Buy-in and Tokenism

I’ve spent a lot of this past summer looking at information accessibility. I work in two very different university departments (one focused on student technology use, and the other focused on sexual assault prevention/response) and both groups spend a substantial amount of time looking at how to make information as accessible as possible to the targeted population–in this case, students.

This discussion gets tricky when administrators are talking about youth–the ways that make information accessible and useable for people who are in an administrative age bracket can be totally different from the ways that students would choose to access this information. This becomes very important when we’re talking about things that have public health implications. The best pamphlets in the world are useless when no one reads them.

I would argue that this shows a really strong need to have (multiple!) members of your target population involved (at the very least) with discussions about information that’s targeted to them. This can be difficult. For example, undergraduate students do not typically have the public health training needed to analyze population-level effects of a marketing campaign.

However, people outside a target population may not even have the slightest idea of what social media outlets or forms of information distribution are most likely to be used. As difficult as it may be, collaboration–including more than just a token member of your target population throughout the process–is key.

In addition, falling back on the idea that it would just be too difficult to include (many!) people from the target population in the conversation can be an easy way to ignore a larger culture that doesn’t actually want people outside the current power structure involved. (At universities, this can take the form of students feeling like the university is just using them for their tuition money or for the admissions brochures.)

On Friday morning, as I walked to the cafe between classes at my predominantly white university, the school appointed photographer offered me a free coffee if I agreed to play the role of the cheerful token black woman in a group of strangers, as though the university is not festering with racial tension. May 2011, at a “liberal” university. Made me feel devalued and furious.

Community buy-in is key, and it is going to be all-but-impossible without community members helping to shape the information (whether its pamphlets, policies, or legislation) which are intended to impact them. It’s clearly possible (Scarleteen being the shining sex ed example) and has tremendous payoff.


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