Lifting Up Young Voices Through Art

Early on in their COVID-19 work, the Arizona CEAL team noticed that youth voices often got left out of the pandemic response efforts. “We wanted youth to participate in creating health messages for their communities and becoming trusted messengers,” said Omar Gomez, M.P.H., a former Arizona CEAL research coordinator. 

Amplifying youth voices provided several potential benefits in their efforts to reach communities hardest hit by COVID-19. The pandemic took a toll on young people’s social and emotional well-being; giving youth a chance to discuss that impact could help address the isolation and grief they experienced from interruptions and changes in their family, school, and social lives. Plus, young people who speak up can influence their family members to protect themselves against COVID-19. “You might not listen to a government official or an academic, but you might listen to your child if they are compelling you to take some measures,” said Linnea Evans, Ph.D., M.P.H., and former Arizona CEAL team lead on this project.

The team’s first step was to form a youth community advisory board that reflected the diversity of youth within the state. Collaborating with Area Health Education Centers and schools, service organizations, sports networks, and health-based career clubs, they engaged a diverse group of youth, including Hispanic/Latino, Black, and indigenous youth and those living in both rural and urban areas of the state. The team received over 80 applications and selected 14 members, ages 16 to 25, to serve on the advisory board, compensating the members for their time. 

Inspired by a similar project led by the Michigan CEAL team, the youth advisory board held a crowdsourcing contest called “It’s Our Turn,” inviting young people to share their creativity to help protect Arizona communities from COVID-19 and raise awareness of how the pandemic has affected youth. The contest invited people ages 14 to 25 in Arizona to submit artwork that incorporated messaging on COVID-19 vaccination and masking or artwork that raised awareness of challenges youth faced during the pandemic. All contest participants received a $10 gift card. Winners — chosen by public vote — received a $250 gift card.

Telling their stories helped them communicate and process their pandemic experiences. A 17-year-old contestant from Phoenix stated, “My motivation for entering the contest was both being a student advisor as well as wanting to be able to share my story and inform others about how this pandemic has affected me both mentally and personally.” 

Another contestant shared: “I am of the Hopi, Tewa, and Tohono O’odham tribes. Native Americans faced so many hardships with the presence of the pandemic. I stayed home not being able to see my friends and family for their safety and mine. Many people do not know my story of how I felt in isolation, and I think it’s time people do.”

The research team partnered with Young Arts Arizona, Ltd., to display enlarged prints of contest submissions that will rotate in public galleries across the state, including the legislative hallway of the Arizona State Capitol“It's really trying to enlighten adult leaders about the voices of youth. Decision makers see it and can interact with it,” said Samantha Sabo, Dr.P.H., M.P.H., and Arizona CEAL team researcher. Local newspapers and news stations also covered the art contest and interviewed the youth artists, giving the initiative even greater exposure in the state.  

Arizona CEAL researchers plan to partner with their state’s Community Health Worker Association and train youth health promoters using the messages and lessons learned from the art contest.