Truth Initiative® kicked off its 2016-17 Youth Activism Fellowship program with 32 youth activists who are helping to create the first tobacco-free generation.

This year’s fellowship, recruited in part by members of last year’s class, is the largest and most diverse since the program’s inception. The fellows range in age from 18- to 24-years-old, represent 19 states from New York to Arizona and are a mix of new and experienced tobacco control activists.

Group shot of Truth Initiative's 2016-2017 youth activism fellows

These young leaders will participate in an intensive, year-long leadership development program that provides training on the public health impact of tobacco, community engagement, communications, and policy and advocacy. This year’s program will focus on engaging underserved communities by highlighting three major tobacco-control related issues: point-of-sale (where tobacco products are sold), tobacco product flavors and smoke-free environments.

“The Youth Activism Fellowship program is a multi-layered, interdisciplinary approach to tobacco prevention,” said Ritney Castine, managing director of Truth Initiative’s Community and Youth Engagement Program. “The ultimate goal is to create the next generation of tobacco control leaders because their involvement is critical to the success of the tobacco control movement in the United States.”

The fellows will meet throughout the year to connect with other youth activists from around the nation, develop skills through projects and activities, and learn from nationally-recognized public health experts.  

In September, at the program’s first gathering in Richmond, Va., the fellows conducted a community mapping activity where they observed how cigarette litter and product advertisements affect different neighborhoods. The activity taught the fellows how to identify tobacco control issues and improvements that are needed in their own communities.

During the program, each fellow will lead five trainings and submit a proposal for a local tobacco-prevention project. For example, one fellow has proposed working on smoke-free environments by seeking to eliminate cigarette use in LGBT bars in Florida. Fellows will receive funding, supplemental materials and guidance from Truth Initiative staff to execute approved projects.

In addition to support from Truth Initiative, four fellows from the 2015-16 class will serve as alumni mentors, leading training sessions and providing project planning assistance. Colin Welker, one of the four alumni, said it is an honor to help with this year’s class.

“I've taken away so much from the fellowship, and the staff’s commitment to my success as an individual is so meaningful,” Welker said. “I noticed a lot of excitement from the fellows, and I really hope they take every opportunity they are given and make the most of this amazing program.”

The program inspires fellows like Welker to serve as powerful advocates in their communities. For his local project in Northern Michigan, he created a Tribal Youth Tobacco Task Force to strengthen a Native American Tribe’s existing tobacco laws and increase awareness around the dangers of smoking tobacco.

Past tobacco-prevention projects also include a digital storytelling project, a petition campaign and a youth summit. In May, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids honored three Truth Initiative youth activists as 2016 Youth Advocates of the Year.

“This incredible group of young adults has committed themselves to innovatively addressing tobacco in communities across the country,” Castine said. “Their passion and determination serves as an inspiration to us all.

In January, the 2016-17 class of youth activism fellows will meet for a second gathering that will focus on media literacy, development and interaction, tobacco marketing and community service learning.

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