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


Student Produced Media

Two-dozen students from Milton High School (Milton, Mass.) spent two days on the campus of Curry College in early April 2017 for a weekend workshop on media literacy, social pressure and substance abuse prevention. Eight Curry students who served as peer-educators led the training program, and four teams of Milton High students ultimately created their very own videos about the dangers of substance abuse.

A major component of media literacy is developing the skills to create and distribute one’s own media, to counter prevailing messages and advocate for change. The students from Milton High, supported and encouraged by their Curry peer-educators, sought to address substance abuse, distracted driving and negative social pressure. These are their creations:






Our Peer Educators

Peer education is at the heart of the MESSA Project. Although our peer educators have varied academic interests and career aspirations, they share a common desire to work with area youth in support of healthy lifestyle choices.

Peer education is an invaluable tool, particularly when working with young people. As detailed by William Damon, an education scholar and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, peer education enables participants to “motivate one another to abandon misconceptions,” to “master cognitive processes such as verification and criticism,” and to “encourage creative thinking.”

Through the teaching of media literacy skills, our peer educators help local teens challenge cultural norms and social pressures involving the use of alcohol, tobacco products, and drugs. They are also agents of empowerment, working with local youth to create the changes they want to see in their communities.

2016-17 Peer Educators

Anne Coppes is a sophomore nursing major from State College, Penn., and she is working toward becoming an emergency room nurse.

In her free time, Anne likes to read, binge watch Netflix, and cook. She gets her news primarily from (British Broadcasting Corporation) because she likes the international perspective.

Kayla Keany is a senior community health and wellness major, with minors in mathematics and biology. A native of East Bridgewater, Mass., Kayla intends to enroll in an accelerated registered nursing program after graduating from Curry.

In her free time, Kayla likes to spend time with her family, shop and ride horses. She gets her news from local TV and is an avid user of Google to research and verify information.

Michael Leu is a junior communication major from Sudbury, Mass., with a concentration in journalism. Michael aspires to one day work at The Wall Street Journal as a business reporter.

In his free time, Michael enjoys reading, playing video games and sports. He gets his news primarily from The New York Times and The Journal.

Marianna DelGuadio is a senior nursing major, with a minor in biology, from North Branford, Conn. After graduating this May, Marianna plans on earning a full-time nursing position and eventually work in maternity.

In her free time, Marianna enjoys walking/playing with her dogs, scrapbooking and traveling. She gets her news mostly through iPhone apps, such as CNN’s.

Stacy Sirkissoon is a junior communication major with a concentration in TV and digital video. She hails from Holyoke, Mass., and is an aspiring broadcast television journalist.

In her free time, Stacy enjoys traveling, working out and shopping. She gets her news and information from CNN, WGBH, E! News, Twitter and Instagram.

Matt Katz is a junior criminal justice major from Fairfield, Conn., who hopes to serve the public good in some form after graduation.

In his free time, Matt enjoys hanging out with friends, playing video games and trying out different restaurants. He’s a daily reader of The New York Times, but only through the publication’s website.

Nicolette Moyer is a junior graphic design major, with a minor in corporate communication. A native of Los Angeles, Calif., she aspires to go to graduate school for textile design.

In her free time, Nicolette likes participating in and attending theater productions, drawing and horseback riding. She gets her news and information mostly from newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and Time magazine.

Kaylee Beers is a junior psychology major, with a minor in criminal justice. A native of Avon, Mass., Kaylee is working toward a career as a probation officer or as a social worker for adolescents.

In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with friends, traveling, and sleeping. Kaylee gets a lot of her news and information from Facebook, as well as local television news broadcasts.

Michele McGraw
, associate director of the MESSA Project, is coordinator of Curry College’s Substance Abuse and Wellness Education office. She joined Curry in 2014, having previously worked in student affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and Caldwell College in New Jersey.

A native of Connecticut, Michele earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Southern Connecticut State University and a master’s degree in counseling/student development in higher education from Central Connecticut State.

Jeff Lemberg, director of the MESSA Project, is an associate professor in the Communication Department at Curry College, where he oversees the journalism program, and teaches multimedia storytelling, media literacy and communication theory. Jeff founded the MESSA Project to help local teens and college students develop a greater understanding of the media messages that define their reality, and to provide them with the analytical and creative tools necessary to make healthy choices in their lives.

A native of Malden, Mass., Jeff earned his bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, his master’s degree in journalism from Boston University, and his Ph.D. in journalism/public communication from the University of Maryland.

Why Media Literacy

Media literacy has received a lot of attention over the past year thanks to the 2016 presidential election and Americans’ newfound interest in “fake news” and “alternative facts.” But media literacy education is hardly new.

The National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), whose precursor organization dates back to the late 1990s, defines media literacy as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create and act upon all forms of media communication. “Media literacy empowers people to be critical thinkers and makers, effective communicators and active citizens,” NAMLE explains.

As such, media literacy is an ideal vehicle to educate young people about health and wellness, negative social pressures, and the dangers that alcohol, tobacco and drugs pose to them and to their communities. The average teenager today is bombarded with messages regarding the glamorization of substance use. From movies, TV shows and songs to magazine advertising, web ads, and even video games, alcohol and marijuana consumption, in particular, are routinely framed in celebratory and socially desirous fashion.

Among other things, media literacy education provides students with the tools to critically analyze media messages through deconstruction, and it empowers them to not only evaluate the validity of the information but to also respond to and counter messaging through the creation of their own media content. Literacy is about understanding. How and why do companies use advertising to prey on teen’s personal and social insecurities? How and why do movie studios stereotype young people, particularly those in and around their college years? How and why do songs about alcohol and drugs seemingly normalize substance abuse?

The indirect social pressures on today’s teens are innumerable, particularly in the ever-growing mobile media landscape where young people spend so much of their time. Media literacy education provides the skills necessary to see, understand and react to this mediated version of reality, because only then can one challenge and identify alternative facts.

To learn more about media literacy: