Why Community Advocates Should Include Students at the Beginning

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It takes a village to raise a child, the saying goes. To ensure the best outcome, that village should also include fellow young people, not just adults, which is why community advocates should include students at the beginning of their outreach programs.

Community coalitions are always looking to engage students in their area, but often this is transactional as opposed to collaborative. Sometimes that works out well, and the end goal is achieved (student engagement, a decrease in adverse behavior, etc.). However, this type of setup can often leave students feeling as though they’re being sold on something, rather than an ingrained aspect of it holistically.

Bringing students into the decision-making process before implementation seems like a no-brainer, but it’s not always the case. And study after study shows that if students are engaged and buy-in is achieved, positive results will follow. According to one study, “Student engagement in community advocacy activities that addressed environmental influences of cigarette smoking resulted in significant decreases in regular smoking.”[1]

By engaging students and younger generations at the beginning, community coalitions can tap into their enthusiasm to help create a positive change both within the younger community as well as the community writ large. For example, in Omaha, Nebraska, local leaders saw a drastic increase in obesity rates for a specific part of the city. One hypothesis posited that the community’s older generation might have entrenched eating habits and would be resistant to change, so it opted to bring in the younger generation to help create the necessary infrastructure to build a sustainable approach to healthier eating.

Childhood obesity is a major concern within the United States, but it’s especially a concern among the Latinx community. According to Dr. Gopal Singh, “In 2007, 16.4% of U.S. children were obese and 31.6% were overweight. From 2003 to 2007, obesity prevalence increased by 10% for all U.S. children but increased by 23%–33% for children in low-education, low-income, and higher unemployment households. Obesity prevalence increased markedly among Hispanic children and children from single-mother households.”[2]

The study found that this lack of infrastructure was a major impediment to changing the behaviors and outcomes desired, but by engaging students and the younger generations, it created the necessary environment for success down the road. “Our program generated infrastructure and materials to support the growth and institutionalization of youth advocacy as a means of increasing community readiness for addressing obesity prevention.”[3]

Students will actively take part in causes they feel personally invested in. Reaching out to younger generations and giving them a seat at the table at the beginning of community advocacy efforts goes a long way to create stronger bonds and a firm desire to succeed. Rather than relying on students and their peers to engage on the backend of these efforts, bring them into the mix and allow them to help shape what exactly those efforts will be.

Peer pressure is often viewed as a negative aspect of adolescent behavior, but it can work toward positive results, too. When students see their peers becoming part of an “in-group” for something there is a stronger desire to engage. That works with students playing sports, joining clubs, liking similar art, and, in some cases, taking part in advocacy work within their community.

“We argue that the involvement of children’s and adolescents’ peer networks in prevention and intervention efforts may be critical for promoting and maintaining positive behavioral health trajectories,” was how one RAND Corporation study succinctly stated.[4]

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of bringing students into the fold at the beginning of a community advocacy project is getting them in the door, literally. How can you speak to their interests and break through the noise when they’re being pulled in multiple directions all at once? How can you get students interested in your community outreach efforts? This is where Pride Surveys can help. At Pride Surveys, we’ve surveyed students for decades, asking them about their challenges, goals, and environment. We go directly to the source — the students themselves — and find out what’s really going on in their community. This data enables community advocates to better understand the problem areas students face and to better understand how to speak to those problems when attempting to get participation.

[1] “Effects of an Advocacy Intervention to Reduce Smoking Among Teenagers.” Retrieved on August 13, 2019 at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/article-abstract/485644

[2] “Rising Social Inequalities in US Childhood Obesity, 2003–2007.” Retrieved on August 20, 2019 at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S104727970900324X

[3] “SaludableOmaha: Development of a Youth Advocacy Initiative to Increase Community Readiness for Obesity Prevention, 2011–2012.” Retrieved on August 17, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3523892/.

[4] “Influence of Peers and Friends on Children’s and Adolescents’ Eating and Activity Behaviors,” Retrieved on August 23, 2019 at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22480733/

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