Activate Your Community

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Introductory Paragraph

There are many barriers that prevent and limit the efforts of communities addressing drug misuse and substance use disorder (SUD), but one particular challenge that many communities face is the ability to elevate their initiative above other local competing priorities. Identifying champions who can publicly support the coalition’s mission can help to build and foster strategic partnerships, generate buy-in, and increase commitment to bolster support. With a solid understanding of the current needs in your area, you can build power and mobilize the community by successfully bringing together advocates, policymakers, and professionals to take collective action and bring together other important allies.

Key Information

Whether you are developing legislative or regulatory efforts, building and strengthening programs, or attempting to reach a diverse audience with a wide range of needs, communities of all sizes should consider the following principles when activating your community around this crisis:

  • Put equity at the center of your efforts
  • Allow local data trends with health equity at the forefront to drive your strategy development and decision-making
  • Engage individuals with lived experience or those directly impacted by substance use disorder in decision-making roles
  • Create alliances and form strategic partnerships that build political will and support from a broad range of stakeholders
  • Build relationships with federal, state, and locally elected leaders (and keep them regularly informed of your efforts)
  • Understand your community’s most powerful levers for change
  • Focus on measurable outcomes at both the individual and population scale
  • Empower citizens by increasing public awareness and community engagement opportunities
  • Strengthen your system or infrastructure and take a look at local and state policies in order to achieve impact at scale

It’s important to note that any community organizing, mobilizing, or political will building strategy should be implemented with regularity - it should not be a single event or effort. Many organizations may be opposed to strategies that appear to be lobbying because of grant commitments; however, advocacy and lobbying are two distinct activities and there are clear ways that communities can be advocates without engaging in lobbying.

Strategic Partnerships Outside of Your Community Coalition

Anyone in your community can be a leader or a champion. Drug misuse and SUD affects a substantial number of residents in all communities. Having a wide variety of stakeholders and allies embedded within the community can help to advance policies, programs, and systems that can work together and improve local response. When appropriate, consider engaging other community partners to leverage efforts and boost support within the community. These individuals in your community could be key champions or partners along the way, but might not necessarily participate in the coalition. Some examples might include those below, but also refer to Strengthen Your Community Coalition [1] for a more comprehensive list of potential community partners. When identifying champions or strategic alliances, communities should consider their most powerful levers for change. Who or what in your community can unlock opportunity and accelerate change? What is the backbone of your community? Is it your local hospital system, community college, or a specific business or company? Communities may find that some individuals or organizations may have conflicting viewpoints – try to approach them and open a door for conversation. Sometimes non-traditional partners are only “non-traditional” because we label them as such.

  • Elected Officials and Local Health Leaders. Locally elected leaders and health officials can play a key role in leading efforts to improve the response to the SUD epidemic. Mayors, County Executives, County Managers, Commissioners, and the local health leaders they appoint, can be powerful allies in raising public awareness about the extent of the problem and the availability of resources. They can provide information on specific strategies that can help save lives. In many instances, elected officials and local health officials might already be part of some type of community task force or other group charged with coordinating and improving local response to the epidemic. However, in the absence of such an effort, elected and health leaders can and should be engaged in raising awareness about the issue and solutions while also increasing support within the community. Elected leaders, and especially legislators, play an important role in the creation of budgets and ultimately decide on how local revenues are allocated to different programs, so it is critical they are aware of the scope of these issues in their communities and what is being done in response. In most cases, they have political allies and are regularly invited to speak at community events or participate in meetings with diverse audiences where they can help to relay your message and share information about the response. Although locally elected leaders are important champions, it’s also critical for a coalition to work alongside its state partners to help align efforts for maximum impact, inform policy, support funding, and make recommendations on the scalability of programs that are working on-the-ground to avoid duplication or manage expectations that might not be feasible or sustainable at the local level. Civic engagement is a necessary component of effective prevention to change attitudes and norms around substance use. Collaboration among local government officials is a key to success. One model for local government leaders looking to establish or enhance their system-building efforts is "Prescription for Action: Local Leadership in Ending the Opioid Crisis." [2] This is a joint report from the National Association of Counties and the National League of Cities, which provides guidance on how cities and counties can strengthen collaboration with each other and with state, federal, private, and nonprofit partners. The report shows successful practices from cities and counties and provides recommendations your community or organization can use as you work with state and federal officials and nonprofit organizations to expand your efforts.
  • Individuals with Lived Experience. Communities should engage individuals with lived experience in decision-making roles - meaning those who have had first-hand involvement with substance use disorder and those who are friends or family members of those directly impacted. Individuals with lived experience bring knowledge, understanding, and experience not learned through formal education. To be most effective, it is imperative that communities honor and reflect the voices of those most impacted in their programs and systems, and if possible, find ways to offer fair compensation for their time.
  • Youth and Young Adults. Authentically engaging youth to inform response efforts provides multiple benefits. It not only helps communities identify creative solutions, but it also helps to build momentum across this particular population. When youth are engaged in their community, they build resiliency skills, leadership skills, and feel a sense of purpose and belonging. While many communities are bringing together subject matter experts from all areas to address substance use, many find that their messaging falls flat to the adolescent population and that parents are still challenged to find a way to communicate with their teens. Including youth in these coalitions and on boards addressing the crisis helps design effective messaging, highlights gaps only seen by youth, and increases the overall effectiveness of system-building efforts and those unique to the teen demographic. Youth bring energy and passion that can help increase action. Examples of youth engagement models include Dover’s Youth 2 Youth [3] and Manchester’s Makin’ It Happen. [4]

