Wendy Schaetzel Lesko’s now adult son Morgan first became a health advocate in the second grade.
As Lesko recalls, Morgan had become “completely brainwashed, in a good way” by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who was in the midst of reshaping how Americans viewed tobacco products. Young Morgan was upset by all the cigarette vending machines around his hometown, especially after he saw some teenagers buying cigarettes via the machines.
By chance, the Lesko family learned that their town council was considering an ordinance to ban cigarette vending machines. That’s when the second grader sprang into action.
Morgan (along with his kid brother Max, who was in Kindergarten at the time) conducted a sting operation in which they bought cigarettes from a vending machine. They documented their purchase on film and testified about it before the town council.
“They ultimately triumphed and that ordinance passed,” Lesko says.
Today, Morgan and Max are both working on issues related to social change. Meanwhile, their mom continues to guide youth as founder of the Youth Activism Project, a nonprofit organization that seeks to support young people as they work on advocacy efforts in communities nationwide.
Since its founding in 1992, the project has supported a wide-range of efforts, from saving the environment to tackling racism and reducing violence. Youth advocates also have successfully worked to improve school wellness, including by increasing healthy food options in the cafeteria, improving access to water and getting rid of school junk food in vending machines.
Lesko sees young people as key partners in the effort to reverse childhood obesity, noting that the epidemic won’t be reversed unless youth also get engaged.
“It’s really about how young people can feel valued by their input,” she says. “The biggest issue is getting young people to realize there is no limit to their leadership… we’ve got to get young people to figure out how and why they care about this and how to change it.”
Young people will be key to this movement, Lesko notes, because they are the people who are most affected by the decisions being made to combat childhood obesity. They have to eat the school food, for example. If there’s a new requirement for physical education, they’ll be the ones lacing up their tennis shoes.
But the good news is that young people tend to be highly engaged on advocacy efforts, especially when they are treated as equals, Lesko says. The biggest factor in engaging them isn’t apathy, as many believe, but rather time, since young people’s schedules tend to be pretty full.
Lesko suggests advocates begin by engaging just one or two young people early in an effort.
“If you can excite and interest one person, and encourage them to bring a couple of their friends, I think that’s the most important thing,” Lesko says. “Don’t ask one person to be the sort of ‘token youth.’”
Lesko also advises advocates to be transparent with students with what the overall goal of a project is. If an organization needs input from a young person to receive grant money, for example, tell the young person that. Adults also can learn a lot from youth, especially when it comes to the rapidly changing world of social media, Lesko says.
And once young people get an advocacy spark, they can make big changes.
At King City High School in California, for example, a group of students worked with their vice principal and a snack company to find low calorie food to put in the school’s vending machines. After conducting a campus-wide taste test, new healthier, snacks were put in the machines instead of the typical sweets and salty snacks.
Another California school worked with their local health department to improve water access on campus through hydration stations. “They are incredibly strong advocates on a slew of issues,” Lesko says.
Lesko also suggests advocacy groups work with young people to create documents at are designed to specifically engage young people. She even pointed to PreventObesity.net, noting we could create teen-friendly advocacy emails for campaigns.
Getting young people engaged now isn’t just important for current campaign efforts, either — it also could shape the future. “Once they believe that systemic change comes through policy, that’s the pistachio nut that can make them lifelong advocates,” Lesko says.
Don't miss the rest of the Inside Track! Be sure to read the story of Boomer the Pig, whose Olympic dreams could inspire young people to get physically active. Plus: Find out what First Lady Michelle Obama is doing to promote the spirit of the Olympics in towns across America.