Recall for a moment being a teenager. The feelings of confusion around who you are, external forces telling you who you are “supposed to be,” and anxiety about — well everything. It can be overwhelming.
Now, consider what or rather who may have helped provide a bit of clarity during this incredibly confusing period. Maybe it was your grandparents or a family friend. It may have been a teacher or a coach. Or perhaps you were able to bond with an adult at a local community organization or your boss at your first summer job. Whomever it may have been, finding community and forming connections with others can help us on our journeys more than we may think. And particularly at this critical age, it can quite literally be a lifesaver.
Forward Together, an initiative launched by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Colorado Department of Human Services in 2020, seeks to help Colorado teens feel more connected to their peers, parents and other trusted adults. Research has shown that youth who are connected to positive relationships are less likely to smoke, drink, use other substances or have feelings of depression. Using the Developmental Relationship Elements Framework as a guide, the campaign has developed messaging and resources to help teens and parents form these strong connections.
While getting the word out to Colorado youth and trusted adults on a macro level through traditional media efforts proved to be effective, the campaign strategized ways to get the campaign “on the ground” and integrated into local communities. The team reached out to youth-serving organizations statewide, asking them to share what young people in their local communities needed to form valuable connections.
The answers were as vastly diverse in project need as they were in geographic location across the state. Everything from music lessons in Fort Collins to youth-led murals in Leadville to outdoor exploration in Buena Vista was identified as “ways in” by these youth leaders to help teens in their communities form strong connections with mentors or peers. And after identifying 24 youth groups over the course of the year, Forward Together provided funding to bring these special mission-driven programs and projects to life through community-based organization sponsorships.
Here are three main takeaways we’ve had from our work:
- Allow those doing the work to continue doing the work: Young people have said that advertisers are not always trusted sources of information for them, and, essentially, they can smell a canned public service announcement from a mile away. That means that while curated Snapchat advertisements and billboards are great for spreading the word, the campaign needed to get messages into the hands of these community’s trusted messengers, the youth organizations already doing everyday work with young people to help them form strong connections with peers and mentors. As the campaign aimed even further to reach marginalized groups of youth, it became clear these youth audiences would respond most effectively to fellow members and leaders of their specific communities. Mentees from BIPOC organizations such as Convivir, Spirit of the Sun and Muslim Youth for Positive Impact (MYPI) gave feedback to support this idea, with one young person from MYPI saying, “I got to talk to someone who had similar experiences as me, and she also went to high school in America as a hijabi, something that other adults in my life can’t relate to.” And young people from LGBTQIA+ organizations such as Four Corners Rainbow Youth and Inside Out Youth Services echoed these sentiments with one young person saying, “Rainbow Youth Center has the only safe adults in my life, and I can be myself, online or in person.” Our recommendation for those wanting to reach communities on a micro level: Hand messages over to these community leaders and empower them to disperse them in whatever ways they recommend. And to take it a step even further: Integrate community leaders in the development of campaign messaging from the start. That’s the campaign’s plan for the upcoming year, as they plan on collaborating with partners on more aspects of campaign development and implementation such as messages and greater creative control.
- Let young people lead whenever possible. A Developmental Framework Element, Sharing Power with young people has been proven to be very effective in developing strong and reciprocal relationships. Grantees continued to model this in their work as they brought projects like youth-led murals and block party concerts to life. We heard time and time again, from mentors and mentees alike, that letting young people take the lead makes the difference in their engagement with their projects and relationships with their mentors. As one mentor from Full Circle of Lake County said, “Kids love being represented and heard, and our mural is a great representation of that.”
- It works. Through Forward Together’s grantee program, the campaign has been able to directly reach over 1500+ Colorado young people and help them form strong connections with peers and trusted adults in their local communities. These are young people who may have seen Forward Together messaging in advertisements or on social media but were able to feel its purpose in a deeper way through these community efforts. The long-term effects of these projects and the campaign overall will not be able to be seen for quite some time (until we are able to survey these young people as adults). However, through the testimonials from young people and mentors, we can see that getting the campaign on the ground through direct community engagement and partnering with youth organizations as trusted messengers does work and strong connections are being formed.
Over the past year, we have seen firsthand that community organizations across Colorado are affecting real change with young people and helping cultivate strong relationships. Relationships with young people matter and finding ways to create these relationships in local communities is paramount to their future and ours.
Check out the Forward Together playlist spotlighting some of these projects Colorado Stories of Connection and check out the resource guide to help a teen in your life find organizations to get connected to.