Central Iowa youth drive change for better health

uVoice high school students commit to learning about and addressing issues, including vaping and racial justice, in central Iowa.

When selecting an issue to focus on for the 2020 grant-making cycle, the high school students on the uVoice philanthropy board were divided. After weeks of learning about topics impacting their peers, eight students wanted to focus on personal wellness, while four were interested in teen substance abuse, especially vaping. But after each group made their case for why they wanted to focus on their topic of choice, the tables turned, and the majority selected vaping. Many recognized that vaping was an issue their peers needed urgent support on and that this group could make an impact.

Then the board hosted focus group conversations with their peers to better understand the issue and discovered some shocking information: Central Iowa youth are vaping as early as 6th grade and schools lack information and resources to address it. Nonprofits were invited to submit proposals to tackle the issue, and in June 2020, the board awarded $5,000 to Orchard Place to include vaping supports into its teen substance abuse treatment program and to launch a social media campaign targeting youth.

This is the process the uVoice board goes through each year as a group of up to 15 high school students committed to learning about and addressing issues in their community. Community Youth Concepts facilitates this process, but the students lead the meetings and decision-making.

Mid-Iowa Health Foundation helped launch the board and invests in it with the belief that youth have the power to inform the community and lead change on issues that impact them.

“We’re giving grants to organizations that make an impact and we hear about what they’re doing around the community and how it’s helping,” says Emma Shaw, a student in uVoice. “It’s cool to look back and say I helped that. I funded that.”  

“I would love to see this program expand in every facet of our society,” says Amy Ostrander Croll, executive director of Community Youth Concepts. “It is key to thinking about how we structure our work. One of the biggest things people have to get over is their own adult bias of what young people can contribute.”

Engaging youth in community change

The concept for uVoice formed in 2014 as Mid-Iowa Health Foundation refocused its funding priorities around addressing the social determinants of health. The Foundation partnered with Community Youth Concepts to host youth focus groups to hear about issues impacting them and to inform the Foundation's priority areas.

“Early on we learned that it wasn’t just that youth have this tremendous knowledge to share with us about what they are worried about and what issues they see,” says Suzanne Mineck, President and CEO of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “They also have really powerful ideas about what we should be doing to respond. We wanted to make sure that they have the opportunity to do something about it.”

The Foundation partnered with Community Youth Concepts, which already had authentic relationships established with youth through its programs, to develop uVoice. With funding from Mid-Iowa Health Foundation and Delta Dental of Iowa Foundation, uVoice now gives $5,000 in grants to nonprofits each year.

The young people on the board also continue to inform the community about issues impacting them and how to respond. Each year, the board provides a whitepaper sharing what they’ve learned and potential strategies for addressing the issue they focused on that year.

“I now know us teens can make an impact and not just adults,” says Roland Ageymon, a uVoice board member. “I feel a lot of people have the mindset that adults have a lot of power, but we can make a difference as well.”  

“You need to be listening to what they are hearing and saying to be effective," says Ostrander Croll. "It’s a circular fantastic process, because the youth inform the community, the community informs the youth, and they help fund the work together.”

The youth also occasionally participate in reviewing Mid-Iowa Health Foundation grants and in its strategic conversations. “They have educated our staff and board and other organizations about issues we should be paying attention to that we probably otherwise would not have paid as much attention to,” says Mineck.

Elevating issues of vaping and racial justice

uvoice students on Zoom meeting

Topics vary year-to-year. In 2019-2020, vaping was a topic that drew the board's attention when they found limited responses to a growing issue in their schools. In talking with students, the board found:

  • Most students are exposed to vaping starting in 6th grade.
  • Products and advertising target kids and teenagers through enticing images and social media.
  • Students have easy access to vape products.
  • Schools lack compelling education about vaping and flyers convey cliché messages but never address resources and educational tools to help teens with addiction.

The students suggested in the white paper the following opportunities to address the issue: banning fruity flavors that target teens; acknowledging vaping in education about drugs and addiction; and destigmatizing getting support for addiction.

In the 2020-2021 school year, the students are studying how racial injustice impacts health outcomes. To study the issue, they invited peers to listen to a panel offering community perspectives and to have small group conversations about what learned and are experiencing.

