I had the pleasure of travelling to Nashville, Tennessee on Nov. 15, 2018 as a Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellow. This trip was the apotheosis of the work myself and several other Fellows completed for the last six months. During that time, we laid the groundwork for a large tobacco awareness campaign in the city of Nashville. This campaign was to be conducted among five high schools in the city and designed to further the Truth Initiative’s goal of, “inspiring tobacco-free lives and building a culture where all youth and young adults reject tobacco.”
While this is a laudable goal, I quickly realized it is much easier said than done. The process of recruiting high schools and high school students to be part of the campaign was arduous and riddled with rejection. Creating campaign activities involved the writing, rewriting and re-rewriting of our various ideas, only to realize that some legal or regulatory restriction made the concept completely unworkable. Adequately communicating and coordinating with my teammates and other branches of the Truth Initiative was, at times, nearly impossible. Nonetheless, my team and I persevered.
Upon arriving in Nashville I was fully equipped with determination and the communication, technical and leadership skills I had acquired while preparing for the campaign. After catching up with my teammates, we began the final preparations for the “Weekend Retreat” we would conduct. This Retreat was essentially a training day for the high school students that agreed to implement the campaign in their schools. We were to teach them about tobacco control issues, such as menthol and big tobacco’s predatory advertising practices, as well as equip them with the skills necessary to enact the campaign activities we planned. We also intended to conduct planning sessions with each school to ensure that the students left the Retreat with a basic implementation strategy they could flesh out independently.
As someone who was never particularly extroverted or comfortable with younger people, I began to question my ability to pull this event off. Would I be able to adequately convey information to the students? Would I horrendously botch something in my presentations? Would we be able to adapt the campaign activities to fit the individual needs of each high school? Alas, these concerns were for naught. The students were strikingly mature and intelligent. They were accepting of authority, yet unafraid to express their views and opinions. Despite my original expectations, I found working with these students to be far easier than working with some adults. Unlike many adults, the students possessed a certain creativity and willingness to consider unorthodox solutions. They were willing to learn and adapt. Due to the quality of the students, the Weekend Retreat ran exceptionally smoothly and the breakout planning sessions were highly productive. Perhaps most importantly, the students reported that they enjoyed the day and felt prepared to put their plans into action.
Since the completion of the Weekend Retreat, my team and I have served as advisors to the students involved in the campaign implementation. Their efforts are largely self-sufficient, but we are available to answer any questions and serve as a liaison between the students and the Truth Initiative. Although this was not my first experience in the world of tobacco control, I learned some important lessons. Most notably, my confidence in my ability to work with young adults dramatically increased. I also learned a lot about what it takes to be part of a large, national organization where one must regularly work with people that may be on the other side of the country. I have no doubt these are lessons I will not soon forget. While I don’t intend to pursue this line of work as a career, I have no doubt that being a Truth Initiative Youth Activism Fellow has prepared me well for my next foray into the world of tobacco control and public health advocacy.