Listening to Youth

 “Community health is more then just environmental – it’s between friends and people too,” Suzanne Housden, 14

“Community health is more then just environmental – it’s between friends and people too,” Suzanne Housden, 14

It’s becoming increasingly clear that improving population health and reducing inequalities is related to our ability to create more space for leaders from the “millennial” generation.

We know they’re capable. Research has shown that today’s youth have greater rates of civic engagement and volunteerism than their predecessor generations. The younger population is more ethnically diverse than the population at large. New technology and communications and global interconnectedness are embedded in their lives, and not something to be “trained on,” and they are more open to change.

As Northwest Health Foundation’s three annual youth photo contests have demonstrated, youth see health with a much wider scope than the medical-centric view that often dominates today’s traditional media and advertising.

Because photo contest entrants are required to submit captions, we now have a rich body of insight into the complex lives and perspectives that young Oregonians offer the world.

Many entrants in the 2011 contest made it clear that health is influenced by the world that surrounds us. As Marisol Rodriguez Olazaba, age 15, writes in her caption, “Health to me is having a healthy environment to live and being able to trust the earth.”

Fourteen-year-old La Grande resident Suzanne Housden writes that “community health is more then just environmental – it’s between friends and people too.”

The stark photo submitted by Angelica Guitron, 14, “tells of typical conditions in my neighborhood: garbage, broken fences, no sidewalk, and no life. These conditions are very depressing and can invite negative activities, such as drugs. If there were playgrounds, people would feel safe and be encouraged to play outside.”

Indeed, depression and concerns about drugs and mental health are recurring themes.

But while the more than 100 youth who submitted photos were not afraid to share the truth with jarring words and imagery, the overall message was far from despondent.

Sixteen-year old Ireland Gilronan’s pacture was taken at Lost Lake after climbing 1,400 feet in elevation. “The joy of being in a beautiful place with my best friends for five days made me feel radiant.”

Frederique Blouin, 17, says, “take advantage of the beautiful forests we have in Oregon, go outside, breathe fresh air, and breathe to your health!”

Madison Bear, 17, writes, that her photo “symbolizes the importance of being active and exploring the beauty of the nature around you.

For Chloe Huckins, 16, the world around her includes her grandmother, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, who was the subject of her photo. Cloe commented that “she exudes a glow of health, beauty and vibrancy. She is eighty years old, and in her prime.”

While these leaders will continue to draw inspiration and education from previous generations, they’re ready now to take on greater roles in leadership — roles that will feature collaboration and diversity, and where change is a natural part of the process, and not something forced or planned.

While, officially, there were only three top winners in the contest, anyone who reviews these entries and captions will gain insight and appreciation for the true resource that is Oregon’s youth.

Clearly the future of Oregon is in good hands. Let’s pass the torch.

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The 2011 photo contest was coordinated with volunteers from the Oregon Public Health Division, and was limited to Oregon youth between the ages of 12 and 18.

All the photos and captions can be viewed here.