice around land use and zoning. They sponsored a youth-led training to help students learn about land use issues and make connections to their lives, find friends to attend the meetings with, and create talking points so they could convey a clear message about their vision. Other youth-led projects include neighborhood assessments of food availability, walking and biking conditions, and participating in the Erie County’s Agriculture and Farmland Protection planning process. HKHC Buffalo is in the process of securing youth seats on the Buffalo Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board and the Buffalo Food Policy Council. Moving forward, youth representatives have just created a prioritized youth agenda, and are convening a Youth Advisory Council of their own.
Charleston WV: Engaging Youth through Community Partners
The Charleston “KEYS” (Knowledge, Eating Healthy, Youth Being Active, Safety and Empowerment) 4 HealthyKids Partnership recognized the wisdom of collaborating with existing organizations that serve youth by engaging the local YMCA to organize a youth council that focuses on childhood obesity prevention. The Youth Council meets monthly for an hour around school schedules with a meal and transportation home provided. Youth members select a president, secretary, meeting format and neighborhood/school activities. Recently the youth have completed walking audits, and have worked with KEYS partners to host a grocery store tour in Charleston, WV for their U.S. House Representative and their State Delegate to advocate for healthy food access. Thirteen year old KEYS 2 HealthyKids Youth Council president, Mataio Swain, has also become active on the national stage as one of 20 youth selected from around the country for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s Youth Advisory Board. The KEYS partnership is currently working on a Photovoice project that they will eventually present to the school board wellness team to advocate for healthier school and community environments.
El Paso, TX: Youth Join an International Movement for Change
“Ecoclub El Chamizal” is an effort coordinated by the El Paso Healthy Kids, Healthy Communities lead agency, the Pan American Health Organization/ World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) U.S.-Mexico Border Office (USMBO), in collaboration with Project Vida, Chamizal Project and the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso. It is the very first chapter of Ecoclub in the United States formed to develop local youth leaders to tackle the environmental health inequities they face every day. Ecoclubs are independent self-governing groups formed to improve the quality of life of people within their community through active participation in solving environmental problems. Since 1992, thousands of children working in over 30 countries have participated in the International Ecoclubs Network. With adult mentorship from the partnership, three different age-based groups, which range from 5 to 20 years, actively choose which issues to tackle that most affect their community. Specific issues include starting a community garden in a housing project, recycling, water conservation, and working to improve streets by picking up trash and planting trees. The youth are working to host future workshops for the broader community and improve parks for recreational use.
Fitchburg, MA: Youth Advocacy in Motion
Before the HKHC grant, the Montachusett Opportunity Council (MOC) had been supporting a youth group focused on teen pregnancy prevention. When they became an HKHC lead agency, their youth also expanded their scope to include improved nutrition and physical activity with an overall focus on health. Youth peer leaders receive payment for participating in all weekly meetings as well as contribute to and lead special projects. From the beginning, they have attended monthly Fun ‘n FITchburg “Community Mobilization Network” meetings of which they are equal stakeholders amongst a diverse group of policy makers and local experts across key sectors of the community. They engage their peers in healthy eating and active living opportunities endorsed by Fun ‘n FITchburg through outreach and assessment. Following a peer informed park evaluation; the group presented the findings to their local parks and recreation board, are leading a community-wide parks communications campaign “Rock with Fun ‘n FITchburg” to highlight youth and residents being active in Fitchburg’s parks, and have elected to adopt one of the parks in close proximity to the MOC office. They have also traveled to the Massachusetts State House to make a presentation to Senator Jen Flanagan and presented to state workers and representatives as part of the Prevention for Health Caucus. Preparation for presentations involves lots of role-playing, review of data collected through community-wide assessment, and research of their target audience. Their model includes peer to peer mentoring along with recruiting their own replacements following graduation. They are motivated to be involved because they want to be a part of the solution and create a better community where residents are healthy. Providing a unique and essential perspective, MOC’s youth peer leaders have truly become role models for other youth and champions for healthy eating and active living in Fitchburg.
