From Tiny Acorns Mighty Oak Trees Grow—The Cobb County, Georgia, Alcohol Taskforce Experience
Planting the Seed
“How does underage drinking affect you?” When the Cobb County Alcohol Taskforce in Georgia posed this question at its first Town Hall Meeting in 2006, the most instructive answer came from a youth in the audience. He answered by describing the extent to which adults were providing alcohol to young people in his community.
Cathy Finck, Taskforce coordinator, describes this as a defining moment in underage drinking prevention in Cobb County. “This youth planted the seed, and we grew it,” she said of the push that was initiated at that meeting to identify strategies to prevent social hosting of underage drinking parties. “Our first Town Hall Meeting identified social host laws as the issue to address. After the meeting, we began looking at different studies on social host laws, public education campaigns, and public policy issues.”
By 2008, when the Taskforce hosted its second Town Hall Meeting, it was ready to roll out the Cobb Safe Neighborhoods Safe Homes Campaign. This campaign urges parents and other adults to pledge that they will prohibit any underage drinking on their property, report any underage drinking in their neighborhood, and take other actions to reduce youth access to alcohol in their home and neighborhood. “We wanted to change the community norm that parents and adults had no power to prevent underage drinking and the perception that drinking and driving was the major issue,” Ms. Finck explained. “A small minority of adults are the problem, and if we can get the bystanders involved, we can reduce underage drinking.”
In 2010, the Taskforce hosted its third Town Hall Meeting at a local university, gaining new partners and expanding its outreach efforts. The focus of this meeting was on enforcement and, again, on environmental prevention through effective policy change, such as social host laws. As with past meetings, the Taskforce involved youth in its planning and implementation. The Taskforce also continued to ensure that a meeting was not a stand-alone event, but part of a comprehensive community outreach plan. As Ms. Finck noted, “We knew we had to expand and take our message on the road. For example, for our Cobb Safe Neighborhoods Safe Homes Campaign, we created a 6-minute video that lives on our Web site and on DVD that could be shown at PTA [Parent Teacher Association] meetings. We also went to homeowner association meetings and our youth did a door-knocking campaign.”
The Taskforce’s hard work in moving its community from awareness of the underage drinking problem to effective solutions is producing results. One local jurisdiction in Cobb County has passed social host legislation, and another jurisdiction has legislation in the queue for passage. Underage drinking across the county has declined. As measured by the Georgia Student Health Survey, past-30-day drinking by 12th-grade students declined by 6 percent and past-30-day binge drinking declined by 10 percent between 2008 and 2010. In recognition of these achievements, the Taskforce received a 2012 Health Hero Award from the Cobb Chamber of Commerce.
For 2012, the Taskforce is trying a new Town Hall Meeting approach. Using the SAMHSA-sponsored Webcast of a Town Hall Meeting on underage drinking prevention by campus communities as an example, the Taskforce will host a live streaming event. The Taskforce is receiving many in-kind contributions from its various partners to make this event possible. Cobb County Government is contributing the space and providing for live streaming. Local media are providing free announcements. The Cobb County Commission on Children and Youth has offered $3,000 in prize money for a youth-created public service announcement (PSA) contest, with the winning entries announced during the meeting. (A PSA must address the problem of adults providing alcohol to youth under age 21 or how youth can change attitudes about youth using alcohol.) “We really hope to make a splash with our Webcast,” said Ms. Finck, “and engage those who won’t come out to a physical place. Instead of 150 attendees, we want hundreds.”
Town Hall Meeting Lessons Learned
According to Ms. Finck, Town Hall Meetings can offer numerous benefits to community-based prevention. “That first meeting in 2006 gave the Taskforce the ‘community will’ to proceed,” she stated. In addition, “Our Town Hall Meetings have given public officials an eyeful of community support for underage drinking prevention. The fact that we are able to mobilize people and show that this is a concern to them raises the credibility of our coalition and our actions. Our Cobb Commissioners now seeks coalition input when alcohol code amendments are proposed. Town Hall Meetings helped us get to that table.”
Her lessons learned in conducting an effective, purposeful meeting are to:
- Use a skilled facilitator to focus the conversation on solutions rather than complaints about the difficulties of prevention;
- Urge policymakers to attend meetings and stay for the duration;
- Connect the focus of your meeting to a specific objective (e.g., policy change) rather than to underage drinking in general;
- Ensure that attendees know your meeting is part of a much larger effort, such as State and Federal underage drinking prevention initiatives;
- Have an infrastructure in place to conduct meeting follow-up; and
- “Protect the time to listen to your community.”
Ms. Finck emphasized the importance of the last lesson learned. Although communities need greater awareness of underage drinking and the progress being made, they also have vital information to share. “People who want to come to these meetings are the ones that want to tell you something,” she said. “You have to strike a balance between talking about what you’re doing and listening to what your community has to say about the issue, and then engaging community members to make something specific happen.” At its 2012 Town Hall Meeting, the Taskforce will be celebrating the progress being made but also listening for “that next big idea.”
For more information about the Cobb County experience, contact:
Cathy Finck, Coordinator
Cobb Alcohol Taskforce
3162 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 260, #823
Marietta, GA 30062
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