Looking to Empower Staff in 2022? Four Steps to Implementing a Peer Mentoring Program

Traditional mentorship in the workplace has focused on connecting an expert with someone new to the workforce. Workplace mentoring programs have been shown to benefit staff. They increase engagement, improve retention, and provide opportunities to develop skills.

In the last decade, technological advancements and the influx of a younger labor force have tipped workplace mentoring toward an upward mentoring approach. As the name suggests, upward mentoring involves a junior staff member acting as a mentor to senior leaders or executives. Upward mentoring has been shown to create innovative spaces and deeper work connections that would traditionally take years to foster.

Lily Benjamin, a diversity & inclusion and organization development strategist consultant, sums up peer mentoring programs well: “Regardless of our title or years of experience we can learn from each other. Through mentoring and being open to learn we can reach our ultimate potential.”

In preparing for our own peer mentoring launch, IPS’ research identified four important steps necessary for successful peer mentoring programs:

STEP 1: Define what mentoring looks like for your organization

Mentorship programs in the workplace are more than just a feel-good exchange. Defining your goals will inform your program design and also provide expectations for your mentors/mentees.

Consider the following questions:

  • Will your program be integrated into your onboarding process to help new staff acclimate or is your goal to create a leadership pipeline for prospective managers?
  • How will the program help the organization achieve its mission?
  • What are the tangible and intangible benefits to those who participate (mentor/mentee)?
  • What are the qualities of an effective mentor?

STEP 2: Ensure your mentoring program revolves around diversity & inclusion

The difference between diversity and inclusion is important. The Society for Human Resource Management defines diversity as “the collective mixture of differences and similarities that includes, for example, individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences, and behaviors.”

The SHRM defines inclusion as “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”

All too often, diversity and inclusion are used interchangeably, however each would require a unique approach in creating a mentoring program.

The program should support diversity and empower staff from underrepresented groups by developing their skills and expanding their network while also supporting a culture of inclusion. This creates an environment that fosters the sharing of knowledge and leadership among all staff, which directly contributes to a thriving workplace.

STEP 3: Support a growth mindset for both mentors and mentees

Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D. is a leading expert on the benefits of a growth mindset. She proposes that skills, talents, and intelligence are not fixed, but in fact can be developed with supported and continued effort.

Embracing a growth mindset is the first good step for mentors. It focuses on the process rather than the results. A few indicators might be the ability to:

  • Face challenges and recover from setbacks
  • Learn from errors and failure
  • Take risks to reach beyond your own comfort level
  • Cope more effectively with conflict and negative experiences

Modeling a growth mindset also has benefits for mentees, providing the space to discuss:

  • Challenges experienced learning a new skill or mastering a task
  • Approaches to problem solving
  • Relevant narratives that led to improving a growth mindset

The growth mindset allows for the focus to be on mentees and their strong points and to find ways to encourage the process toward improvement.

STEP 4: Measure, track and evaluate your mentoring program

If the program can’t prove to be successful, there is a risk that it will not continue. How it is measured, tracked and evaluated will depend on the program goals and objectives that were set in Step 1. Identify how to manage this important step, whether through surveys, focus groups or interviews conducted by someone outside of the mentor/mentee relationship.

For monitoring purposes, include the number of staff that signed up for the program. And, a listening or feedback session will help to identify program aspects that may not have been obvious during the program design.

Whether implementing a traditional or upward mentorship program, evaluation can include tracking the compatibility between mentors’ and mentees’ skills and experiences to adequately match and pair staff and also to gauge progress. Examples of skills to track may include effective communication, creativity, adaptability and tools/techniques.

An effective mentorship program in the workplace is not always easy. It takes time, resources, and energy to make it work. When done well, it can provide opportunities for each staff member to feel supported and valued.

Dr. Frecia Gonzalez, PhD
Regional Director, IPS

Dr. Gonzalez is a Regional Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Unleashing the Power of Prevention: Looking Forward, Public Policy is the Answer to High Health Care Costs

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That statement, submitted by Benjamin Franklin to the citizens of Philadelphia in 1736, was originally a warning to be vigilant about fire prevention. Still relevant after almost 300 years, that timeless phrase has become an American proverb. And its wisdom, it’s fair to say, has been almost universally accepted. Whether it’s speed bumps in a residential neighborhood, routine maintenance on the family car, or the annual medical checkup, prevention has become incorporated into our daily lives.