Louisville, KY: Photovoice and Digital Storytelling as a Tool for Neighborhood Advocacy
Over the last two years, HKHC partners in Louisville have been working with youth in three neighborhoods using photovoice and digital storytelling as a policy advocacy tool to inform policies for their neighborhoods around healthy eating and active living. Aided by their photovoice and advocacy training, they have had a number of successful events and gallery showings with metro council members and other city officials. In partnership with the YMCA, four recently hired youth organizers are developing a wider youth coalition that will consist of approximately sixty 15-20 year-olds recruited from existing neighborhood youth groups to help advocate for healthy community policies. The new coalition has prioritized four policies they can work collectively on to research and develop a campaign for: 1) Vacant land issues 2) Street lighting 3) Storefront signage and 4) Youth involvement in community centers. Looking ahead, the coalition will be working on healthy zoning with “Communities United for Health” around healthy eating and active living policies in their neighborhoods.
Philadelphia, PA: Involving Youth in Out of School Time Wellness
The Philadelphia HKHC Partnership has focused the majority of their grant efforts on developing minimum standards for physical activity and nutrition for the Out of School Time (OST) project, a citywide afterschool program consisting of over 200 afterschool providers for Philadelphia children. Recognizing the importance of student buy-in, they established a youth leadership team recruited from these Out of School Time programs in the city. About 10 – 12 middle and high school youth attend each meeting. So far the team has identified barriers and possible solutions to healthy eating and active living. The HKHC Partnership drafted guidelines based on the youth’s input and checked back with the youth to ensure accuracy. Moving forward, the partnership plans for youth to be active in messaging around healthy eating and active living, menu planning and advocacy.
Watsonville/Pajaro Valley, CA: A Successful Model for Youth Advocacy
The existing Jóvenes SANOS youth advocates of Watsonville have established an effective approach towards improving healthy food access and the built environment. Last year the youth successfully advocated for an ordinance to city council in Watsonville to increase healthy options in restaurants. They are currently in the assessment phase of promoting healthy vending policies for the city. To be effective advocates, the youth go through advocacy, public speaking, and data collection training. The youth build their confidence through time and practice so that when they are ready to present they are knowledgeable with subject matter. The youth also recruit their peers and often younger siblings through class presentations, announcements, and posters. A youth advocacy curriculum is being developed so others can learn from their successful process and start similar groups in other areas. In addition to healthy eating, the youth contributed bicycle recommendations that have been incorporated into the Watsonville Bike Plan. The reach of youth in Watsonville goes beyond the city limits. The South County Bicycle and Pedestrian Work Group is also using youth recommendations on pedestrian and bike safety.
HKHC Communities Youth Engagement Work In Process
Led by the City of Rancho Cucamonga’s Healthy RC Kids program, the HKHC Rancho Cucamonga, CA partnership is developing a youth engagement strategy that builds upon the success of their Community Champions adult leadership and advocacy training. Both training programs provide opportunities for local residents to gain skills and capacity for meaningful engagement through public speaking, public policy, leadership development and team building. Providing this training to adult and youth residents will help build sustainable community capacity for policy and environmental changes to increase healthy eating and active living opportunities in Rancho Cucamonga.
HKHC partnerships across the country have demonstrated that developing and harnessing youth’s power for advocacy can have a huge impact. In the words of a sixteen year old youth in Buffalo, “I feel good about myself because I feel like I can survey and see what’s going on in our communities and try to tell the people in charge of the city to fix the things we really need to fix and build more playgrounds, fix sidewalks, stuff like that.” Youth engagement can be a challenging endeavor due to their shifting schedules and priorities of the youth as well as their eventual turnover (i.e. graduation). A key theme has been moving beyond just providing youth programming to beginning policy change via youth advocacy. Holding tailored trainings to employ youth with specialized professional skills has been especially important in Buffalo, NY and Watsonville/Pajaro Valley. Engaging with innovative partnerships with organizations such as the YMCA has increased Charleston, WV capacity to reach youth. In closing, as the sixteen year-old president of “EcoClub Chamizal” states, “Even a small group of people can make big changes.”
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