Youth leaders find their photo-voice

Sep 22, 2017

An important aspect of positive youth development is engaging youth in meaningful activities, building youth capacity, and helping youth develop leadership skills. As older students on their elementary school campuses, fifth- and sixth-grade student leaders can have a significant role in inspiring peers to make positive and healthy lifestyle choices. Student leaders can also have great impacts on their own families and communities by sharing what they know about nutrition and health in culturally relevant and accessible ways that inspire those around them.

Photovoice 4
In academic year 2016/17, three school-based 4-H Student Nutrition Advisory Council (SNAC) clubs in Santa Barbara County embarked on a photovoice project using the Children's PowerPlay Campaign Snapshots and Stories curriculum. The 4-H project was co-led by UC CalFresh Nutrition Education and 4-H Youth Development staff in the youth, families, and communities program. The goal of this project was to train student leaders to recognize and identify how their school environments play a significant role in students' personal health decisions. Through this project, fifth and sixth grade student leaders identified, interpreted and advocated for healthy policy or environmental changes within their own schools and communities.

The 11-week photovoice project started with students and project leaders getting to know one another and building trust with icebreakers, energizers and games. The students came together weekly to discuss barriers and opportunities for healthy play, physical activity and healthy food in their schools. Next, students learned to define important terms like “advocacy” and “photovoice.” Through these meetings and discussions students continued to explore what it means to “have a voice” or “a platform to advocate for change” from within their youth perspective.

Over the course of several weeks, students took walking field trips around their school campuses and photographed images of their school environment that they found significant. Although each student took a number of photographs, they each selected one image that was the most significant to them. Each student shared with the rest of their club why that image was significant and how they felt when they looked at it. Students then wrote a short description about their photograph, why they selected that image, what the image meant, and how that meaning was important to them as a student leader and to their school community. The project culminated with the youth sharing their collective voice with other students, school administrators, teachers and parents.

A photo taken by a student leader
As a result of this 4-H project, the students were exposed to STEM concepts including camera parts and vocabulary, lighting, framing, and computer skills for basic photo editing. They also developed new lenses for viewing their individual health and the health of their school communities. Some students focused on the beauty and health-promoting aspects of their school campus, such as school gardens, trees, flowers, and nature. Some student leaders took action photos of other students participating in healthy play to emphasize how their school campuses provide safe community spaces for physical activity. Other students focused on environmental aspects that could be improved, capturing images of school cafeterias, playgrounds, buildings, and fences to underline how areas could be improved or enhanced. Through the photovoice project, 4-H SNAC leaders met the challenge to identify and express their ideas for promoting health and healthy changes within their schools. No two photographs were alike and the youths gave their own unique perspectives about their school. From school to school these photographs and stories captured different ideas, themes, and styles of photography.

After the months' long project, it was rewarding and humbling to see the student leaders sharing their unique youth perspective. The youths' communities found value in their photographs as well. Images were framed and displayed alongside their interpretative narratives at local school sites, the school district office, the county fair, and other community sites as testaments to youth vision for healthy and thriving school communities. The school district displayed several of these photovoice stories in the halls of the central district building. Three students entered their photos at the Santa Barbara County Fair. This is notable because none of these students had previous experience entering their work at a county fair and they were able to gain wider exposure and recognition for their work. One student won first place and another received an honorable mention in the county-wide youth photography competition.

The UCCE Youth, Families and Communities Program in Santa Barbara County focuses on deepening engagement in nutrition education with youth and families in low-income settings while increasing positive youth development outcomes.This photovoice project was funded through local grant awards from the National 4-H Council in collaboration with Lockheed Martin, and UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program, which is a joint agreement among the U.S. Department of Agriculture/Food and Nutrition Service (USDA/FNS), the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) CalFresh branch, and the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE).

Photo taken by a student leader

By JaNessa Willis
Author - UC CalFresh NEP Community Education Specialist 2
By Shannon Klisch
Author - Academic Coordinator II
By Katherine E. Soule
Author - Director of Cooperative Extension, SLO & SB Counties & Youth, Families & Communities Advisor