Coalitions in Action— RyeACT Coalition Works to Empower Youth Prevention Leaders

 

Tell me about your community and the communities that your coalition serves – its population and unique features. When was the coalition formed?

RyeACT Coalition was formed by a group of concerned parents and community leaders in January 2014, and is currently in DFC Year 3, serving the community of Rye, New York. Rye is a NYC suburb of approximately 16,000 people, located about 20 miles northeast of Manhattan. It is a predominantly affluent suburban community with a high-performing school district that provides youth with many opportunities, but that affluence also comes with the attendant trappings.

What unique issues is your coalition facing?

“Students feel tremendous pressure to achieve at very high levels, both in terms of academics and in terms of sports and extracurricular activities,” said Coalition Coordinator Nancy Pasquale. “There is a strong ‘work hard/play hard’ culture and pressure to ‘fit in’ and/or ‘keep up with the Jones'’ that exerts tremendous social pressure on youth and adults alike. These social norm factors, paired with access to money and cars, contributes to youth substance use rates that are typically well above national averages. Underage drinking and vaping are of particular concern. There is also a current debate over the potential legalization of recreational marijuana in NY state that sets the stage for a low perception of risk of harm associated with marijuana use, by both adults and young people.” 

“Through our Strategic Planning and Logic Model work, RyeACT identified shifting social norms as an important strategy,” said Pasquale. “As all coalitions know, changing culture and shifting norms is difficult, and engaging youth to connect with other teens, peer-to-peer is critical. Our attempts in our first year to grow the youth sector were slow and sometimes frustrating, and started with a single teen. But that single voice was a strong one, who felt committed to making a difference for his peers.” 

What activity or program is your coalition most proud of and/or what activity would you like us to spotlight?

“Our Youth Action Team has grown exponentially in the last two years, from that single committed student to a small handful, to a group that now includes more than 30 students who help and get involved in various initiatives--and that number continues to grow,” said Pasquale. “29 new students signed up to join the group in the fall of 2018. That growth happened over the course of two and a half years and was highlighted in May 2018 when the Youth Action Team organized a community-wide ‘Youth Speak Out’ event. This community assessment and capacity building initiative provided young people in the community with a platform to talk to parents and community leaders about what their life is like growing up in Rye; what do they value, what do they struggle with, and how can adults help? This community-wide event was attended by nearly 250 community members. It took three months to plan and was orchestrated entirely by our Youth Action Team, with an ‘assist’ from adult coalition members and school personnel.”

“The RyeACT Youth Leadership Team is honored to have been selected to present the Youth Speak Out at the 2019 CADCA Ideas Fair,” said Pasquale. “The work the coalition is doing with youth will also be featured as part of a second Ideas Fair poster presentation, with our colleagues from the Institute of Behavior and Health and their ‘One Choice’ campaign.”     

How did you get there, and what are your outcomes?  

“For three consecutive years, the coalition has invested time, energy, and resources to youth leadership training,” said Pasquale. “We sent 10 students to a county-wide youth prevention training conference that helped set a foundation by increasing the size of our group from one student to 11 students. We immediately got those students involved in two or three prevention initiatives at the school being planned by adults. We actively practiced a ‘bring a friend’ policy, encouraging each student to recruit friends to join them for meetings or volunteer opportunities. 

“We decided that the capstone of our ‘Year of Youth Engagement’ would be the ‘Youth Speak Out’ event,” said Pasquale. “However, in order for our students to be ready to take that on, they needed some professional development. We invested in a one-day prevention training conference that focused on elements of the Strategic Prevention Framework, and invited teens from other communities across the county. That training brought together 80+ students from 16 different communities, including 9 from Rye. We also invited three of our youth leaders to attend parts of a two-day training alongside adult coalition members, to learn about changing culture through positive norms campaigns and the public health model for creating community-level change by fostering cross-sector collaboration.”

“With these new-found skills, and almost three months of weekly meetings, these youth leaders planned and executed the ‘Youth Speak Out,’ a community-wide meeting that gathered input from approximately 2000 young people in grades K-12,” said Pasquale. “They collaborated with more than 20 youth clubs, organizations, and sports teams. They enlisted the help of school district faculty and staff to orchestrate an incredibly successful event attended by almost 250 community members, including key community leaders and elected officials. In the summer of 2018, a team of five of those students attended a four-day youth prevention leadership conference and formed the RyeACT Youth Leadership Team that has become the executive board of the (now much larger) RyeACT Youth Action Team. They created a steering document for how they will be organized and how they will make decisions. They set agendas for the team, plan peer-to-peer prevention initiatives, recruit volunteers, and worked on Logic Model development this winter with adult coalition members. Our investment in training also includes our upcoming trip to CADCA conference, of course!”  

 

What advice would you give to other coalitions that may be addressing some of the same issues?

“Investing time and resources in youth leadership development may be the single most worthwhile investment your coalitions can make,” said Pasquale. “Youth bring energy, enthusiasm, and fresh perspective to coalition planning. And they are essential to the task of changing attitudes and norms among their peers.” 

“When it comes to growing a youth team, never underestimate the power of a single voice,” said Pasquale. “Support it. Give it tools and room to grow. Give it a megaphone and soon that voice will be multiplied. Because once youth with a mission and a common purpose get on a roll, they are unstoppable. They've become a source of inspiration for our adult coalition. We're so proud of these kids. It's a privilege to work alongside them.” 
 

What are you looking forward to the most at National Leadership Forum/what do you hope to learn?

“We are incredibly excited to be bringing a group of eight youth leaders to the conference this year, along with five adults,” said Pasquale. “I think having the chance for our youth and adult coalition leaders to participate in training and advocacy work side by side is going to have a positive influence on how we work together back at home in our community. It will provide a platform for growing shared vision and shared understanding of how best to approach our specific issues, thereby increasing the likelihood of making meaningful and sustainable change in our community with regard to youth substance use.”