Strategies for Building Momentum

Effectively Messaging Your Coalition's Efforts
For the greatest impact, communities should demonstrate the link or intersection of substance use disorder with other competing community priorities, consistently focus on drumming up new interest, and relay progress made over time back to community stakeholders using a message of hope in order to sustain engagement. Drug misuse and SUD have consequences for all residents of local communities. The current epidemic increases costs related to public health, public safety, criminal justice, treatment services, and many more. Locally elected leaders are typically motivated by the economic impacts to improve local response, but a far greater price comes from the fatalities caused by the epidemic and related overdoses and the loved ones who must face the pain of those lost. This is what motivates many others to create and join efforts to combat the epidemic within their communities. Many of these leaders typically work in prevention, harm reduction, treatment, recovery support services, and other efforts that save lives and help those in need find recovery, but it may be necessary for communities to tailor messaging to suit a wide variety of audiences in a manner that speaks to the receiver’s particular interest.

Media Relations and Outreach Strategies
There are many strategies and options to help conduct outreach to the community and to decision makers. Outreach can include a broad public awareness campaign or something more focused that asks community members to become involved in new or existing programs and campaigns. Communities have employed numerous outreach strategies to provide education and awareness and to move people to action. It is recommended that a coalition adopt a comprehensive communications plan to help enhance each of the strategies identified and contained in their action plan. These might include the following tactics:

  • Creating public service TV and print ads
  • Developing signage for public facilities (like hospitals, malls, billboards, etc.)
  • Offering extended outreach within schools, faith-based communities, or other existing community groups by speaking at a local youth sports game or holding a local prayer day
  • Door-to-door canvassing
  • Grassroots letters of support or an open letter
  • Proposal of a public declaration or resolution for a board to recognize or pass
  • A community town hall event or local speaker series
  • Effective storytelling
  • Standardized talking points for the coalition and strategic community partners
  • Press releases
  • Attendance at speaking engagements and conferences

Leveraging National Events
The phrase “A rising tide lifts all boats” certainly applies when working together to change your community. There are many national observations connected to substance use disorder, treatment, and recovery. Most of them provide free resources such as toolkits, banners, fliers, and posters. By connecting your coalition or community to these national efforts, you join others to make a difference and leverage national visibility.

  • January: Every January, National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week [5]focuses on connecting teens, scientists, and other experts at community and school events to discuss how drugs affect the brain, body, and behaviors .
  • May/October: The DEA’s National Take Back Day [6]happens twice a year — once in May and again in October. Americans can clean out their medicine cabinets and turn in — safely and anonymously — unused prescription drugs. The DEA also offers a year-round locator[7] for where unused prescriptions can be turned in.
  • May: National Prevention Week [8]is an annual health observance in May focused on increasing public awareness of, and action around, mental health and/or substance use disorders.
  • September: Every September is recognized as National Drug Addiction Recovery Month.[9]
  • October: Red Ribbon Week [10]is the last week of October and mobilizes communities to educate youth and encourage drug prevention activities.

