Youth Say YES! to Organizing for Better Oral Health
Guest Post by Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!)
Youth Empowered Solutions (YES!) seeks to empower youth, in partnership with adults, to create community change. As an organization, YES! strives to provide young people with opportunities that we normally do not receive. Why? Policies, systems, and environments in which we do not have a voice often adversely impact youth. YES! does important work to create spaces in which youth can influence change when and where conversations concerning these issues occur.
YES! is currently working to lift up the voice of youth as it concerns access to oral health care. In February of 2015, our team of five high school-aged youth was assembled and hired as youth staff at our organization. We explored how the issue of access to care impacts us, as the decisions we make and the opportunities we presently have determine our health in the future. Together, we have worked diligently to educate ourselves about the disparities surrounding young people’s access to oral health care. We believe there are many correlations between those disparities and the extent to which youth are empowered as stakeholders and partners. It is striking to think of a young person sitting in a classroom, not able to eat at lunch or participate in class, because his or her teeth were causing unbearable pain and they did not have access to help. It’s even more alarming to think that this could have been prevented.
Young people are not empowered to engage in the health care system, and this includes oral health; yet we are impacted every day by these matters. Opportunities for youth to equitably engage in the oral health care system are sparse. There seems to be an imbalance between those opportunities and what is expected of us. We are affected daily by, for example, our inability to access regular oral healthcare. It’s no surprise that living without proper oral healthcare, especially access to affordable dental care, affects the overall quality of life for young people, including their capacity to achieve academic success or to go on and get a job. We do not often hear that, downstream from this, a high school graduate makes an average of twenty thousand dollars more than someone who drops out. Nor do we hear that, upstream from this, policies that relate to, for example, the dental workforce directly impact a young person’s ability to access preventive care. These are some of the many factors that we want to talk about, as youth, and some of the conversations that we want to be a part of.
At YES!, we examine oral health issues metaphorically, as a tree. If you were looking to remove a tree from where it has been planted, you would not cut off the leaves, or the branches, or start midway down the trunk; you would pull it up by the roots. The root causes of oral health disparities lie in the social determinants of health – the social and economic factors that shape our ability to be healthy. Knowing this, much of our work revolves around educating ourselves and other youth on these social determinants in all aspects of society, not just oral health. We believe that being aware of these issues is critical to the work needed to address the trunk, branches, and leaves of the tree. Youth are the roots of the tree. While young people aren’t the only ones who suffer from oral health disparities, empowering us in our earliest stages of life will ensure long-term socio-economic success.
YES! wants to bring our voice, the voice of youth, to these discussions. The conversation on oral health is one of many that young people are not given the opportunity to be a part of. But when the space is created, we promise we will show up, and show up big! It is important that youth are not simply affected by the solutions but that we are also involved in designing them. That’s what we look forward to doing with our partners: empowering youth to design sustainable, equitable solutions that address oral health disparities for young people across the country.