The MESSA Project, or Media Education to Stop Substance Abuse, was loosely conceived in a small ballroom on the campus of Wheelock College in January 2016. Wheelock was host to an afternoon workshop organized by Boston Civic Media, a consortium of college professors, media practitioners, community organizations, and government leaders that works to foster collaborations between academic institutions and their surrounding communities.

As an associate professor of journalism and media studies at Curry College in Milton, Mass., I had been involved with Boston Civic Media since its founding the previous year.

It was around this time that I had heard about a different type of community organization. The Milton Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition was developed by the town’s Public Health Department to “analyze local community problems, raise community awareness, and support efforts to tackle these issues.” The coalition brought together local residents and various civic leaders to address the rising problem of alcohol and drug use among Milton teens.

To be sure, there are few simple solutions to complex problems. Massachusetts, like many states throughout the country, is struggling to stem the tide of opioid abuse, and myriad questions still remain concerning the legalization of recreational marijuana use that state voters approved via referendum in late 2016.

But what if we could use media literacy—from access, assessment and analysis of media messages, to the deconstruction of media messages and the eventual creation of new ones—to engage and empower area teenagers about their personal health and wellness decisions? And what if we could teach them, again through the tools of media and health education, how to challenge social and cultural norms around alcohol and drug use so as to make a positive impact in their community?

Students at Curry College were actively recruited to serve and train as our inaugural peer educators throughout the 2016-17 academic year. With the invaluable help and support of Michele McGraw, coordinator of substance abuse and wellness education at Curry, we developed an experiential learning-based curriculum around media literacy, substance abuse education, social pressure, and persuasion that our peer educators could eventually teach to participating students from Milton High School over the course of a weekend-long workshop on the Curry campus. Led by our peer educators, the local teens would ultimately create their own unique digital media messages about substance abuse prevention.

The MESSA Project was designed for sustainability and continued impact. But getting it off the ground, from its earliest conception to education in action, required a true community collaboration. To that end, I sincerely thank Curry President Ken Quigley, Provost Dave Szczerbacki, Milton High School Principal James Jette, Milton High teachers Karen Hughes and Robin Lee, the 2016-17 MESSA Project peer educators, and the numerous faculty, staff and students at Curry and beyond who have provided me counsel and support in this small attempt to tackle a complex problem.

— Dr. Jeff Lemberg, Curry College


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