Another example would be the household fire extinguisher, of which, we can be sure, Ben Franklin would be proud. But Franklin had more than that on his mind when he drafted his essay on prevention for the Pennsylvania Gazette. To be sure, he urged the citizens of Philadelphia to take precautions that would ensure safety in their homes. But he also recommended the adoption of several public policies, measures enacted into law that would protect the entire community. In addition to regulations about the design of hearths, these included the organization of volunteer fire brigades and the licensing of chimney sweeps.

This forward-thinking approach, using public policy to circumvent potential hazards, is still one of our most effective tools to ensure public health and safety. Known as population-level prevention today, it has been successfully applied to many of our most pressing problems. For example, laws making workplaces, restaurants, and bars smoke-free can reduce heart attack hospitalizations by 8–17% according to the Center for Disease Control. And traffic-related fatalities have been significantly reduced over the years though the mandatory use of seat belts along with .08 alcohol consumption laws and DUI enforcement operations.

Controls on alcohol and tobacco products have always been a priority for prevention because they are associated with so many health-related problems.  In fact, data show that each of them, along with unhealthy diet and physical inactivity, plays a role in one or more of the top five causes of death in America: cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and injuries and violence. Of course, in a free society, we can’t compel people to do what’s good for themselves. But we can structure the environment in such a way that there are incentives for adopting healthy behaviors and disincentives for unhealthy ones.

The essence of population-level prevention is going upstream to address the root causes of illness and injury. Such initiatives are usually spurred by the work of nonprofit agencies, mostly with support from state agencies and private foundations. However, despite their success, resources to expand their use, such as funding from the federal government, have been limited. For example, even though 75% of our healthcare costs in America is attributable to preventable conditions, only about 3% of funds is spent on prevention, and most of it comes from states and local municipalities.

The costs involved here are enormous. In 2019, U.S. spending on healthcare – both mental and physical – reached $3.8 trillion, or $11,582 per person. That would amount to about 18% of the nation’s gross domestic product. What’s more, while these expenses have been growing for decades, the percentage spent on prevention has been declining. As such, the reason for the escalating cost of healthcare is not an increase in disease, but our reliance on treatment.

Access to treatment is important, especially for racial and ethnic minorities who have been historically underserved. But we can never expect to hold down the cost of healthcare unless we change our priorities and provide more funding for population-level prevention. More than three-quarters of Americans (76%) support this approach to healthcare reform, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Overall, they found that prevention rates higher than providing tax credits to small businesses and prohibiting health insurers from denying coverage based on health status.

But we need to do more than just provide more money. In our work to address the root causes of illness and injury, we need to go even further upstream and consider the context in which they occur. It’s not enough to attribute our problems to the irresponsible behavior of certain individuals. Nor should we rely on singling out the bad actors in the business world who perpetuate them for profit.


These are systemic problems, all of which are interrelated and each of which depends on the others. We may not realize it, but they spring mostly from community conditions like poverty, inadequate housing, availability of healthy foods, racism, crime, and violence. That’s why the status of a person’s health depends largely on their zip code, which makes it clear where our prevention dollars should be spent.

In the final analysis, we’ve only scratched the surface in our prevention efforts. It’s time we go deeper and make the investment that’s required to meet the challenges we face.

Dan Skiles
Consultant, IPS

Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Immigration is Mutually Beneficial. When will Americans Learn this Lesson?

As seen on the San Diego Union-Tribune.

As “the land of opportunity,” the United States has always had a tradition of welcoming immigrants. Indeed, as we all learned in high school, our country was built by such people. Mostly poor, uneducated and unskilled, more than 20 million immigrants came to America between 1880 and 1920. Despite opposition and resentment, they survived and prospered all while helping to build the greatest economy in the world.

America’s experiment in democracy deserves the credit. By bringing in new people with new ideas, it fostered competition, creating what became widely known as American exceptionalism. And it worked. Not just then, but even today, with almost half of America’s Fortune 500 companies being started by immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Now we are experiencing a new wave of immigrants flooding across our southern border with Mexico. Mostly people of color, they have mainly come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, fleeing oppression and violence in their home countries. More recently some 15,000 immigrants, many from Haiti, established a tent city near a Texas border crossing. But they all came here seeking a better life, just like those others did more than 100 years ago

After all this time, it seems like Americans would understand how immigration is a mutually beneficial process. On the one hand, it reinforces the U.S. economy on a systemic level, and on the other, it transforms the lives of immigrants on an individual level. In the final analysis, we need each other, especially now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has America suffering a labor shortage.