This process highlighted the following:

  • Microaggressions experienced in high school continue to impact people of color when they grow up.
  • Many students of color indicated that there weren’t any adults or teachers that they could talk to when they have experienced microaggressions and racism at school.
  • Students want a safe and supportive community. This means a physically and emotionally safe community but also ties to bringing more awareness around issues of racism in education.
  • Each person has their own unique experience and story about how racism impacts their day-to-day life from education, access to healthcare, pay inequity, etc.
  • Youth felt less comfortable in their communities and schools because of underrepresentation of BIPOC staff and their history.

In their call for grant proposals, the students recommended these strategies for addressing these challenges: advocate for structural changes that would support youth in Iowa, with an emphasis on BIPOC communities; provide resources to marginalized communities; encourage anti-racist educational curriculum; and promote supportive and culturally inclusive environments. Grants will be awarded at a ceremony in June.  

Learning the grant process

Going through the grant-making process is eye opening for many students.

“I didn’t know you’d have to research all this stuff and decide on a topic and talk to people about the subject,” says Daylan Carney. “I just thought you put an invitation out there and see who applies.”

The students meet for the first time in August and attend the Iowa Youth Philanthropy Conference shortly after. Then they dive into learning about what is philanthropy and grantmaking, and what are the issues impacting youth in central Iowa. They look at local data and hear from experts.

The students then identify a list of topics to focus on and narrow that list to four. Next comes the caucus-style meeting to decide which topic to focus on for that year's grant-making cycle. After deciding on a topic, the students determine how to study that topic. For vaping, they chose to host focus groups at a few high schools without any adults present. In the past, they’ve conducted surveys or brought together a panel of experts.

These learning sessions inform the request for proposals application the board sends to nonprofits to apply for a grant. The board then reviews each grant proposal and scores it using a rubric to decide how to allocate the $5,000 available. The organization (or organizations) that receives the grant is presented with a check at a celebration in June.

Strong facilitation throughout the process is key, says Alicia Vermeer, coordinator of uVoice.

“Our goal is to provide the structure, so they get the experience,” says Vermeer. “They’re a real board. They have real funding. The decisions and each component of the process is up to them. I don’t get a vote.”

Becoming future leaders

When Paige Kirschner joined uVoice her freshman year, she described herself as shy. But being around others who were interested in the same things she was and willing to speak their opinions inspired her over four years. “I just feel like I’ve grown so much as a member of society," she says.

uVoice is structured so that each experience builds leadership skills, including how to manage a grant process, publicly speak about opinions and present information, and strategically think about issues and advocate for change. Current board members interview students applying to be on the board. After a year of being on the board, a student can join the executive committee that sets meeting agendas and leads aspects of the work, such as marketing and student engagement.

Because students come from different schools, they also appreciate hearing diverse perspectives and experiences.

Learning about the community has shaped the direction many take and has prepared them for applying for scholarships and jobs. Kirschner, for example, has always been interested in biology, but is now diving deeper into genetic research and looking at how to start a youth philanthropy board at her college. Another student in a fashion design program wants to further environmentally friendly practices in the industry.

“Students are learning a lot about their community and then are empowered to make a change about those things,” says Vermeer. “I think a lot of our students who are especially involved multiple years leave the program feeling confident that they can go and take on leadership roles elsewhere.”

Mineck appreciates the grant presentation in June when she sees how much the youth have learned from each other and have grown as leaders, especially as their ideas are heard and valued.  

“They listen to each other and listen to their peers and then gather that information in a way that they can see where difference-making is possible and opportunities exist and where they can open possibilities for change,” she says. “That’s been inspiring to watch.”

The students say they gain the confidence to see the changes they can create and are inspired to have their voices heard.

“I like the fact that we’re able to pitch our own opinions and act on those without having to turn to an authority figure,” says Risha Shetye, “and we are able to take action within our own desires.”

“I know I can speak out strongly about my opinions,” says, Carney, “and I don’t feel judged because I know this is important for me.”

uVoice high school students commit to learning about and addressing issues, including vaping and racial justice, in central Iowa.

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