The Youth Voices on Substance Abuse: A Guide to Empowerment and Action program engaged over 100 high school students in studying key Human Rights documents and literature related to Substance Abuse. Working with their teachers and with informed experts who came into classrooms, participants developed fact-based perspectives and designed projects to raise awareness among their peers and also provide direct support for local service organizations.
The program culminated in a public briefing held under the auspices of the United Nations Department of Public Information at the UN headquarters. Joined by Michelle McElroy from Southern Tier Aids Program and Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, 18 students from the program presented their perspectives on the Substance Abuse pandemic and recommended approaches to both prevention and treatment aspects, especially as it affects young persons. The event was webcast to audiences at 1200 world-wide sites.
In addition to their outreach projects, which raised money and gathered requested supplies for local service agencies, participating students were interviewed both live on several radio shows and by print media reporters.
The final project event was a community celebration of youth citizenship, held at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, NY. Students gave their UN presentations or made posters highlighting their peer-information and community outreach projects.
Drug abuse among teens is a challenge in all communities and a barrier to success after graduation. National surveys indicate that over 15% of 12th graders and 8% of 8th graders have used non-prescribed addictive substances, with smaller cities and rural areas recently experiencing the greatest increases. All too often these actions and addictions compromise the futures of our teens, cause suffering to families, and present a major challenge for schools and community health services providers.
In 2016, Ithaca Mayor Myrick released The Ithaca Plan: A Public Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy, which was based on recommendations developed by a group of community health and policy experts. The wide-ranging proposals did not specifically include youth voices and perspectives; this was the impetus to launch the Youth Voices on Substance Abuse program.
BUILDING KNOWLEDGE AND EXPECTATIONS
The program engaged a diverse spectrum of teens in the study of key Human Rights documents as prelude to researching the causes and impacts of Substance Abuse, especially among their peers. In their classrooms, over 100 high school students at New Roots Charter School in Ithaca, NY and Charles O. Dickerson High School, Trumansburg, NY discussed the content and significance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.
Building on this conceptual background, they then researched issues related to addictive substances and the Substance Abuse pandemic. Articles provided (listed below) were augmented by their findings on websites – some factual, some biased. These formed the bases for mentor- or teacher-guided discussions to help them separate facts from opinions.
Students were given latitude to select whatever aspect of Substance Abuse they chose to research, and how they would address the issue. Some prepared very personal essays based on the experiences of friends or family; many chose to design projects that would provide information for their peers or would offer support for one of the local service providers
Policy and health services experts invited into their classrooms included Mayor Myrick, Michelle McElroy from Southern Tier Aids Program, and Stacy Cangelosi from the Alcohol and Drug Council of Tompkins County. These provided students’ opportunities to get broader perspectives on the challenges facing their community and services available, and to seek information relative to questions and concerns they had.
THE UNITED NATIONS PUBLIC BRIEFING
We received the formal invitation to organize a UN public briefing in March, 2017, following an extensive and competitive review process by UN-DPI staff. From this pool of 105 students, 18 were selected to attend the UN briefing. Selection was based on students’ accomplishments and their interest in planning for and participating in the UN briefing.
The public briefing was held from 11:00 – 12:45 pm on April 20, 2017, at the UN headquarters in New York. In addition to our students, Mayor Myrick, Michelle McElroy from STAP, Yu Ping Chan from the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, and Jeff Brez, UN Director of NGO Relations and Advocacy, made presentations.
The audience of approximately 200 included educators and health providers from the greater New York City area as well as members from other UN agencies, especially the Office on Drugs and Crime and UNICEF. The event was webcast world-wide to nearly 1200 UN-affiliated NGO’s. A video recording of the briefing is available at DPI/NGO Briefing on Youth Voices on Substance Abuse: A Guide for Empowerment and Action Webcast and photographs taken by the UN staff are on Facebook Photos.
Students’ presentations included personal stories of families disrupted due to Substance Abuse, videotaped interviews with peers focused on their recommendations for better educational approaches, ongoing outreach projects, and testimonials espousing the benefits of incorporation youth voices into policy decision making.
This briefing was novel for the staff at UN-DPI in that we we gave the platform to 18 youth from a broad range of backgrounds, rather than to 2-3 adult experts speaking at length about youths’ opinions. Attendees were enthusiastic in their appreciation for the honesty and thoughtfulness of the students’ presentations, and several made laudatory comments during the Q & A that followed.
“The way that the students … shared very personal stories, and the poise and grace with which they held themselves in front of a world wide audience was amazing to witness. If these students are representative of our future leadership, we are in good hands!.” Stacy Cangelosi, Alcohol and Drugs Council of Tompkins County, NY.
“[Students added] a great value to the discussion and [provided] a remarkable example for your peers advocating for raising awareness and positive change [and made] a valuable contribution to the understanding of the problem and contributing to the betterment of global drug policy.” Hawa Diallo, UN-DPI Program Coordinator.
OUTREACH AND CELEBRATION
Many students participated in interviews with three local press reporters and were invited to present their ideas on 5 live radio shows and one taped videotape.
Student’s outreach and fund-raising activities culminated in checks and requested personal care items being presented to STAP, the Alcohol and Drug Council, and the Ithaca Rescue Mission.
