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The No-Hall Town Hall Meeting

08/23/2012

Town Hall Meetings supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are held by community-based organizations to:

  • Educate community members about the consequences of underage drinking;
  • Empower communities to make environmental changes to prevent underage drinking; and
  • Mobilize communities around underage drinking prevention initiatives at the local, state, and national levels.

Achieving these objectives, however, can be extremely difficult for a community-based organization hosting an event if its target audience is made up of parents already dealing with overloaded schedules or students who view such meetings as outmoded. Some organizations that have held successful events in the past also may face “meeting fatigue” from concerned community members who feel they have already heard the same prevention message in the same way. Some community-based organizations hosting 2012 events have responded to these challenges by trying bold new ways to engage their audiences, sometimes with no physical hall required.

Letting the technology force be with you.

  • In Port Townsend, WA (population 9,000), the Jefferson County Public Health, the Jefferson County Community Network, the Port Townsend Coalition, and the Substance Abuse Advisory Board of Jefferson County partnered with FM radio channel KPTZ to coproduce four 30-minute live programs on underage drinking. KPTZ will rebroadcast each segment twice as well as re-air all four by the end of 2012. Segments address topics such as underage drinking prevalence and consequences; the role of parents, schools, and the community in prevention; and policy and legislative development for environmental prevention.

  • Thanks to PBS stations WGCU-Fort Myers and WEDU-Tampa, the April 3 Town Hall Meeting at Pinnelas Park High School became a Florida Kids & Alcohol prime-time television special on April 19. This program will be rebroadcast on subsequent dates, reaching a potential total viewing audience of 250,000 Floridians. In another innovation, 35 Florida Gulf Coast University students were able to join the April 3 Town Hall audience at the local high school from the WGCU studio in Fort Myers via Skype connections.

Serving community members an idea to chew on.

  • Pizzerias might not be ideal settings for Town Hall Meetings, but pizza can help make a community aware of underage drinking prevention. This past spring, residents of Morris County, NJ, who ordered pizza found the boxes decorated with stickers reading “Parents who host lose the most: Don’t be a party to teenage drinking.” The sticker shock campaign was just one effort by Morris County Prevention Is Key to make the community aware of a local campaign promoting a social host ordinance. In conjunction with its Town Hall Meeting on April 18 on the ordinance, 12 municipal alliances also distributed brochures, banners, and yard signs carrying the same campaign message.

  • Wisconsin’s statewide Parents Who Host Lose the Most campaign, sponsored by the state’s Department of Health Services and other groups, urged residents of 55 Wisconsin communities to post yard signs this past spring to promote awareness and enforcement of the local social host law. The Marshfield Area Coalition for Youth took this action one step further at its Parent Network Dinner by asking participants to sign cards pledging to not condone underage drinking. Those who signed were added to a list of area parents who support the coalition’s underage drinking policy recommendations.

  • Local radio “dinner invitations” prompt people in Frisco, CO, to attend a “Dialogue Over Dinner” hosted by Summit County Youth and Family Services. The dialogues are a regular series of discussions aimed at the parents of teens and focus on raising healthy youth. The organization used the results of a survey to determine that underage drinking is an issue of community concern and made this the evening’s topic on February 15. In-kind contributions from radio stations helped draw participants and donated catering services provided food for the body while the host organization made sure that the dialogue provided even more food for thought (and action).

Pairing underage drinking prevention with healthy living.

  • Zumba is an aerobic dance class set to Latin and other international music—and a link to other steps young people can take to promote their health. During Zumba Night at Pittsfield (MA) High School, participants could take part in dancing, yoga, blood pressure screenings, healthy food preparation, and learning about underage drinking prevention. Members of the local Students Against Destructive Decisions chapter used the parent–teen event to collect signed pledges to avoid alcohol from teen participants. They then created a chain of signed pledges that they hung in the school’s hallway after the event as a visual reminder that many teens do not drink.

  • On Earth Day, April 23, Milwaukee’s 27th Street West Drug Free Coalition organized teen teams to collect litter from area parks, trails, and neighborhood streets. Later in the day, the teens were joined by adults at a community Town Hall Meeting where the young people displayed the alcohol- and other substance abuse–related material they found. In only 2 hours, the teens had collected 2,547 cigarette butts, 499 alcoholic beverage containers, and 272 blunt wraps or other drug paraphernalia—making the link between community blight and substance abuse immediately apparent to participants. District Attorney John Chisholm and Common Council President Willie Hines spoke to the importance of the coalition’s work to reduce youth alcohol and substance abuse as well as the importance of resident engagement for long-term success. Local youth preformed a skit about the pressures they face as teens to drink alcohol. Attendees as a group then discussed what the community could do to prevent underage drinking.

  • The Dorchester (MA) Substance Abuse Coalition ran a month-long Alcohol Awareness Scavenger Hunt for teens. Each Friday in April, teens were directed to a new location. The teens took smartphone photos of one another enjoying alcohol-free activities and posted their images on the coalition’s new Facebook page. The picture drawing the most Facebook “likes” by the end of the contest earned the teen photographer an iPod Nano. This lengthy event ensured that teen participants received continuous reminders about avoiding alcohol use while it built traffic for the coalition’s new social media site. It also helped to show youth and parents alike that alcohol use is not the norm for many Dorchester teens. Media attention to the project drew unexpected queries from other coalitions about how to plan similar activities.

Pairing presentation style with the target audience.

  • At Washburn University in Topeka, KS, Safe Streets partnered with the Washburn Sales and Marketing Executives (WSME), a student organization, to create a flash mob that would surprise and engage the campus population and educate them about the dangers of underage drinking. On the day before spring break, the campus community was treated to a student-created and student-choreographed song and dance urging underage students to avoid alcohol. All dancing students wore shirts decorated with one of four messages about underage drinking consequences specific to Shawnee County. The flash mob yielded several important outcomes for Safe Streets and its prevention efforts. WSME paired up with the Student Media Department on campus to have videographers film the event and post it to YouTube. Local media coverage of the event resulted in news segments on 27 television stations as well as in the online and printed versions of Topeka Capital Journal. The Topeka City of Character recognized the Safe Streets Coalition as the “Champion of Character” for the month in April 2012. The university now is working in partnership with Safe Streets initiatives and projects, including projects in marketing, business, criminal justice, and sociology. WSME, having initiated a working relationship with Safe Streets, is planning to organize other events to increase awareness about alcohol use consequences.

Not all Town Hall Meetings follow the traditional tried-and-true approach, and some host organizations are finding that the format that works best in engaging their target audience may need no hall at all. The question to ask in planning an innovative approach is whether it will simply make community members more aware of the problem or whether it will move them toward solutions. The most essential outcome for any event—and the one that SAMHSA deems most critical—is that the event will result in social and behavioral changes that can measurably reduce underage drinking.