Friday, November 20, 2015

Effecting Change on a National Level: 3 Lessons I've Learned

Youth leader and activist Susan Rosenstock contributed today's post. She is a cofounder of umttr, a nonprofit that champions the caring support and mental well-being of teens.

My 16-year old son Evan, a high school sophomore, took his life on May 20, 2013, leaving a community shocked and saddened. 

Evan had never suffered from any mental illness prior to a basketball injury. That injury led to a back surgery, which then led him to feeling as though he'd lost his identity as a varsity athlete.

Four of Evan's friends came to me and said, “We have to do something to raise awareness about depression and teen suicide because, if this could happen to a kid like Evan, it could happen to anyone.” Their concern became the foundation of our non-profit umttr (you matter).

umttr has grown more than I would have believed possible only two years ago. With that growth, I have learned what it takes to create positive change in a community and on a national scale.

How do you do it? Here are the three most important lessons I can pass on to anyone hoping to effect change:

1. One size does not fit all.

To reach a large audience effectively, you need to understand what motivates that audience. What may work for adults may not work for teenage students. Be sure to tailor your promotional activities to the audience you want to reach by asking that audience what would work. Don’t guess! 

We work with teens and often find ourselves in situations where the adults and teens disagree about how to market to the “teen” audience. We always go with the teens.

2. Ask, ask ask.

Ask a sample of your audience about your promotional plans. Ask sponsors about the best way you can work with them for mutual benefit. Ask other activists if you can help to advance their goals. When in doubt, ask

Here's an example. When the Campaign to Change Direction, a White House Initiative launched by Michelle Obama in March 2015, asked umttr to become a founding member, we made a pledge to educate 70,000 students about the five signs of emotional distress over five years. In just six months we have already reached 50,000. All the campaign had to do was ask.

3. You're only as good as your words.

Language matters. Check with other activists, educators, nonprofits and companies in your field, to make sure the language you’re using promotes effective change.

We try, for example, never to say an individual “committed suicide.” That language still carries the stigma of suicide as a crime. Saying someone “died by suicide” or “ended his life” is preferred. This may seem like a small difference, but changing word-choice alone represents a big step toward recognizing that every suicide can be prevented.
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