Unfortunately, America has still has not learned this lesson. Consumed by prejudice and intolerance, especially against racial and ethnic minorities, opponents fail to see the potential benefits. Just as their predecessors did more than a century ago, they fear the worst: increased crime and violence from a generation of freeloaders who present nothing but a burden on America’s economy.

Such ideas have been fostered by misinformation and spread through social media and political rhetoric. Growing in intensity every year, the problem has now reached a boiling point. Yet the facts paint a completely different picture. When we look at the research, we find that most new arrivals are law-abiding, hardworking and loyal, perhaps even more so than the rest of us.

First of all, contrary to the stereotypical depiction, new immigrants are not chronically in need of health care and other social support. Instead, they are healthier than expected when entering the country, willing to work and contribute to society. This is especially true for refugees like those seeking asylum in America. The federal government does pay the initial cost of their resettlement, but over their first 20 years of residency, they pay it all back and more in taxes.

What about the “rapists” and “murderers” we’ve heard about? The worst of the worst, coming across the southern border to wreak havoc and disorder? Again, these stories are intended only to frighten and build political opposition. The truth is that crime rates among immigrant populations are actually lower than those of native-born Americans. According to a landmark study by the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank, even people who have entered the country illegally have lower rates of conviction. In fact, 45 percent lower when comparing the 2018 conviction rates of undocumented immigrants in Texas to those of native-born Americans in Texas. Moreover, the data shows that rates of violent crime go down as immigration increases.

These data are not only clear but conclusive. Rather than being a burden, immigrants are a good investment in America’s future. Even so, many people — 42 percent, according to a 2019 Gallup poll — remain convinced that immigration leads to crime.

Why do so many cling to these false beliefs? Alex Nowrasteh, one author of the Cato Institute study, may have the answer. It “could be that people who don’t like immigration could just ascribe all types of negative behavior to [immigrants] in order to justify their dislike.”

It’s time to leave such false narratives behind. History has proved them wrong. Today we know the truth. It was diversity that made America great — diversity of people and ideas, brought together in a free and open society where everyone has the chance for a better life.

America has come a long way since its beginnings, and it has been an uphill battle. But through war, civil strife and political upheaval, the country has been steadily moving beyond its racist past.

It is time to celebrate people of color and welcome a new era of freedom and prosperity. Let’s not let petty biases and prejudice stand in the way.

Dan Skiles
Consultant, IPS

Dan Skiles is a consultant and former Executive Director at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health, and improve quality of life.

Our Right to Protest is Under Assault

“Speak up, speak out, get in the way. Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.” — Congressman John Lewis

Peaceful protestors have been redeeming the soul of America since its founding. They are among our nation’s heroes. Labor rights, women’s suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, voting rights, reproductive rights, environmental protections – all of these were spurred on through protest. Whether you enjoy a 40-hour work week, visiting the beach without oil rigs blocking out the sun, or your right to use public transportation without restriction based on the color of your skin, protestors deserve much of the thanks.

Women would have undoubtedly won the right to vote, but it was the suffragists who got it done. And the United States would have eventually withdrawn troops from Vietnam, but how many thousands of unnecessary deaths were prevented by protestors who kept the pressure on? Protestors aren’t ahead of their time. They make now the right time by appealing to our national conscience, educating the public about injustice and keeping pressure on the status quo.

Just as America’s progressive movements have relied on public protest to grow and succeed, so have they faced powerful interests working to stop change. Today, legislators are passing laws making protests more difficult, illegal in some states, and potentially lethal in others.

Since January 2017, 230 anti-protest bills have been introduced in 45 states. Thirty-six have been enacted. And 51 are pending, according to a US Protest Law Tracker created by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. An analysis of the bills by ICNL uncovered four themes that thread through the anti-protest legislation being proposed and adopted in some cases. As reported on the ICNL website, they include extreme penalties for offenses commonly related to protests; vague and overbroad provisions that can capture peaceful protesters; expanding liability; and encouraging violence against protesters. One example from legislation adopted in Florida protects a person from civil liability if they injure or kill a protestor with their vehicle when the victim is participating in a riot. The law also redefines a riot as an assembly of three or more people.

Let that sink in for a moment. A predominantly peaceful protest of people exercising their constitutional right to free speech and assembly, being mowed down by an angry motorist who disagrees with them and the driver gets a pass.

