Youth, empowerment, data and trust: A conversation with Rise Above Colorado

Partner Spotlight | Blog | 9 mins.
Written By: Kelsey Thompson | Posted On: 01/07/2021

We had the privilege of sitting down with Jonathan Judge and Stazi Snelling, from our partner Rise Above Colorado, to pick their brains about how they effectively engage with youth to create meaningful connections and dialogue, both in-person and online.

Rise Above Colorado is a drug misuse prevention organization with a track record of success in helping youth to feel empowered and to make healthy choices. Research shows that if teens understand the risks of using a particular drug, usage declines. Rise Above Colorado is proof – the organization measurably impacts teen perceptions and attitudes about the risks of substance abuse by communicating in a compelling, relatable, and honest way. 

Since the release of our Future of Giving report, created in partnership with cultural consultancy sparks&honey, we have talked a lot about the importance of engaging the next generation as advocates, consumers, donors, and leaders. 

Whether the “next generation” in question is Millennials, Gen Z, or even younger, Rise Above Colorado’s insights on authentic communication are useful in any context and we’re excited to share them. Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.


MFF: Can you start by introducing yourself and what your role is with Rise Above Colorado?

Jonathan Judge: I’m the Director of Youth Engagement at Rise Above Colorado. I started the organization with Executive Director Kent MacLennan about 12 years ago. 

Stazi Snelling: I’m one of the Youth Partners for Rise Above Colorado and I have been here for just over three years, which is exciting. Me and the other Youth Partner are involved in all levels of the organization to provide our perspective on the work that we’re doing.


MFF: What would you say makes Rise Above Colorado different from other youth-oriented organizations?

Judge: We really pride ourselves on upstream prevention. What that means to us is providing young adults with the resources, knowledge, and skills to empower themselves and others to live a life free of drug misuse. So it’s a more holistic approach than a lot of prevention programs. We were some of the pioneers in social and digital media, which we use to scale our messaging in a way that was just not done previously. And we really encourage peer-to-peer education, so the way we empower and equip teens with knowledge and resources is not top-down, it’s really organic amongst young adults themselves. We credit our success to that approach. 

Snelling: Yeah, I definitely agree. The only piece that I would add is our focus on collaboration, especially with other organizations. It’s so valuable to bring people together who have different strengths, that allows us to connect about lessons learned or approaches and activities that have worked for people. 


MFF: What would you say are some misconceptions people have about your work, both in terms of working with teens and preventing drug abuse?

Judge: I think the biggest misperception is that most teens are out partying, most teens are out using drugs, most teens are, you know, pick any stereotype out of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The keyword there is misperception. The data is very clear on this and has been for a while, that most teens aren’t using drugs and alcohol. And that’s not to minimize the challenges that are out there, but it’s important to work in a fact-based reality. 

As social animals, we’re inclined to pursue what we think is the norm. So as an organization, we embrace what’s called positive community norms. That means elevating the positive and focusing on data and evidence to change the narrative. It creates a different, fact-based environment through which youth can better approach life decisions and relationships. We go where the data leads us, we work to have resources at hand, and try to break up stigma to the best of our ability. Through that approach, we can change conversations and environments and get results.

Snelling: As our other youth partner, Maelah, says, it’s such a relief to have an organization talk about and promote the healthy and positive and exciting things that youth are doing. So many social movements are started and led by young people and to focus on those positive facts creates a different spin. Balancing information about the dangers of using substances and the risks involved, while also talking about alternatives and things youth are passionate about is so effective. 


MFF: The focus on facts and positivity is so relevant today with widespread misinformation and polarization affecting nearly every industry. It makes sense that offering a different, but fact-based, narrative would resonate. 

MFF: You’ve mentioned empowering young adults. How do you define empowerment?

Snelling: Empowerment, when it comes to youth, is about truly listening to the perspectives and ideas that young people have and letting them lead from the very beginning. At the same time, it’s about providing them with the support and resources they need for those ideas to come to life. I think that’s a very important balance to strike. We want youth to lead and follow their passions and be involved in issues that are affecting them but we also have to recognize that youth may not have access to funding or know what’s out there already. To have adults help connect youth, support them and help develop their ideas, I think is exactly what’s needed.

There’s a phrase that’s been used in many different spaces by youth, “Nothing about us, without us.” I can’t remember where it started, but it fits. 


MFF: I can see how that would apply in many different spaces, especially after the social movements this year that made so many industries and organizations realize they need to better address diversity and inclusion.