Public Availability of Data as a Movement Building Strategy
Making data available to the public can help increase awareness and move community members to take action. Local data is particularly effective, as people are more likely to take action to help their own communities. Many state and local communities have created data "dashboards," typically hosted and maintained by the state and local health departments. These dashboards often include information about opioids and other substances and related data on overdoses. Data not only helps build public awareness and transparency, but it also helps coalitions to support their identified strategies and to report back to their communities on progress over time. Most states and localities who have developed dashboards have greatly expanded available information to include additional data and information on other programs and efforts to address the epidemic. These provide additional opportunities for community members to take action. Topics covered may include:

  • Prescription Monitoring Program
  • Naloxone availability or use
  • Drug-related hospital visits
  • Crime statistics
  • Treatment statistics
  • Viral Hepatitis statistics
  • Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) statistics

An example of a statewide dashboard can be seen here. [11] For more information on strengthening data and reporting, please see Improve Data Analysis and Reporting.[12]

Impactful Federal, State, and Local Policies

Funds from the opioid industry will soon begin to be delivered to states and local governments as a result of litigation brought against companies for their role in the opioid epidemic. Various decision makers will need to determine the best use of these funds, and the following five principles have been delineated by Johns Hopkins to guide policies around allocation of this funding stream: [13]

  • Spend money to save lives. Given the economic downturn, many states and localities will be tempted to use the dollars to fill holes in their budgets rather than expand needed programs. Jurisdictions should use the funds to supplement rather than replace existing spending.
  • Use evidence to guide spending. At this point in the overdose epidemic, researchers and clinicians have built a substantial body of evidence demonstrating what works and what does not. States and localities should use this information to make funding decisions.
  • Invest in youth prevention. States and localities should support children, youth, and families by making long-term investments in effective programs and strategies for community change.
  • Focus on racial equity. States and localities should direct significant funds to communities affected by years of discriminatory policies and now experiencing substantial increases in overdoses.
  • Develop a fair and transparent process for deciding where to spend the funding. This process should be guided by public health leaders with the active engagement of people and families with lived experience, clinicians, as well as other key groups.

Available Tools and Resources

Changing social norms is a proven method to implement prevention strategies, and social marketing is a useful method to achieve that goal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice[14] provides tools and templates communities can use to develop communication and social marketing campaigns and programs. This resource provides tips on analyzing your audience, choosing appropriate tools, and evaluating the success of your messages and campaigns.

SAFE Project has four tools and resources that are particularly useful in activating your community. Please contact SAFE Project for more information on any of the following:

  • The #NoShame Pledge [15] is a virtual campaign and nationwide movement that combats stigma because there is no shame in getting help for mental health and addiction. SAFE Project has created a campaign toolkit for communities who want to replicate the campaign locally and use it as a community mobilizing tool to drum up political will and raise awareness about local efforts underway to combat stigma. The toolkit includes graphics, social media messages, and even a sample press release. By using the pledge as a catalyst, communities can identify new stakeholders who can be activated and drive social impact. For example, communities have challenged their commission boards, football teams, business owners, police departments, and others to take the pledge.
  • Be SAFE [16] campaign spreads awareness through a nationwide informational campaign to educate Americans on all issues in the addiction epidemic. The graphics target malls, public billboards, medical facility waiting areas, elevators, cafeterias, and other areas.
  • SAFE Choices[17] is SAFE Project's programming that fosters resiliency in youth development through collaborative and diversified approaches to substance use prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery. It takes aim at the transformation of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that empower SAFE Choices in all stages of youth development.
  • The Naloxone Awareness Project. [18] Forty-eight states have some rules to expand access to naloxone for residents so they do not need a doctor’s prescription to carry it. Communities that have significantly expanded knowledge and access around naloxone, sometimes known as Narcan®, have seen reduced numbers of opioid-related deaths. The Naloxone Awareness Project is a program designed for volunteers to visit pharmacies and talk to friends to increase awareness about naloxone access in their state and community. SAFE Project can provide free digital training and documents.

Promising Practices

All across the country, communities are leading efforts to advance innovative and research-backed programs and policies to make an impact on the addiction epidemic. One of the most effective steps that communities can take is to connect with other community leaders from across the country to learn about their initiatives and challenges they’ve experienced while sharing innovations and best practice solutions. Although what works well in one community might not work well in another, there are many lessons to be learned that communities can replicate successfully in their own localities. One such example follows:

State of Massachusetts - State Without StigMA.[19] The State of Massachusetts has developed a comprehensive anti-stigma campaign at the state level. This resource defines stigma and provides information on how it contributes to the current epidemic. It includes personal stories of people who talk about their own experiences with stigma and how they overcame it to find help for themselves and others in a variety of settings.