By intimidating protestors, legislators are attempting to hinder progress. These laws are an assault on our right to protest and cry out for our attention and our outrage. When you see legislators advocating for restrictions like these, look behind the curtain. Dig deeper. What interests are they really trying to protect? Think about the progressive reforms we enjoy that would have been unjustly delayed, or perhaps prevented, by laws like these. Protesters are heroes in our American story. The people who John Lewis said “got in the way … to renew the soul of our nation.”

Alcohol is Hurting Women

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. During this time dedicated to women’s health, it would be remiss not to reflect on a dramatic truth – women are drinking more than ever, and unfortunately, alcohol use is correlated to cancer.

Although 5-10% of breast cancers are attributed to genetic history, we now know alcohol is causally related to breast cancer. Even consumption of up to one drink per day is associated with increased risk of alcohol-related cancers (mainly breast cancer). Risk appears to be higher among heavy drinkers and binge drinkers, but even light drinkers have elevated risk.  

What does this mean for women? A lot, according to recent data. Women are closing the gender gap in alcohol consumption, binge-drinking and alcohol use disorder. What was previously a 3-1 ratio for risky drinking habits in men versus women is closer to 1-to-1 globally. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has only added to this trend. According to a RAND Corporation study, women have increased their heavy drinking days by 41% compared to before the pandemic. This is due in part to the prolonged psychological stress and increased anxiety, particularly for women with children under age 18. 

Adding to the problem, the alcohol industry is turning a blind eye to the breast cancer connection and aggressively targeting women. “Pink-washing” is a common practice. Multiple brands co-opt the pink ribbon with packaging taglines such as “Join the Fight- Drink Pink”, or “Helping Women Now.” Lower calorie alcohol options are abundant and intended to appeal to women. Overall, the industry ensures alcohol availability is pervasive. The message? Consumption is appropriate for every occasion.

So what can be done?  A combination of education and policy approaches are the best way to reduce alcohol consumption and cancer rates. Most women are unaware of the link between alcohol and cancer. According to the Public Health Institute, 17% of women don’t know that drinking has a negative impact on their breast health. A 2017 telephone survey found that just 39% of respondents knew drinking alcohol increases one’s risk of getting cancer. 

Policy changes could include incorporating cancer warnings on alcohol bottles and cans – a measure being advocated for by several consumer and public health groups. Increases in alcohol tax so the industry shares the burden of harm are not only reasonable, but also appear to impact rates of binge drinking. Limiting alcohol availability and youth access to alcohol does as well. 

In a culture where alcohol is oftentimes marketed as synonymous to a good time or promoted incorrectly as a means of stress release, policy changes like these can lead to more informed behavioral decisions and healthier lifestyle choices. The bottom line is, reducing alcohol intake also reduces breast cancer risk. We can all have a role in breast cancer prevention.

Find out if you qualify for a free or low-cost mammogram here.

Susan Caldwell
Senior Program Manager, IPS

Susan Caldwell is a Senior Program Strategist at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Fact or Fiction

Misinformation About COVID-19 is a Crime that Should Have Consequences

As seen on the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Some people’s staunch allegiance to misinformation about COVID-19 was sadly unmistakable at a San Diego County Board of Supervisors meeting on Aug. 31 when the board declared health misinformation a public health crisis. Despite opposition from close to 200 people and hostility from some of speakers at a 15-hour meeting, the board became the first in the nation to take such a stand.

Unfortunately, the rancor the supervisors witnessed was hardly unique. False narratives have been creating havoc at public meetings throughout the country. The rejection of science is being confused with patriotism. Violence and hate speech are being cloaked in the American flag. And climate change is being questioned still.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has warned that people are dying because of misleading or inaccurate information about the efficacy of vaccines, which have proven to be highly effective. Most people believe the science, but many, being misguided or uncertain, still resist being vaccinated, enabling more contagious variants of the virus to proliferate.

Consisting of false narratives, conspiracy theories, distortions, and outright lies, misinformation is created by special interest groups for political and/or financial gain. Then it is spread through the mass media without any regard for the consequences.

Such false narratives present a threat to more than public health. They can also be linked to the record levels of violence that are currently plaguing the United States. The murder rate increased around 29 percent from 2019 to 2020 — the largest one-year spike in murder since national record-keeping began in 1960 — so even though overall crime decreased last year, 2020 was the most violent year in the 21st century. There were around 21,500 murders in 2020.

