A is for advocacy: COPH students train middle/high schoolers in advocacy

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Dr. Karen Liller, a USF College of Public Health(COPH) professor and director of the college’s Activist Lab (which provides advocacy training, research and opportunities), teamed with Ellen Kent, coordinator of the USF Health Service Corps, and Activist Lab Student Advisory Board members to develop the Adopt-a-School Program for student advocacy.

Activist Lab board members participating in the Adopt-a-School Program. From left to right, Stacia Clowes, a recent COPH graduate who developed the TikTok advocacy lesson plan, Madison Sanders and Michaela McMahon. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

Never Too Young to Advocate

The Adopt-a-School Program, which is ongoing, invites students from Tampa’s Liberty Middle School and Freedom High School to participate in lab meetings and activities with Liller and her student team. The aim of the program is to introduce students to advocacy and foster within them interest and engagement in topics they would like to become involved with. Students hone writing and speech skills while learning how to implement change at all levels. 

“Young individuals need to find their voice early to become strong advocates and have an outlet for their passion for change. However, advocacy takes skill, and these skills need to be not only learned but practiced so that one is effective in leading change efforts,” Liller said. “I believe you can’t start too young when it comes to learning advocacy.”

Liller and the board brainstormed and came up with the idea of soliciting topics from the students that they were passionate about and having them deliver their advocacy messages via TikTok. 

A total of 21 Freedom High School and three Liberty Middle School students participated in making the TikTok videos. Five COPH Activist Lab members took part in the program.

Freedom High Schools students, left, get training in advocacy. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

Teaching Advocacy

“At first, you could tell the students were a little shy to the idea of advocacy and being an advocate,” Michaela McMahon, an Activist Lab board member and second-year MPH student concentrating in global communicable diseases, said. “However, once we got them talking about issues they were passionate about—school dress code, school lunch, increased access to feminine products in schools and gun violence (to see student-made TikTok videos, click on links)—and then validated that one can advocate for those issues, you saw them light up. Our main goal for the students was for them to gain a foundation of what advocacy is and what being an advocate looks like, which I really think they developed. I learned that a lot of the issues presented by the students were identical to those I faced when I was in middle and high school. Granted, I only graduated high school in 2016, but I felt that I could empathize with the students and show that these issues need to be addressed.”

The TikTok video focusing on the need for free feminine hygiene products in school bathrooms. pictured a female student frantically rifling through her school backpack for a hygiene product and coming up empty-handed. To the theme of “Mission Impossible,” she ran through the school hallways and into a bathroom, again finding nothing. The voice-over to the video ended with a call to action that said, “Schools should consider adding free, accessible [feminine hygiene product] dispensers in the women’s restrooms. This would lessen the embarrassment of having to ask for products when in need.”

Freedom High students with their TikTok Award certificates. (Photo by Ellen Kent)

Erin Millsapps, another Activist Lab board member and second-year MPH student concentrating in epidemiology and global health, said she got involved because she believes “advocacy plays an important role in the health of our communities. The students were extremely creative and passionate about advocacy. They were appreciative of the knowledge we shared and will take the skills with them as they move through their future endeavors.” 

The COPH students who participated in the program also noted that while they were there to teach, they also learned. 

“The students asked me and other board members about life after high school, the university and other job-related questions,” Madison Sanders, an MPH student concentrating in health policy and programs, said. “The opportunity to connect with the community allowed me to immerse myself in the Tampa Bay Area—and it reinforced my belief in the importance of public health.” 

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health