Health-Related Teen Media Partnerships

Somerville is a densely populated city of 77,500 people in the Boston urban area. Its residents are a mix of middle class, well-educated young professionals and low income, immigrant families with children in the public schools. The students must deal with issues of acculturation as well as the mainstream American problems of alcohol and substance abuse, gang involvement, teen pregnancy, depression, obesity, and domestic violence.
The City of Somerville and youth-serving organizations in the city have been proactive in dealing with these problems, especially since 2004 when a rash of student suicides shook the city. As a result, the city now provides after school activities, many grant-funded, that deal with educating youth about how to make healthy choices. Federal and state grants are available for youth projects that deal with substance abuse, and many urban social service groups use these grants to fund projects.
As a result, we’ve seen some important changes. For example, Somerville youth have seen underage drinking decline among middle school peers by 50% over two years since they began working with the Health Department and Somerville Community Access Television on community outreach, including media projects that reach their peers via cable TV and the Web.
Youth media in partnership with health providers truly are making a difference in our community, benefiting young people and increasing the overall effectiveness of the field.
Next Generation Producers
As a public access center, SCATV’s mission is to provide a free speech venue for the city on cable TV, providing equipment, facilities, and training to produce programs for the Channel. Youth media is an integral aspect of the mission, as youth rarely have a voice in mainstream media, and the images they see of urban youth are often negative. Next Generation Producers (NGP) is the youth media program of SCATV, which aims to give teens the tools they need to express their world using up to date media technology.
NGP has worked on health-related media programs with teens through a variety of partnerships, including the Boys and Girls Club, a Latino immigrant support organization, a counseling center, an anti-poverty organization with a Latino youth group, and most consistently with a youth group of Somerville Cares About Prevention (SCAP), a community based coalition supported by the Somerville Health Department.
NGP has found these collaborations an excellent way to help achieve citywide goals of having healthier young people, which in effect, increases the value of SCATV to the community. I will focus on the partnership between SCAP and SCATV as a case study as it has been the most frequent and successful.
A Working Partnership
The mission of SCAP is to bring together and mobilize the diverse community of Somerville to prevent and address issues associated with substance abuse while promoting positive mental, spiritual, and physical health, especially among youth. Their youth group is called Somerville Positive Forces (SPF) and its mission is to empower youth to make healthier decisions regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs.
Since 2007, SPF and NGP have worked together to produce public service announcements, magazine shows, and short original dramas on the topics of underage drinking, prescription drug abuse among teens, and depression.
SCAP benefits our youth media efforts because they diversify our pool of applicants, further uniting young people across cultural groups that might not have a similar opportunity in school settings; and, SCAP issues an annual high school student health survey to follow the rates of alcohol and drug use, depression, and domestic violence in the lives of teens (see: Working with factual percentages related to one’s community is powerful for the young people we serve.
SCAP sees media production, which we provide, as a tool for getting their message out and directly affecting young people through their prevention efforts. For example, for a recent NGP project, students videotaped a skit of a peer saying no to alcohol among a group of friends, representing the statistics in clear graphics throughout the piece. The piece was powerful for both the youth producers and the audience; and, it gave SCAP a direct means to get their message across to a target demographic.
Besides the efficacy of the message, a key to the success of the partnership has been the funding that SCAP receives to support their work at SCATV. SCAP’s primary funders are the Federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the MA Bureau of Substance Abuse Services (BSAS). According to the Director of SCAP, the funders appreciate the wide distribution via cable TV and the Web of the health-related messages that our youth produce.
SCAP contracts NGP to guide the media production aspects of the program, usually providing about $2,000 for a ten-week workshop. NGP has its own cameras and laptops to use for production, and two staff members who are dedicated to the program for a portion of their hours. SCAP has an adult leader who works with the teens as well, keeping the projects on target with the information to be presented. In addition to learning production skills, speaking in front of groups, and conducting interviews with strangers in the streets, teens begin to believe in the positive impact they can have on the local community using media.
Suggestions to the Field
If you are able to identify a health provider that is interested in partnering with your youth media organization, consider emphasizing the win-win partnership that this article highlights. The topic of health is a popular and growing trend and youth media and its distribution capabilities are increasingly attractive to many of these providers.
Consider networking with other youth serving organizations to determine if they have received health-related grants for programs that could incorporate media elements. Suggest co-authoring grants with these organizations.
Once you establish a partnership, here are a few important tips to be mindful of:
Research what health issues are the most important to teens in your community. Have a group advisor on board who is knowledgeable about the topic so that the projects are factual and relevant.
Make sure that the media production skills you offer are interesting and fresh. One challenge we found is that we needed to keep our media technology and instruction hip and new to keep the teens invested. Encourage participants to experiment, to write more abstracted scripts, and even incorporate stop-motion animation. Statistics presented in graphics are effective and give authenticity to the projects—they can be used in multiple creative ways.
Distribute the end projects far and wide through all means of distribution available, including live screenings, cable TV, Facebook, YouTube, and community websites. Enter videos in film festivals to gain recognition for participants, further spreading the information and message forward. This not only helps inform a wide array of viewers but also encourages health-providers to sustain partnerships with youth media.
Next Steps
It is in the best interest of youth media programs to seek out partnerships with youth-serving organizations in their communities to produce health-related media projects, attracting larger partnerships with local and national health providers. We have the right tools, approach, and methodology to make major changes in the areas of health education and access, which will enrich our communities and the young leaders in our programs.

Wendy Blom is the executive director of Somerville Community Access Television in Somerville, MA. She has an MA in Mass Media from Emerson College and an MA in Theater Arts from the University of Colorado. Blom has been active in public access television since 1997. Previously she served as Community Programming Director for the Lowell, MA access center, and as Outreach and Education Coordinator at Boston Neighborhood Network.