In that same span, there were 7,759 hate crimes reported in the U.S., the most in 12 years, targeting communities of color, the LGBTQ community and various ethnic groups, among others. Evidence shows these events are driven by hate speech, a type of false narrative that has been increasing throughout the world, in online forums and even political discourse. The fallacy behind hate speech is that a certain group poses a threat, which generates fear that the threats are real and will somehow impact them.

Some question the willingness of people to believe such obvious propaganda. But history shows that when ideas are repeated often enough, people’s tendency to believe them increases. That is especially true when they come from a source that seems credible, like a person of authority or an evening news broadcast. Even ideas that seem bizarre can be accepted as truth if they are spread widely throughout the population. This principle was used by Nazi propagandists during World War II to spread the idea that Jewish people were evil blights on society and deserved to be eliminated.

False narratives also play a role in events related to climate change, including the drought, ravenous wildfires, and massive floods that are causing widespread death and destruction worldwide. In this case, the false narrative is denial. The science is well-established, and the counterarguments are complete without merit, reminiscent of when the tobacco industry tried to convince us that smoking doesn’t cause cancer. Nonetheless, people who reject mainstream climate science persist, accusing reputable scientists of having hidden agendas and nefarious motives.

Some suggest that social media platforms such as Facebook should do a better job of filtering out phony stories. While this is probably a good first step, more attention should be paid to the role played by the mainstream news media in the distribution of misinformation.

Such media outlets are relied upon to give people the facts they need to make crucial decisions about their health, safety and welfare. But many of them, some trusted by tens of millions of people, have clearly been responsible for perpetuating false narratives on a regular basis. Driven by financial gain, their entire business model seems to be focused on building their audiences by creating fake news stories, ones that are simply based on whatever conspiracy theories are popular on a given day.

The Fox News Channel has, by far, the broadest reach and the most misplaced trust, specifically with its shows “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” “Hannity” and “The Ingraham Angle.” Other problematic broadcast media outlets include One America News Network and Newsmax TV, but neither of them have the widespread and mainstream influence that Fox News has.

Perhaps most important of all, people need to be well-informed for our democracy to function.

The news media has always been protected by the doctrine of freedom of the press. But when a particular outlet spreads lies that work against the public interest, it should lose that protection.

In such cases, we should hold such outlets accountable by enacting truth in news reporting laws, which could be modeled after the truth in advertising laws we have now.

Most mainstream media outlets are responsible, but if a rogue operator continuously and intentionally violates its public trust, it should have its broadcast license suspended. It’s as simple as that.

Brenda Simmons

Brenda Simmons is CEO/President of the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Five Youth Engagement Strategies that Work (Even During a Pandemic)

Youth can be the most effective advocates and change makers. But for those of us in public health, engaging youth during the pandemic has been challenging for a myriad of reasons (zoom fatigue tops the list). In addition, students have busy schedules, competing interests and limited availability. This article provides five how-tos from three professionals with years of experience leading youth groups: IPS Program Manager Jovita Arellano, IPS Prevention Specialist Ana Hernandez and IPS Community and Youth Organizer Kate Santilena.

Students need flexibility

Youth and young adults are facing “zoom fatigue,” anxieties over what’s to come and many challenges that can make it hard to fully engage. It is crucial to be flexible. Listen to students and their needs. Kate makes sure to get student input on what time and day works best for her students to maximize attendance. A bonus of virtual meetings is that students can join from any location. But as we transition back to in-person, it’s a great idea to get input on a central location to meet that can be easily accessible for students.

Also allow for flexibility with the flow of content. Kate’s work is centered around alcohol and other drugs (AOD) prevention, but she also incorporates other aspects of public health to broaden students’ knowledge and keep them engaged. “We did still include AOD [education], but I wanted to tap into other things like mental health, nutrition,  physical activity and the environment because public health is everywhere and everything.” Flexibility in content allows students to expand their horizons. 

Keep it fun and have fun

No matter the age group, everyone likes to have fun, according to Ana, who runs the Young Advocates program for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative. She occasionally likes to have “silly discussions” to liven things up before the meeting and allow for a welcoming environment.

“Make sure you’re having fun and enjoying the work with youth,” Jovita explains. “Students have to see your passion in your work. If you are genuinely enjoying your time with them [the students], then they will also engage.” 

Connections are key for a greater reach

Partners can help you identify the students you want to connect with. School counselors, teachers and principals of the school you will recruit students from is a great way to get connected with youth. For the young adult population, start identifying college campus representatives, professors and advisors who know the student body. You can also use online platforms like Handshake as a tool to recruit. 

