Guest Blogger – Ofelia Alvarado, Advocacy Director, American Lung Association in California, San Diego
For two years (2008-2010), the American Lung Association in California staff worked intensely on outreach and education, providing trainings and a forum for National City community members and elected officials on drifting secondhand smoke in multi-unit housing. However, it was difficult for community members to be actively involved because of family obligations and lack of time. A few made public comments, but the idea of smokefree housing was a new frontier, and public officials’ reaction was cautionary.
We made a presentation at a neighborhood meeting which the Mayor attended. The clamor by attendees to do something obligated the Mayor to form the Smokefree Housing Taskforce in January 2010. It met sporadically for 2 years but unfortunately, without continued community pressure, the issue waned and action was stalled by the taskforce.
In 2009, youth advocates from the local high school led the effort to successfully pass a smokefree outdoor dining ordinance in National City. Could this same strategy work to have the taskforce reconvene?
During the school year, the president of both the junior and senior class sit with the city council at their meetings, and the council liked to give youth some leadership opportunities. It seemed worth the try, so Lung Association staff decided to change direction in securing community involvement. We began to recruit youth interested in taking up the challenge to have the taskforce reconvene and finish the work of crafting an ordinance. We worked with Operation Samahan, a local youth organization, and a teacher at the Sweetwater High School in National City. Students were invited to attend a Smokefree Housing Initiative presentation and Youth Advocacy training, where four youth committed to the cause. The high school provided a meeting room for weekly strategy discussions about visiting city council members and the Mayor, writing letters, and making public comment.
I think what made a difference was that two of the youth were already leaders in the community. One was the president of the junior class and well known to the council members and mayor. The other was the coordinator of the youth group facilitated at Operation Samahan youth center and known by one of the council members who regularly attended their meetings. Additionally, the youth were well trained on the issue and on advocacy work and could articulate confidently.
After just two months, the youth advocacy work culminated at a city council meeting with public comments. The students spoke eloquently about the health effects of secondhand smoke, impact on children and elders, exacerbation of asthma and other respiratory problems, and their personal awareness of the need to protect residents. Most importantly, they made a plea to reconvene the taskforce, which sparked discussion among the council and led to one member volunteering to take up the task of moving the ordinance forward! Youth advocates were acknowledged along the way for their efforts and celebrated their success with a pizza party.
I was impressed by their dedication and commitment to make a difference in their community. They showed bravery in the face of uncertainty and spoke up for what they knew was right. This could not have been done without them.