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Celebrating Self, Family, and Community: Using Art to Inspire Conversation Between Teens and Adults

Hosted By: Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change

"We wanted to do something different and not just ‘preach to the choir.' We infused the conversation about alcohol into what we talked about at the art gallery—by using art, you can talk about the tougher topics."

– Sarah Johnson, Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change

Local Landscape

When members of the Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change (JM4C) Coalition reviewed the local school district's Youth Risk Behavior Survey data and a parent survey, they learned that parents needed and wanted guidance on communicating with their children about substance misuse. Brainstorming soon got underway for their next Communities Talk: Town Hall Meetings to Prevent Underage Drinking event.

JM4C wanted to reach people outside the traditional prevention community, so they decided to take a fresh approach. The coalition would not repeat the panel presentation from the previous year, or use underage drinking," alcohol," or any prevention terminology to advertise the event. Instead, JM4C set up a young adult art gallery at a local business for one night to inspire conversation and create a culture of open communication.

How They Did It

The art gallery featured work spanning a variety of mediums from local high school students. The artists were on hand during the event to explain how their creations had inspired prevention conversations.

The event also featured presentations from several community members, including a hip-hop artist, an expert in generational differences, and a photographer. These presenters emphasized the connections among art, perception, and conversation. Discussions about alcohol, substance misuse, and mental health were woven in. To teach youth a productive way to process their emotions, the photographer issued a seven-day photo challenge to mentor and mentee pairs to exchange pictures throughout the week and talk about how the images represent something in their lives.

According to JM4C, the following elements led to the success of this Communities Talk event:

  • Appealing to youth with a unique event format and peer presenters.
    Panel presentations attracted light turnouts in the past, so JM4C opted for a more engaging, interactive event format. JM4C made its target audience the stars of the show: student artists discussed their work, and many of their friends came to hear them speak.
  • Advertising on social media.
    JM4C used part of their stipend from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to pay for sponsored posts on Facebook, and the organization experienced a bigger reach with younger populations as a result. JM4C leveraged traditional channels such as posters, flyers, radio, and print media to reach a broader audience.
  • Partnering with the local community.
    Partners included the sheriff's office; the local school district; and a local music lesson, instrument rental, and retail business that donated the venue. These partners helped spread the word about the event and also provided speakers for the presentation portion of the event.


Participation soared. According to JM4C's Sarah Johnson, the event was "a much bigger success than we've seen before."

  • Attendance increased by more than 8 times JM4C's previous panel presentation attendance.
  • The photographer's photo-journal challenge engaged people for several days after the event.

As Johnson put it, the art gallery approach brought a creative spin to prevention topics, and that creativity helped keep youth engaged.

A Community in Action

Moving forward, JM4C plans to:

  • Seek out and possibly model other "outside-the-box" prevention approaches.
  • Continue using the school district's Youth Risk Behavior Survey data to determine areas of focus that the community is interested in in order to organize additional creative events that emphasize healthy communication between parents and their children.
  • Glean insights from the results of a recent parent survey—also gathered through the school district—to shape events around key issues like community violence and substance use.

Event at a Glance

  • Date:
  • Location:
    Janesville, Wisconsin
  • Topics:
    Youth Access to Alcohol, Communication Campaigns and Strategies, Parental Involvement in Prevention
  • Audience:
    Parents, Teens
  • Event Leadership:
    Adult-led, Youth-led
  • Event Format:
    Non-Traditional, Creative Exhibit

Host at a Glance

  • Host Name:
    Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change
  • Year Established:
  • Contact:
    • Sarah Johnson, Coalition Director
    • Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change
    • SJohnson@JM4C.org
    • 608-741-2105

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