Partnerships also allow for youth-serving organizations to come together and collectively build students up. IPS Youth Coalition is a chapter of Friday Night Live in San Diego, which allows for shared learning experiences with youth from other chapters, friendly competition, and in the near future, camping trips, conferences and outdoor adventures.

Give students a good reason to come back

Community service hours are a great incentive for high school students to join your program. Tracking and maintaining sign-in sheets (google forms works great in the on-line space) can help you provide students with their completed hours for the duration of the program. They can use those community service hours on their college applications or to meet a school graduation requirement. 

College-aged students can get real world experience by joining your program. Ana is working with college campuses to offer work study payment so students can get monetary assistance while also getting experience. 

“Why should I join?” is a question you should ask yourself from a student perspective. Make sure to highlight the benefits in materials and during outreach. Jovita says she emphasizes a range of student benefits, like learning to be comfortable with public speaking, getting practice voicing opinions, meeting elected officials, connecting with leaders in the community, doing a report on their coalition work for school, earning extra credit, becoming school and community leaders, and learning to take pride in their work. 

Social media is your friend

Social Media is KEY. Youth are scrolling on social media pages and parents also use it as a tool to look for opportunities for their teens. Social media is an easy way to get your message out and to advertise your program. Have a page where you can easily share and recruit students, and have an online presence. Kate says, “Before, we were only working with two schools when we were in person, but now we work with six high schools in the area. We used social media to promote our program.” Instagram is a great place to start. Remind is another great tool to send out mass message reminders about upcoming meetings and events. 

The connections you build with youth will help advance your work. But the biggest benefit is making a positive impact in a young person’s life. 

If you would like to follow IPS’s youth efforts, please follow: 

East County Youth Coalition: @eastcountyyc

South Bay Youth 4 Change: @sby4c_

Young Advocates: @youngadvocatessd

Nancy Verdin
Special Programs Manager, IPS

Nancy Verdin is a Special Programs Manager at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

We’ve Overcome Stigma and Prejudice, Now Let’s Overcome Drugs and Alcohol

Pride Month sprang from the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in Manhattan. What began as an impassioned march to Central Park to commemorate the riots is now a month-long celebration at huge festivals in cities around the world, promoting dignity, equality, and self-affirmation for the LGBTQ+ community. However, as we wrap the 51st annual Pride Month, it’s important to reflect on another aspect of our community that doesn’t elevate us. In fact, it drags us down: disproportionately heavy alcohol and drug use.

Individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are 90% more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. More than a third (38%) of LGBTQ+ aged 18 and older reported past year marijuana use, compared to 16% reported by the overall adult population. Opioid use (including misuse of prescription opioids or heroin use) was also higher, with 9% of LGBTQ+ aged 18 or older reporting use compared to 4% among the overall adult population. In 2015, past-year meth use prevalence was more than four times higher among gay men compared to straight men. In West Hollywood, an LGBTQ-centric city, recent surveys indicate open meth use at events (74%) and at bars and clubs (68%) was an issue harming the community.

Why the heavy use of drugs and alcohol? It’s not so difficult to understand. For one, bars and clubs have been a central gathering place for us for decades, providing refuge, connection, and escape from prejudice. Alcohol has long been a backdrop in the areas where we have felt safe.

It is also largely a question of stress, self-esteem and mental health. Compared to their straight counterparts, LGBTQ+ individuals report a disproportionately higher prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – traumatic or stressful life events. A 2020 study published by the Center for American Progress revealed a dramatic picture of measures taken by LGBTQ+ Americans to avoid discrimination: more than half of respondents (54%) had hidden a relationship. Over one in three had moved away from family (32%), changed the way they dressed/mannerisms (35%) and avoided public places (33%). Alcohol and drugs, in addition to being socially normative for our community, have long been used as a poor coping mechanism and escape from internalized homophobia, rejection and shame.

So what can we do about it? It requires a comprehensive approach that includes important policy and social norms changes. On a policy level, the adoption of reasonable practices that optimize LGBTQ-centric entertainment districts — including addressing excessive bar and club density, operational mismanagement and community impact — is crucial. Pride events are another area where important policy shifts are required.

