Activist Lab’s MOULA program provides “boots on the ground” public health training

| Academic & Student Affairs, Featured News, Monday Letter, Students

The USF College of Public Health’s (COPH) Activist Lab serves as a “hub of excellence in providing interdisciplinary advocacy, education, research and service opportunities for students…,” reports the group’s website. 

An important component of the Activist Lab is its MOULA program. MOULA, which stands for More Opportunities to Use Learned Advocacy, is a partnership between the Activist Lab and community organizations and agencies working on public health issues.

“I started MOULA within the Activist Lab so students would be able to work directly with agencies and organizations to get real ‘boots on the ground’ experience and skill-building in advocacy and leadership,” said Dr. Karen Liller, director of the Activist Lab and a COPH professor.  “Agencies and organizations put forth projects and issues they would like assistance with, including needs for advocacy. Students apply to work with the particular agency, and their selection is based on the quality and depth of the responses they write to the particular issues presented.”

Karen Liller, PhD, director of the Activist Lab. (Photo by Caitlin Keough)

Organizations such as the Ybor Youth Clinic, which promotes sexual health education for minors; the 13th Judicial Circuit Guardian ad Litem Program, which advocates for the interests of abused, neglected and abandoned children in Hillsborough County, including those who are victims of human trafficking; and Moms Demand Action, Tampa Bay, a group that works for safe gun storage, are several of the programs that approached the Activist Lab with their needs. 

This last academic year Kayla Wilson, who worked with the guardian ad litem project, was the only student funded. While the students do not receive academic credit for their advocacy work, they are reimbursed for travel expenses and supplies, up to $500. Working in the MOULA program can also satisfy the Applied Practice Experience for students pursuing their MPH degree at the college. “Students can use what they learn to further build their program planning, outreach, and research skills,” added Liller, who recently published an article on the Activist Lab and the MOULA program in the journal Health Promotion Practice.

Kayla Wilson (Photo courtesy of Kayla Wilson)

Wilson, now a second-year MPH student concentrating in epidemiology, says she got involved in the MOULA program to increase her advocacy skills. “Before starting my MPH degree, I didn’t have much public health experience. The MOULA program has really helped me transition into the field.”

As part of her guardian ad litem work, Wilson went to child trafficking court with Michelle Blume, the county’s guardian ad litem assistant circuit director. She researched services for children in the program, who are now in the court’s care, and also helped develop a presentation for volunteers, which ultimately had to be put on hold because of COVID-19. Wilson was so passionate about the program that she even became a guardian ad litem for one of the children with whom she worked. “I check in at least once a month and make sure everything is going well with the child’s current placement,” she said. “I’m also present in court and give recommendations based on the needs of my child. In my case, the child is young, so the needs aren’t great. But if something like new glasses or tutoring was required, then I would relay that to the court to make sure that need is met.”

Photo from Pixabay

Wilson says she found her “passion” working for the guardian ad litem program and hopes to continue volunteering with them after graduation. 

“It’s sad that some children do not have someone advocating for them,” said Wilson. “This project has really opened my eyes to how much human trafficking activity there is just in the state of Florida. Working with the guardian ad litem program has been such a rewarding experience.”

Story by Donna Campisano, USF College of Public Health