By Iliana White
Senior Program Manager, Adolescent Health
Teaching each other how to dance. Coming up with a creative handshake. Embracing a moment of silence followed by a spiritual greeting.
These were just a few of the activities that took place at the Region VIII Adolescent and Young Adult Health Summit back in July. The summit was supported through the region's Adolescent Health Task Force and through federal and state partners, including the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health within the U.S. Department of Human Services, the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, the federal Office of Adolescent Health, State Youth Network (SYN) United, the State Adolescent Health Resource Center, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Its purpose? To provide tools and skills to assist state partners in developing comprehensive, coordinated systems that support healthy adolescents and young adults in their communities.
Over the course of two days in Denver, public health professionals from different states (Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming) and different sectors (including Title V, primary care associations, Title X agencies, and the Office of Rural Health) met to learn about youth engagement — from the true experts. Members of the State Youth Network (SYN) United shared insight about themselves as individuals, as well as about the community-related initiatives they are responsible for in their work in sectors such as state and local public health, human services, and education. From younger high school students to college seniors, these youth advisors demonstrated that when given the opportunity and supports to lead, their contributions can be successfully incorporated in program development and implementation.
"It was great to see that the Department of Health and Human Services is willing to work with youth advisers in Colorado in ensuring that all youth are healthy and supported in their communities," said youth adviser Omar Estrada. "I look forward to working with them and SYN United to increase youth voice at the federal level, so that other partners who joined us at the event can have the tools necessary to recreate the same success in their own work."
Adult champions also played a role in the summit. Colorado's state adolescent health coordinator, Audra Bishop, emphasized key points to the adults in the room about working with young people, particularly around creating a supportive environment for them to thrive, as well as why Positive Youth Development (PYD) is essential for meaningful inclusion. She emphasized that young people need to be accepted and valued and have a sense of purpose to succeed.
"Adolescence is often seen as a period of time to get through instead of a stage to embrace," she said.
How did the "old people," i.e., adults fare from the summit? There was an overwhelmingly amount of positive feedback, as captured by the post-meeting evaluation. Particularly encouraging were the ideas generated for how the more seasoned public health professionals were equipped with more knowledge and skills on youth leadership and PYD to incorporate into their agency or organizational culture.
The summit culminated with a snowball activity, in which participants wrote (and then crumpled) their response to two questions: What caught your attention and admiration ("Ah-Ha" moments) and how will you follow-up after the summit? Some of the more frequent revelations included the range of possibilities for youth engagement to happen in different agencies; both the content and context (lived experience) that youth can offer in their expertise to current and future programming, including within MCH; and increased understanding of true Positive Youth Development in public health. Many of the more seasoned public health professionals left the meeting with key tasks they hope to act on when they return to their work, including creating more formal roles (like employment) for youth to be involved in projects, and building their organizational culture (including among staff) to align with PYD principles. Overall, the Region VIII Adolescent and Young Adult Health Summit convened different sectors and partners to learn about practical ways to elevate young people and their expertise in their day-to-day work.
"The energy of youth-adult partnerships in the room was elevated as we came together to promote and implement Positive Youth Development across the region," said youth leader Sedona Lynn. "The Department of Health and Human Services did an amazing job from the beginning to ensure that young people were in the center. They encouraged us to be the planners, presenters, and keynote speakers of the event. Leading by example is the best way to cultivate change, this was truly an inspirational gathering."