The “Tobacco Policies and Alcohol Sponsorship at Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Festivals: Time for Intervention” study observed that, while sexual health promotion is common at pride events, few events have policies promoting health in other areas. The study finds that while reducing and/or eliminating alcohol sponsorship of Pride events is challenging in the near term, “…we believe it is critical to renew a conversation about critically appraising the marketing efforts of industries that sell products that disproportionately target and harm LGBT+ communities and communities of color.”

There is also tremendous progress to be made shifting away from alcohol and drugs as a normative part of our culture. Alcohol-free gathering spaces and events can be cultivated by public health practitioners, LGBTQ-centric organizations, Pride organizers and public officials. The City of West Hollywood, for example, has sponsored a large alcohol-free space at LA Pride that attracts thousands of attendees for the past seven years.

Powerful messaging and initiatives from influencers and organizations that highlight health, wellness and self-esteem will make a dramatic impact over time in changing our community’s attitudes about drugs and alcohol. It’s especially important for those who are newly coming out.

Pride is a time to celebrate all that is great about our community – all that we’ve contributed and how far we’ve come. Now’s the time to look squarely at the problematic drinking and drug use that has long plagued us and that, tragically, is born from a long history of discrimination and prejudice. Everything is already shifting for our community and this can too. A 2010 poll of 1,500 people who are already out, found that among the over-60s, the average age they had come out was 37. In the group aged 18 to 24, it was 17. What a tremendous indicator or our progress toward self-acceptance and with it, health, wellness and self-love.

Happy Pride.

David R. Shorey
Program Manager, IPS

David R. Shorey is a Program Manager at the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

Why We as Asian Americans Need to Step Up and Speak Out About Important Issues More Often

As seen in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

My heart was racing, and my chest felt tight. Blood was rushing to my face, and I was feeling the urge to flee. That could be the typical reaction people feel when they are faced with a physical threat. Instead, I was having these sensations because I was in a heated conversation over a text thread with an Asian American friend of mine. He was accusing me of lacking vocal support for various AAPI causes and of actually being against Asian Americans.

I had to pause, take a deep breath and calm down. I knew that I was a passionate advocate for Asian Americans. I was not going to allow an electronic conversation devoid of context strip me of my values and merit. I had served as the president of a Vietnamese American youth organization. I had volunteered at Asian American cultural festivals. And I advocate for Asian American causes like voting access and Vietnamese language courses at San Diego State University.

I wondered why I was having this reaction. Why was it so hard for me to stand up for myself that I had an actual physical aversion to it? I’ve always been one to participate, to volunteer and to support my convictions. But when it comes to being vocal and speaking out, there was, and still is, a fear that I am not the right person to be speaking. I’m worried that I’ll rock the boat and disturb those around me. I’m concerned that I will stand out and attract unwanted attention. Uncertainty has led to my hesitancy and eventually to a silencing of my voice. It’s a trait that I think is fairly common in the Asian American community in the U.S.

My experience in our Asian cultures leads me to believe that we have an established decorum regarding behavior and social hierarchies that dictate whom we listen to and trust. We revere politicians, doctors, engineers, scientists and business people because we believe in their knowledge and their success. People who challenge that decorum or speak as an authority without the expected credentials often experience derision, judgment and unwanted attention to themselves and their families. This fear of reprisal is often enough to keep us silent.

Recently, however, I have felt the needed to be more vocal. Not only myself, but Asian Americans in general need to step up and speak out about issues important to our ethnic group as a whole. We rarely tell anyone about the issues important to us, like how Asian Americans are underrepresented in corporate management and at the executive level, even in companies comprised of a majority of Asians. Or talk about how Asian American hate crimes are spiking nationally. These hate crimes are not isolated in specific cities — they are underreported because of cultural tendencies to keep our “heads down” and out of the spotlight, leading to fewer police reports.

Major Asian American history is being washed over because we aren’t discussing it enough. Before the modern, COVID-19-related anti-Asian attacks, there was Vincent Chin. He was a Chinese American immigrant murdered because he was perceived to be a foreign threat to American auto workers. The Ku Klux Klan attacked Vietnamese Americans and their shrimping boats in the South because they were a perceived threat to local fishermen. After the attacks on 9/11, Sikhs were targeted because of their dark skin, turbans and beards. Asian American hate crimes aren’t new. They’ve just been lost and forgotten because we aren’t talking about them.

Asian American voices shouldn’t be heard only when we are feeling like our lives are being threatened. We should be vocal long before and long after the news cameras turn away from us to focus on the next big headline. For us to build coalitions and gain understanding in American society, we have to join the conversation. Standing on the sidelines and waiting for things to get dire is unacceptable. The time is now.

