The power of youth

In the spring of 2011, I was invited by MU Extension Specialist Ann Cohen to go on a road trip to Jon StemmleShelbyville, Mo. I’m a New Jersey guy born and bred so, as a stranger in a strange land, I had never heard of Shelbyville, didn’t know where it was or what to expect when we arrived. Mostly, I went because Ann asked if I’d come along and talk about the work we were doing in the HCRC to a group of city leaders working with her Healthy Lifestyle Initiative (HLI) group.

As Ann drove the many winding roads up to Shelbyville (turns out it’s north of Columbia), we had time to talk. We had been wanting to work together on a project for some time and so the conversation turned to what we might partner up on. During that fateful trip north, we found ourselves talking about photovoice and decided that we would try it out as part of her HLI initiative.

Well, three years have gone by and photovoice is still going strong in Missouri. Along with the dozen-plus communities we’ve worked with as part of our Photovoice Missouri project, we’ve also assisted several other groups both in Missouri and other states.

What has drawn many groups is the approach we’ve taken where we work with teachers in middle and high schools and work to incorporate photovoice into class curricula or into after school programs, such as 4H. Instead of photovoice taking place over an eight-week time frame as is standard, we stretched it out over a semester to give the youth more of a chance to learn the process from taking photos and writing captions to advocating for healthy change in their communities.

It was that experience that led me last Thursday to being one of three featured speakers for a national webinar for eXtension, which is “an Internet-based collaborative environment where Land Grant University content providers exchange objective, research-based knowledge to solve real challenges in real time.”

Working with a great team that included representatives from the MU Extension Healthy Lifestyle Initiative, Missouri 4H and the MU College of Education, we were featured in a session, “Engaging Youth in Creating a Healthier Future for Themselves & Their Communities.” As the title states, our goal was to discuss a sampling of the work being done in Missouri and through the University of Missouri Extension to work with children.

The three presentations each touched upon issues of youth engagement projects – from an overview of work being done by 4H and the Healthy Lifestyle Initiative to Photovoice Missouri to the evaluation and motivations of this work – and you can watch the webinar online.

Each of the presentations stressed the importance of collaboration to success – both between institutions and those communities being served. It is this collaborative model that is the key to the continued evolution of the field of health communication from the ivory tower model into an era where the community’s voice is heard in the shape and implementation of health interventions.

I look forward to seeing where things go from here and where the next road trip may lead.


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