Katie Spears doesn’t buy into any of those trend stories that argue young people are disengaged. In fact, she thinks that unlike many disenchanted adults out there, today’s teenagers are the key to fixing many of today’s most pressing problems – including obesity.
“Really, as a generation, they’re very focused on solutions,” Spears says. “They aren’t as caught up in who is a Republican, who is a Democrat, who is an Independent. Left and right doesn’t really matter to them. It’s all about the issue, and how we can find the solutions.”
Spears works for Youth Empowered Solutions (Yes!), a North Carolina-based nonprofit that prepares young people ages 12 to 18 to advocate for environmental, systems and policy changes in their own communities. As the team lead for YES!’s Real Food, Active Living initiative, Spears works with youth to develop specific solutions to the obesity epidemic.
Now YES! is expanding its reach even further by partnering with the North Carolina Alliance of YMCAs to support eight youth teams in advocacy efforts to specifically address the issues of healthy food access and safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across the Tar Heel State.
Young people taking part in the new partnership will receive special youth-led training to learn about the obesity epidemic and best practices for achieving change on the local level. The teams then will have the chance to practice advocacy while learning how to work in communities, engage with stakeholders, promote efforts to the media and create an action plan.
The youngsters were selected to participate in the new partnership in two different areas. The first group took part in a Real Food, Active Living Bill competition through the YMCA’s North Carolina Youth and Government program. The young people submitted draft state-level legislation designed to address a shortage of healthy food available in low-income urban neighborhoods and small towns or legislation to increase funding for safe bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. The second group of young people, meanwhile, applied through an open request for proposal process.
All eight youth groups taking part in the partnership received a $3,000 grant to move their work forward and will take part in the training.
The proposals put forth by the students are thoughtful and reflect a clear solutions-based focus. “Some of the bills that came in through Youth and Government, we could probably change three pieces of the bill, and they would be perfect to get sponsorship,” Spears says.
Complex issues such as healthy food access and active transportation are challenging to solve, but young people “have the best, most innovative ideas of any population out there,” Spears says. Youth enter the conversation with a fresh perspective, and often bring an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to finding new ways to address lingering, tough-to-fix issues.
But engaging teenagers isn’t just important for finding new solutions – it’s also vital to ensuring federal policy that already is being implemented is successful, Spears argues. For example, this year schools nationwide will begin selling only healthy snacks and drinks at school in an effort to help youth make healthier choices.
But many corner markets located near schools still will be selling unhealthy products such as chips, soda and candy to students. If young people are not engaged in finding ways for those stores to both offer and market healthier items to students, the problem of young people consuming too many unhealthy snacks and drinks will likely continue.
“We’re going to see young people purchasing junk food across the street, which will hurt the schools…engaging them is so key to make that a successful roll out,” Spears says.
Young people want to be informed consumers, and care about issues related to their health and the environment, Spears adds. Organizations working in the obesity movement would be wise to be serious about engaging with youth, Spears says.
Bringing young people into public health work such as the ongoing effort to reverse childhood obesity also has a long-term impact. YES! tracks its young participants over the long term, and recently found that 71 percent of participants go on to work in public health or the social sciences.
“We’re building this pipeline of leaders who will continue to champion this work,” Spears says. “That in itself will start to shift social norms.”