These days, I still think really hard about the things I want to say. The gears churn as I consider who might be offended or if what I’m thinking is relevant to the conversation. I just have to keep reminding myself when I’m ready to say something, that what I have to say is, in fact, worth saying.

Michael Thai
Digital Media Specialist, IPS

Michael Thai is a Digital Media Specialist for the Institute for Public Strategies, a Southern California-based nonprofit that works alongside communities to build power, challenge systems of inequity, protect health and improve quality of life.

I Am a Change-Maker in My Community and Here’s My Story

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to tell you why and how you should incorporate storytelling into advocating for change in your community through media advocacy.

But first, a quick definition of media advocacy. It’s the strategic use of media to advance policy issues that benefit public health and safety. It raises issues into the local or national conversation and influences policy making.

Stories can be an important component of an organization’s media advocacy strategy. After all, humans are hard wired to respond positively to storytelling. Chemical elements in our brain are released when we hear a story. Cortisol aids in making the memory stick when we are trying to make a point. Dopamine, which helps regulate our emotional responses, keeps us engaged. Oxytocin is associated with empathy, which is an important component to building, deepening, or maintaining good relationships. Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson writes, “A story is the only way to activate parts in the brain so that a listener turns the story into their own idea and experience.”

Pixar Studios is, no doubt, a leader in storytelling, producing award-winning movies such as Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and A Bug’s Life. The key, according to Pixar producer Andrew Stanton, is to make me care. This is the greatest story commandment that determines the impact a story will have on its audience. Tapping into the audience’s emotions may help them understand more about the challenges your community faces. It invites people to walk in someone else’s shoes for just a moment. Our main character is perhaps someone we all know and gives us a reason to care. Or perhaps the mouthpiece for describing struggles that we may all personally share.

Sure, visual detail, well-developed characters and a juicy plot are important to whether or not a story hits the mark. But if a story engages the emotions, and better yet, provokes a reader or listener into action, then… score!

If you still need convincing that storytelling will give your media advocacy a strategic boost, consider the following: there are more than 1,200 daily newspapers and more than 1,700 commercial television stations in the U.S. There are 11 social media platforms with more than 200 million users. There are more than 1,750,000 podcasts and more than 600 million blogs worldwide.

There is no shortage of places where people can go to get their news. So this is another reason to incorporate storytelling into your media advocacy – to stand out in a saturated crowd.

The mechanics of a story are simple: it involves a character who runs into an obstacle that is eventually resolved by the end of his/her journey. Along the way, the character encounters road blocks, hurdles, and villains. But by the end of the story, the character has undergone a transformation – preferably a positive one.

Before you start crafting your story, think about the goal you are trying to achieve. What change are you advocating? Who do you need to hear your story? Why should anyone listen to you?

As you start writing, begin with a hook – the sentence that engages the audience to keep reading or listening. As you craft this vital sentence, put yourself in your audience’s shoes: why should they keep reading or listening? Did you start your article with an interesting anecdote, quote, or surprising fact? Did you ask the audience a profound question? One way to engage your reader is to stir up their emotions, whether it is happiness, enthusiasm, grief, anger or frustration. Stories help transmit emotions, which are very powerful in getting people to act or behave in a certain way, preferably in a positive way.

From there, don’t forget the basics of writing for the media: who, what, when, where, and why.

Another important detail about storytelling is to show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me, for example, how upset residents are about living near a polluting factory. Show me through their thoughts, emotions, and actions of caring for a family member who struggles everyday with asthma. Don’t be afraid to get descriptive using sensory details. Vivid description is what puts the color into an otherwise black and white landscape.

After you have led your audience through the unfolding narrative of the main character, bring them back to the key takeaway. With what message do you want your audience to leave? What is the call to action?

Incorporating stories into your media advocacy strategy is a great way to bring attention to your cause. Reporters are always looking for the human interest side of a story. And they don’t have too far to go to find it. The people and communities you are advocating for can become the heroes of a well-crafted story.

Meredith Gibson
Media Director, IPS

Meredith Gibson is the Media Director for the Binge and Underage Drinking Initiative, Countywide Media Advocacy Project, and Partnerships for Success. She generates news articles to promote awareness of public health issues, collaborates on opinion editorials (op-eds) with community leaders, and pitches ideas and spokespersons to news outlets, amassing media coverage at the local and national levels.