Beecher Terrace, the Algonquin neighborhood and the Shawnee neighborhood are areas of Louisville where stories of violence and hopelessness show up on the nightly news, but these West Louisville communities also are home to youths working to make a change for the better.
The Louisville Youth Voices against Violence (LYVV) Fellows work part-time for the University of Louisville’s Office of Public Health Practice (OPHP), an entity of the UofL School of Public Health and Information Sciences. The eight participants, ages 16-24, are residents of West Louisville, and were hired this year through a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant, which established UofL’s National Center of Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention (YVPRC). During their two-year fellowship, they are helping design and implement a campaign to change perceptions about violence, and ultimately destructive behaviors.
“It is a challenge to survive, at any moment I could get shot and killed,” said Jessica Murrah, a LYVV Fellow and Jefferson Community and Technical College student. “When I leave home and walk to the bus stop, I call my parents so they know that I made it, and then I call them when I board the bus, and again, when I arrive at work. I appreciate that they care about me.”
Murrah says the work she’s doing with UofL is important “because not only are we trying to make a change in our community, we also are making a change within ourselves.
“I want to learn to be a strong force that people can look up to,” she said.
The campaign work
Each of the youth fellows works 20 hours a week on various aspects of the violence prevention campaign that, when implemented in Spring 2017, will utilize social media and other forms of media to connect cultural history and racial/ethnic identity.
“Science tells us that social norms affect individual behavior. If we think people who are like us act a certain way or expect us to act a certain way in a specific situation, we’re more likely to act that way – whether we agree with it or not. But sometimes, our perceptions of those norms are inaccurate,” said Monica Wendel, DrPH, MA, associate dean for public health practice, and principal investigator of the CDC grant. “Media often make things worse by only portraying negative images and narratives of minority populations, while the positive majority of those populations remains unseen.”
The youth fellows are working with the OPHP and its partners to oppose the perception that violence is normal, accepted and expected, particularly among African American youth.
The efforts of the fellows are broken down into several categories:
- History and social action – Fellows research African American history, participate in learning sessions related to elements of African American history, and take part in discussions related to history and social action.
- Campaign work – The youth serve on the Campaign Design Committee, along with YVPRC community partners, to develop the campaign message, identify relevant historical components, decide on media outlets for dissemination, and recruit youth to help test the message.
- Creative/personal development opportunities – Fellows engage with YVPRC partners to creatively express ideas and perceptions about various aspects of the work, and engage in opportunities for personal development in several areas including activism, advocacy and leadership.
An opportunity of a lifetime
“Some of our fellows had never left Louisville, and our goal is to expose them to opportunities for growth and development, help them network, take them to other universities, and build critical consciousness necessary to be positive social agents of change within their communities,” said Monique Ingram, MPH, director of the Office of Public Health Practice. “We want to set them up for success, and our recent trip to Washington, D.C., was an experience of a lifetime for these young people.”
The trip was planned so the fellows could take part in the dedication ceremony of the Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture, and be among the first to encounter hands-on exhibits related to their history.
“Going to the new museum was phenomenal; looking around seeing thousands of African Americans and others gathering to celebrate the great things that we as a race have accomplished was extraordinary. It will live in me forever,” said youth fellow Jailen Leavell.
The experience fit perfectly within the focus of the campaign, according to Ingram.
“Cultural history and its effect in cultivating positive racial identity as a mechanism for youth violence prevention will be a key component of our public communication efforts,” she said.
The increased understanding of African American history, and exposure to new ways of communicating about this heritage will help inform the campaign development. Photos of the youth in historic places throughout Washington, D.C., as well as video of them reflecting on their history and its relationship to racial identity, will be used in the campaign.
During the five-day trip, the youth also had the opportunity to meet lawmakers, visit several monuments and historical sites such as the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum, and tour Howard University and Georgetown University.