The Geographic Health Equity Alliance invited Nigel Wrangham, CADC II, CPS, Master Trainer for CADCA, to present at CADCA’s 31st Annual National Leadership Forum in February 2021. Nigel’s presentation, “Success Stories – Youth and Tobacco Control,” shares evidence-based strategies to meaningfully engage and involve youth in tobacco control. We are delighted to share the recording from this session with you, along with Nigel’s accompanying article to the video below:

 The Arc of Engagement – Youth in Control

It was a cold, early spring day at my high school in a leafy suburb of Boston. Outside, through the windows of my homeroom classroom, we students could see the first brave little flowers poking up their purple heads between the clods of dirty snow that still lay here and there. The room was hot and stuffy, as such classroom spaces inevitably were in the early 1980’s. Our backpacks and winter scarves and ski jackets (I did say it was the Eighties) formed piles by each of our chairs.

Today was “Health Day.” Representatives from some hospital, police precinct or rehab place (We hadn’t paid much attention to the announcements a week earlier. What senior would, on the threshold of our final spring as high schoolers?) were supposed to come and visit all our classrooms to “give us the straight dope… on DOPE!”

In they came, and while my adult self of decades later has considerable sympathy for them and their unenviable task, at the time the pair of earnest drug misuse educators seemed awkward and out of place. And more importantly, out of touch. They endured our “Who cares?” shrugs and our false blasé expressions, and we endured their 45-minute lecture (with overhead transparencies) about the perils and risks and real-life consequences of messing around with drugs.

The “Education Phase”

Does this sound familiar to any of you? Were you, like I was, a recipient of what Public Health advocates now call the “Education Phase” of so-called youth involvement in prevention? If you were, I’ll bet you remember the sense of being looked at, you and your peers, as living, breathing examples of a problem to be solved. And the way to solve it – the way to fix us and our wayward or potentially wayward ways – was through education and information.

The information youth received (about substances, addiction, risky behaviors and the consequences thereof) wasn’t necessarily incorrect. It wasn’t necessarily wrong; it merely reflected the limits of what science and human development research knew at the time. What was wrong was the philosophy of the approach itself. The idea, fully institutionalized throughout the Unites States, that the way to “involve” young people in issues of behavioral health was to talk at us. To educate us, fix us and then to get out of the classroom.

A Different Approach

In the years since that lecture on that morning in early April, a great deal has changed in the field of involving young people in decisions affecting their health, opportunities for improving their communities and ability to positively impact the conditions in society, from the local level all the way up to the halls of the United States Congress. In my presentation entitled “Success Stories – Youth and Tobacco Control” at CADCA’s National Leadership Forum, I aimed to provide a timeline of that evolution. I included examples of the various phases of youth involvement, from education to participation to authentic youth engagement, along with specific examples and documented best practices gleaned from years of careful research and courageous advocacy in the field of tobacco control and prevention.

It’s a fine story. The arc flows in the right direction. I encourage you to be a part of that arc, an active participant in the exciting story, as you view the presentation and then set about implementing the strategies and activities within it with young leaders in your own communities.

I’ve been a prevention professional and youth advocate for almost thirty years, and I am sometimes asked why I keep at it as my whiskers get whiter and my knees get louder. While I have too many reasons to share with you in a single article (or even a single full-day training when we can all eventually enjoy again the in-person magic that we now realize we all took for granted for so long), I will share my most important one: I refuse to allow us to backslide, even a little bit, to what went on in that classroom in 1982. Our youth deserve the respect, the equity and the opportunity to be true change-agents that we are now beginning to offer them in this exciting phase of authentic youth engagement.

No more staring out the window at the crocuses and daffodils from a hot classroom while adults drone on. No more lectures. No more of the casual, passive disrespect that young people were forced to endure in the name of “prevention” for so long. The youth will not stand for it. They shouldn’t have to.

And they won’t. Not on my watch.