Day 1- Opening Day

With the sound of high-energy music emanating from a large conference room and the flashing of disco lights escaping from the open door, I felt a warm welcome from the staff, young ambassadors, and emcees of the event. This was an experience crafted for the energy of young people but with the experienced touches of strong adult leadership and business/advocacy experience.  My young advocate was already in the room dancing to the beat and in good spirits when I finished my chaperone meeting and met up with her. The lively host, Yasmine Williams Woods (Christian YouTube personality), and her ambassador assistants set the tone and got the hundreds of teens in the room in the right mindset: “Tennessee…Stop Tobacco!”

We were greeted with a short, personalized story from a Mayor and a State Representative, who each had a message of meaning. My favorite quote from this bit was, “Know the Way, Go the Way, Show the Way.” And so off we went on our 2 ½ day journey to know the way, which started with a Keynote address on Being a Youth Activist from Ms. Eunice Namkoong who won the prestigious Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids National Advocate of the Year 2018. Take home message: what started as an offer of “free food if you attend a meeting” started a mission for her involving years of hard work to stop tobacco from harming people, and along the way making great friends and meeting awesome people… while also enduring setbacks and criticism. So real. So inspiring. I mean, attending School Board meetings for years before they listened to her policy change requests! Yes, my fellow advocates, this work does not become a success overnight!

That was followed by an inspirational talk from Rodrick Glover, who always brings a boxing glove because “Every day is a fight” that he is ready for, and then came the ice cream social (plenty of sprinkles) and a room of fun group activities hosted by the Truth Initiative. This involved opportunities to win Spirit Sticks and free Merch (how about that t-shirt that says “NOPE”, am I right?)

Day 2- The Breakout Sessions

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and that was well taken care of by Embassy Suites. Back to the ballroom of sounds we go with our emcees there to greet us. And then we were presented with another special treat, a keynote address from Dr. Michelle Fiscus, a beloved Pediatrician in Nashville and TN Dept of Health Deputy Medical Director! This message was enlightening, as we learned immediately the legislative issues in TN that block our advocacy efforts; the struggle is real, and I wonder how pervasive across other tobacco crop states this may be. Terms like “Preemption”, a doctrine that refers to the idea that a higher authority of law will displace the law of a lower authority when the two authorities come into conflict (State laws override any local laws), and “Agriculture Committee” come into play here. Wow, what an exposure on little known TN government facts and an embarrassing history of how we have always gone to great lengths to protect tobacco crops and sales in our state. Consider me charged for battle now!

With an intro presentation on the amazing work and talents of Dover Youth, we then broke into smaller groups to learn more with sessions presented by Truth Initiative, Dover Youth, and Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, among others. I personally attended the sessions on How to Empower Youth in the Grant Writing Process and Funding. Truth Initiative is working on a pretty expansive grant for kids to get involved with, keep watch on that one! Take home message: allow big dreaming for kids to provide limitless ideas, but always review the grant guidelines with the youth and allow time for conceptualization with strategic deadlines. My favorite quote from this bit and why we should involve our youth in the process: “Nothing ABOUT us WITHOUT us is FOR us.”

To then reinforce how we want tobacco and nicotine containing products to disappear from TN, we experienced an amazing magic show presented by Stephen Bargatze. And another treat is that he also is a strong motivational speaker who boldly shared his message and his mission to make sure these kids in the audience knew that they were special and important, each and every one. And everyone can make a difference.

To finish my last lesson of the day, I found inspiration in Project Based Learning presentations. This involves school-based or community-based groups that incorporate youth and start with a problem statement and the youth create a solution. There are some great examples from other counties in TN with teen groups starting messaging campaigns on social media and sharing how they worked with their schools’ curriculum to meet requirements; some things worked and some did not, and they shared their knowledge and experiences with the audience so we may go forth and make more progress!

The last plenary meeting was for regional planning, and this put into action the things we had learned. Our youth leaders were tasked with implementing the processes they learned, and identify who their local contacts are for help when needed. I didn’t know that we have local Health Educators through our health departments that can help with projects in our schools, but now I do! And now there is a (small) bit of funding available for tobacco prevention available in TN, so we don’t want that going to waste now do we?

Day 3- The Closing Ceremonies

The last bit of the conference was a change of pace, where we get to apply our knowledge in really fun ways… like game shows! The Think Fast game was a blast and should be shared anywhere we want our message to go, because I promise people will listen when it is this competitive. Awards were then given to poster presentations, and some of these projects inspired me for a Kick Butts Day opportunity in my hometown! And if you didn’t know about this (like I didn’t), this is an annual day of youth activism sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; more than 1,000 events are planned across the United States on the same day

Altogether this experience was just long enough because I was exhausted by the end, but still wanting to get a little more in-depth. So now that I am home it is the perfect time to reflect and write; hopefully this mental exercise of journaling my experience will help to keep me on track and not to forget any of the amazing messages I heard whilst there. Please share if this helps you as well!