An essential element in nurturing young people’s citizenship skills is to celebrate their achievements. This was done in part by a community celebration held on May 19, 2017 at the Hangar Theater in Ithaca. The event, which was supported by a private donor, was widely advertised and open to the public. In addition to student presentations and posters, the event featured artists whose performances were based on Human Rights advocacy and experiences with Substance Abuse.
The final celebrations were presentations of framed certificates “Recognizing Global Citizenship” to each student who participated in the UN-DPI briefing. These were presented during school awards ceremonies at both schools, during which many students’ parents were present.
Initial assessments indicated that students had little on no prior knowledge of key human rights documents. For most, their information about Substance Abuse in general, specific contributing factors, public policies, health risks, and available assistance programs was marginal and based largely on peer-based information, which was often erroneous.
Their writings during and following each phase of the project revealed new understandings of the issues and how informed youth can make a difference in their community. Presenting their perceptions and recommendations at the global UN platform and media interviews was, for many, a transformative experience. Here they met adults who wanted to listen and learn from them; they came to appreciate the importance of study and preparation for these events and developed a awareness of importance of community service.
“This project is the most significant, exciting, and enriching experience I’ve had in my academic career. Often, children feel unimportant, like they have no say in anything that is important. After participating in this project, I no longer feel this way. The experience not only taught youth about Substance Abuse, but in empowered us to make a difference.”
“Through this process my opinions have most certainly changed, my biases shattered, and my unconscious stereotypes irrevocably changed for the better.”
“A positive aspect that this project had on me was humanizing people who use drugs. Previously, I had a very narrow idea of what addiction is, and with the guidance of …. I became more aware of the fact that Substance Abuse is an illness just like heart disease.”
“Being at the United Nations is one of the best things I have ever had the opportunity to do. It was empowering, and it made me feel important, like I could make a difference. Now, I want to stay involved, to join in on different local discussions, and to help people around the world.”
“I now understand that addiction is a disease that does not get better overnight. Scare tactics do nothing, but education can lead to a world full of prevention.”
“Everyone is so afraid to talk about addiction that we end up hiding the truth about it from children. We are not helping anyone by keeping them in the dark. Knowledge is power; it is the light in the darkness. We need to hand people that torch at a young age so they can make educated decisions for themselves, and not go off based on what they hear from peers.”
“This project helped me grow as a student, as a global citizen, and as a human being.”
“This project helped me understand what it means to be a helpful and active member of my community. I learned the importance of fighting for human rights in my town and globally.”
“This project is close to me because I play sports, and drugs can play a role even in high school sports. Now I am much more educated about the effects drugs have on athletes.”
“I think the greatest lesson I received from this project was that to make a difference you have to believe in yourself.”
“I understand now that being a part of the community means that you have to do more than just be a quiet member. You have to be active, and work towards the goal of a better community.”
I was fortunate to work alongside Ms. Jane George, English teacher at Dickerson High School, whose dedication to establishing informed action Human Rights projects as an integral part of the curriculum was inspiring. The local health and policy experts who made frequent visits to the classrooms and engaged students in a thoughtful, forthright, respectful manner were an essential component of the program’s success. I also am grateful to the staff at the UN-DPI for approving and providing on-site logistical support for our public briefing.
The energy, enthusiasm, and commitment shown by many of the students was a joy to be part of.
These successes would not have been possible without generous support from the Community Foundation of Tompkins County and the Lane Family Fund, and the cooperation of Wayne Jacoby, President of Global Education Motivators.
KEY BACKGROUND AND CITED DOCUMENTS
A Comparison of Rural and Urban Substance Abuse Treatment Admissions. TEDS Report. 2012
A Participatory Handbook for Youth Drug Abuse Prevention Programmes. U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime. 2002.
Drug Facts: High School and Youth Trends. Natl. Inst. On Drug Abuse. 2016
Drug Prevention 4 Teens: A Drug Abuse Prevention Guide for Teens. Learning for Life and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. 2008
Listen First: Facts for Policy Makers. Initiative on Teen Substance Abuse. U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 2016
Marijuana and Your Health: Just the Facts I (Health) and II (Medical). Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. 2015
Marijuana Facts for Teens. Natl. Inst. on Drug Abuse. 2015
Monitoring the Future: 2015 Overview of Adolescent Drug Use. Natl. Inst. on Drug Abuse
O.J. Guide to Teen Services and Activities in Tompkins County. Tompkins County Youth Services. 2016
Peer to Peer: Using Peer to Peer Strategies in Drug Abuse Prevention. U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. 2003.
Prescription Opiod Abuse and Heroin Addiction in New York State. Office of the NY State Comptroller. 2016
Preventing Drug Use among Children and Adolescents: A Research-Based Guide. Natl. Inst. On Drug Abuse. 2004.
Teens and E-Cigarettes: Teachers Infographics. Natl. Inst. On Drug Abuse. 2016
The Ithaca Plan: A Public Health and Safety Approach to Drugs and Drug Policy. 2016
Today’s Heroin Epidemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2013.
Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions. Harvard Graduate School of Education. 2016
Youth Civic Engagement; World Youth Report. U. N. Dept. Economic and Social Affairs. 2016