CGTI – The Community Action Team
This is the second in a series of blog posts that will be showing up over the next several days related to my recent experiences at the Cebrin Goodman Teen Institute held at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois on July 17-21. (In the past, I have written about the Teen Institute on my personal blog. This year I have decided to share my reflections on this blog instead.) For those who are not aware, CGTI is a week-long leadership camp for middle and high school students that focuses on developing leadership skills, taking healthy risks, learning about the dangers of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (ATODs), and working in action teams to bring about positive change in the community. Instead of breaking down the posts day by day, I have decided to reflect topically. Today I want to reflect on the heart and soul of the Teen Institute: Community Action Teams.
A community action team (CAT) is a group of students from the same school, organisation, or community who work together an adult mentor (either someone who came to the Institute with them or a volunteer staff member assigned to them) to identify perceived and real problems in their community and developing an action plan to address one of the issues by using the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF). The SPF is a fairly straightforward tool that has been developed over the years using research-based methods to help action teams organise themselves and their plan to better the community.
I have worked with several different CATs over my dozen years at the Teen Institute. Some have come up with grandiose plans that were, in all honesty, far more than they could reasonably complete, while others have focused on taking a few simple steps. Some teams have been very successful, but, if I choose to continue to be honest, most come up with a great plan but let the stress and day-to-day grind of reality wear them down and let the plan fizzle out. However, sticking with my theme of positivity, I am focusing on the great things I have seen happen with CATs in the past and, more particularly, the high hopes I have for the team I had the privilege of working with this year.
My team consisted of six middle school girls who are all going into seventh grade. Five of them will be at the same school together, while the sixth is changing schools this year. I have worked with middle schoolers at the Teen Institute for a few years now (more on this later) and this was my second year in a row working with a CAT from my own community. (Well, Champaign, actually, but since Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy all touch each other, I consider them one community.) During the Institute, we focused on the first three steps of the SPF: Needs Assessment, Capacity Building, and Planning.
We met once a day for 60-75 minutes each day of the Institute (except the last day, which was dedicated to closing ceremonies and farewells). On the first day, the students were challenged to think about what they like most about their community, what they like least, and what they would most want to see changed. They were also encouraged to brainstorm a list of problems that young people their age face, whether it is at home, at school, or in the community at large. Some of the issues they talked about were pressure to engage in risky behaviours (drugs, alcohol, intimate relationships), bullying, lack of adult support, lack of resources for young people in the community, racial biases, stereotypes, and profiling, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, dating violence, and fighting. I will remind you again that these were six girls going into seventh grade. These were their words, not mine.
The second day was a challenge to find evidence to support their claims They had relied on their perceptions, but now it was time to look at the data. First, they looked at all of their perceived problems and selected their top three: drug use, bullying, and negative peer influences. Then they examined the 2014 Illinois Youth Survey data for Champaign County to see if it supported their perceptions. (The 2016 IYS data has not been released yet.) The students took the data related to their major issues, divided the reports amongst themselves and, working in pairs, read, noted, and reported on their findings.
The next two days focused on building capacity and making a plan which, for them, were directly tied to one another. During one point of our discussions, the girls learned that they had one teacher at their school who would be willing to support them. This information came about when I asked a friend of mine who teaches at their school what grade level she was at and I learned that, not only is she a seventh grade teacher, she is also a data specialist for the building and she immediately volunteered to do whatever was necessary to help this team succeed. The students also believed their guidance counselor and their principal would support them. So they were beginning to build capacity by identifying allies. But on the last day, they also realised that they were just six of six hundred students and they felt the task of changing the school was too daunting.
At this point, my co-facilitator and I knew the girls needed a pep talk. So we talked about the purpose of action teams. We talked about the great things they had accomplished. And we talked about the notion behind the snowball effect. Yes, there were just 6 out of 600; 1% of the student body. But if each of them could find one other person to join them, their numbers would double and they would then have 12, or 2 percent. But then they could double that again to 24, which would be 4%. As the momentum builds and their numbers double, it wouldn’t take long before they could have a mighty army of young people determined to make their school a better place.
One of our presenters during the Institute talked about leadership. He pointed out that one person calling for change can be written off as a lone nut, but once others start following, you have a movement that can’t be ignored. This is what these young people were setting out to do.
Their plan became simple, yet profound: build their numbers and look at the data for their school to see what really needed to be addressed. Then, do it! With parents, teachers, peers, and their own determination, their school can become a better place for all.
That’s what an action team is all about. That’s what the Teen Institute is all about. It is why I keep coming back and it is why I keep encouraging these young people to change the world. Their school used to have a sign out front that said, “Today’s students are tomorrow’s leaders.” I told them about this and told them the sign was a lie. They aren’t tomorrow’s leaders. They are today’s. They just have to believe it!