MFF: How does Rise Above Colorado live up to “Nothing about us, without us;” how do youth get involved with the organization, and what are their roles?

Snelling: A youth-adult partnership is just about creating an authentic relationship between two people and that means taking the time to get to know each other. We’re able to bounce ideas off of each other, come up with new ideas, and share in leadership. The other Youth Partner, Maelah, and I were hired to provide a youth perspective. We attend and contribute to staff meetings, we review materials for projects, we co-present at conferences and workshops. We may even sit in on board meetings and contribute when it’s appropriate. I feel extremely valued in the Rise Above organization as an equal employee, which is awesome. 

The Teen Action Council is slightly different and there’s a few ways that they are engaged. One of our new models is called “Lead the Change CO”. It’s an approach to help youth come up with a group project they are collectively passionate about. They develop it from the very beginning, then they look at resources that are already available and where the gaps are. Then they come up with a plan for what they want to do around that issue. So far, I think they have really enjoyed that. The Executive Teens of the Teen Action Council have also been very helpful during this time, when we’re not able to be in person, to create connections between peers. 

Judge: Right now, not only with our work, social media makes it so much easier to see what’s happening in real-time in your community, across the state, nationally, internationally. It’s so much easier to elevate voices and to connect in that social space. We have a “Together We Rise” section on our website where teens can submit their own content. We want to embrace their perspectives, elevate them, and connect them to others.


MFF: You touched on social media a bit but can you talk more about the role of social media and the role of educators in Rise Above Colorado’s work?

Judge: Starting with educators, we rely heavily on our partners within school districts to help disseminate a lot of our free resources. In particular, the one that we’re really proud of is the “Not Prescribed” lesson, which was fully funded by the Morgridge Family Foundation. It was born out of a need we saw years ago to equip teens with credible scientific information in a way that was relatable to them. We had youth input throughout, we had storytelling with young adults that lead the lesson. We’ve developed a number of other additional resources – that are all free and all available online – that address everything from drugs and alcohol to critical thinking skills. The goal is to help teens understand the data, and to take ownership of that data so that they not only understand it, but can have it inform their lives, their relationships, their future, and the goals they’re establishing for themselves. 

Pivoting to social and digital media, that’s where we do a lot of our communication. We’re talking Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, as well as banner ads and pre-roll ads. We have content that plays before the latest YouTube videos. We’re really trying to stay ahead of industry standards so we can have our messaging be a positive force in a place that can sometimes be a negative space. We as an organization can reach approximately 90% of Colorado’s teens through Snapchat alone, which is mind-boggling, terrifying, and amazing, all at the same time. We try to embrace the world as it is while simultaneously working toward what can and should be. We can be a force for good while equipping teens with the skills to navigate that space and to help them better understand that what they’re often seeing on social media is a highlight reel from their peers. We can help them better understand the influencers that are out there and the misinformation that’s out there. We feel that those skills are really important and it’s a space where we can be really effective.

Snelling: Going back to our “Not Prescribed” lesson, that’s one of the lessons that specifically youth are able to present themselves, particularly our Teen Action Council. It’s really cool to see them be in that space and present this topic themselves to their peers or to slightly younger peers. That’s definitely a point of empowerment. As far as social media, it’s a point of connection for [teens] even before this remote time. Being in that space allows Rise Above to have different points of connection with youth to provide them with information, support or inspiration to go follow their passions.


MFF: Some really great takeaways there, from meeting your audience where they are to  providing resources to inform, motivate and inspire. 

MFF: To wrap it up, are there any particular challenges you’re working on right now?

Judge: Connection and mental health are subjects we’re always concerned with, but now more than ever. This is just such a challenging time for everyone, but youth in particular have unique challenges. We’re devoted to finding solutions to the best of our ability, both in supporting our own team and youth across the state. We’re trying to support critical thinking, support young adults through negative discourse, and keep them tethered to themselves and one another. We amplify the positivity that we know is out there, and in doing so build a better future.

Snelling: I talked before about how important relationship building is, that’s especially clear during this time. A few youth members have been comfortable sharing with the staff that they are struggling with being remote or with life in general. So we’ve been working to find ways to support them. And that starts by making sure we hear them and make adjustments for them, as far as workload and our meetings, as well as connecting them to local supports.


Interested in learning more about Rise Above Colorado’s work? Visit their website to get in touch or follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.