Last summer, while working as a consultant in the Office of Sexual Health and Youth Development at the MA Department of Public Health, (Borna) Nazmim Bhuiya was introduced to a leadership development and civic engagement curriculum the department had helped develop. Bhuiya realized that with a few modifications, she might be able to use the curriculum with young people to implement a Schweitzer Fellowship project.
That’s what the Harvard University, T.H. Chan School of Public Health student is doing now at the Tobin Community Center in Boston, where she’s implementing a youth leadership and civic engagement curriculum with middle and high school students. The goal of her project is to improve participants’ self-esteem and leadership skills, and help them set personal development goals.
“I believe it’s imperative to have the voices of young people heard, particularly on issues that affect them and their lives, and so I was interested in a curriculum that would inspire youth to speak their opinions,” said Bhuiya.
Bhuiya’s interest in empowering adolescents to take control of their health grew from her work on a teen pregnancy prevention program, where she engaged participants in an evaluation project in which they assessed the youth-friendliness of local clinics. She learned a lot about the power of youth empowerment, so to speak.
“I saw how excited these young people were when given an opportunity to voice their opinion,” Bhuiya recalled. “The youth were eager to share their recommendations on how clinics can offer informational support, which can help them make appropriate health decisions.”
Her project at the Tobin Community Center is designed to support youth as they reflect on their identity and power, and to also provide them with tools to voice their opinions and advocate for health issues that affect them, their peers, and their community.
Bhuiya is pleased thus far with the conversations the program has fostered among participants. She enjoys seeing them incorporate key concepts and tools of the curriculum into their thinking and behavior. For example, during one lesson on power, students discussed their personal life goals and vision. Many of the youth had previously given little thought to their futures, and Bhuiya began by encouraging them to think about where they see themselves in the near future, to make the exercise more tangible for them. As students began articulating their aspirations for the future—graduating from college, becoming a nurse, working in the IT sector—another youth murmured “big dreams in a small world.” The implication was that where he came from, achieving such ambitious goals is rarely possible.
The comment led the group to a discussion about power and self-determination. “One of the youth shared that they not only have the power to take control of their lives, but they can control the decisions they make,” Bhuiya recalled. “Another participant told his discouraged peer that he could achieve his dream by staying positive, pushing to do his best, and seizing opportunities that will advance him toward his goals.
“It was not only great to hear about the range of goals the students have for themselves, but to see peers encouraging one another and providing support,” said Bhuiya.
She is hopeful that her program reinforces for the young participants that they can be productive community members able to effect positive change in the health of their neighborhood and that they will apply the skills and tools they develop in other settings, such as school. Bhuiya would also like to see participants co-facilitate workshops as peer mentors alongside Tobin youth coordinators.
Bhuiya’s commitment to empowering youth is also rooted in her concern about the racial and ethnic disparities in health outcomes. To break the generational cycle of adverse health outcomes that disproportionately affect people from low-resource settings like Roxbury, where many are deeply affected by poverty, Bhuiya believes it is important to work in disciplines outside of the health care system to address the social determinants of health.
“We must tackle structural issues and policies that promote health disparities—for example, district zoning, access to resources, and quality of education,” she said. “And intervening with under-resourced youth earlier in their lives increases their chances to thrive and overcome issues of inequity.”
Bhuiya said the support of her Fellow cohort was very valuable in implementing her project and troubleshooting problems as they arose.
“My co-Fellows are wonderful, and we support each other particularly sharing connections and resources,” she said. They’re a great sounding board and help troubleshoot when any of us have project-related issues.”