And yet, at the same time, this city that once experienced so much progress seemed to be regressing. Montgomery’s homicide rates were increasing, teenage parties were saturated by alcohol, and marijuana use was rampant in our teenage population.
It seemed that the pages of the history book I lived in were crumbling. New problems were emerging, and I felt helpless. I wanted to be an agent of change like the great historical giants who marched before me, but I had no idea how to begin.
All of that changed during the summer of 2011, when I had the privilege of attending National Youth Leadership Initiative (NYLI), a Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA) substance abuse prevention training program that teaches teens like me how to take action to reduce drug use in their communities. The program did more than equip me with the tools to become an agent of change. It ignited something inside me. As Mark Twain said, the two most important days of our lives are the day we are born and the day we find out why. It seemed that ever since that first important day, I had struggled to figure out the “why” of my life. That summer in NYLI, after realizing I could make a difference in my home town, I experienced the second most important part of my life – my purpose.
As a young person new to the anti-drug movement, I learned that substance use prevention is not about seeing immediate change. It is about creating lasting change within our communities over time. I also learned that progress occurs only when courageous, skillful leaders seize opportunities and work for change. My NYLI experience gave me confidence to step out as never before – to speak without fear before my city council, county commissioners, and community leaders about how they could be part of a movement not only to get our community back to where it once had been, but to push it forward even further. Working with other young people from my coalition, I hosted events and youth forums to seek ways to tackle the problems that plagued our communities. With our shared vision and productive collaboration, we were able to bind the pages of history back together and begin a new chapter of change.
Now, as a sophomore at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, I contribute to the betterment of the community by working with the Nashville Prevention Partnership, a local substance use prevention coalition, to address underage drinking. The experience has shown me that anyone, even young people like myself, can help restore shattered communities and build structures of effective and lasting change.
Sheri Jones is a trainer with the National Youth Leadership Initiative, a program of Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA).