Memo to public health officials: ask more young people to be advocates and educators

Editor's note: The work by students in Unfiltered REALity is similar to what young people do in Public Achievement.


Students created "Invisible Faces" to help people visualize the number of Americans that die as a result of tobacco use each year.

In the small town of Mitchell, S.D., tobacco use prevention is a more popular after-school activity than basketball.

But calling Unfiltered REALity an “after school activity? isn’t really accurate. Over the past six years, the student-led effort has evolved into a hybrid program: part youth empowerment and leadership training, part community building, and part job skills development.

Unfiltered REALity is funded by a grant from the South Dakota Department of Health and by fundraising efforts of the students. School district staff Karen Allen and Traci Moore serve as advisors, provide coaching, and help recruit students. They make a point of reaching out to students labeled “high risk.? “Young people see a lot of problems—at home, in the community—and for once they see that they can be part of a solution,? says Moore.

This month, Moore and Allen are expecting well over 200 students from 6th through 12th grades to attend orientation and training sessions that are conceived, organized and facilitated by students who were active the previous year. “From our training,? says Cheyenne, an 11th grader, “we hope that students take the understanding of how tobacco hurts people and also what they can do to help combat the problem in our world today.?

“As far as leadership skills go, this program has really helped me find my way,? says 12th grader Sonya. “Unfiltered REALity believes in me and sent me to SD HOBY, which is a leadership camp. I learned a lot and have been able to come back and help mentor our younger students. I really put myself out there by leading icebreakers, taking the lead in street marketing, and by helping our younger members learn about the manipulative tactics of Big Tobacco.?

Serious work taken seriously

During the school year, students meet almost exclusively on their own time to develop materials and strategies to educate people about the dangers of tobacco. They gravitate toward edgy performances and displays, and they’re getting noticed.


Students perform "Smoking, Table for One" at the city-sponsored Drug Free Day at the Park.

The American Cancer Society hired Unfiltered REALity student activists to speak at an event at the state Capitol, and they’ve been asked to participate in the local Relay for Life fundraiser for cancer research and prevention. Last year, they were invited to participate in a community health fair, with the cost for four booths covered by a small grant. “We started with a budget of zero, and have shown people how much power students have when they get excited,? says Moore. “They are so talented. They research the issues, and they know how to use new technology effectively.?


Students designed an interactive parent education program featured on the school district web site.

"The power of a small army"

A key to the students' success is knowing how to organize people and resources. Later this fall, the students are planning to work again with 4-H, the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross on Trunk or Treat, an alternative to Halloween trick or treating that provides a fun opportunity to promote their healthy choices message.


Ciggy Butts and the Grim Reaper appeared at Trunk or Treat, where Unfiltered REALity students hand out palm cards, treats, and other items such as toothbrushes that say “Have a Bootiful smile—stay smoke free.?

"Between the edgy street marketing activities, great dances, and getting youth involved in a ton of fun community activities and letting our voices be heard, Unfiltered REALity is having a huge impact on students, their friends and family members," says Travis, who just started his second year of college. "The Mitchell community is seeing the power behind having a small army of students focused on making a positive change in our community."


Unfiltered REALity students created “The Many Faces of Tobacco? to highlight tobacco issues. The art exhibit was displayed in local malls, schools, and at the South Dakota State Fair.


Wow! This is very impressive. Your students are really taking the lead in helping prevent tobacco use. My hat is off to you all!

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs