Reflections from Dr. Alison Chopel

CAHC bids farewell to former CAHC Director, Dr. Alison Chopel. Alison started working with the Public Health Institute as an intern and served PHI in other roles before stepping into the role of CAHC Director. In today's post, Alison shares with us her thoughts on her time with the Collaborative. 

This will be my last blog post for CAHC as I am transitioning away from my role here. What an amazing four and a half years this has been! As I reflect on the programs and studies developed and launched under my leadership, I can see that they were born out of a very personal passion. All of them are programs that could have served me in my own adolescence. 

I cannot take credit for the School Health Centers Healthy Adolescent Relationships Program (SHARP), a brilliant evaluation of an intervention developed by Dr. Liz Miller in collaboration with the CA School Based Health Alliance, Futures without Violence, and my predecessor Sandi Goldstein. Its objective was to develop and test an intervention to prevent and intervene on adolescent relationship abuse (ARA) using school-based health centers (SHC). We are still writing up the results, see our publications section for some articles and be on the lookout for an upcoming paper on the focus group findings. This project was incredibly inspiring to me and while working with colleagues at the Central Valley Riverbank High SHC, I learned that any intervention in this area would be welcomed by our Central Valley colleagues. As a survivor of adolescent relationship abuse myself, it was amazing for me to be able to help create the awareness and develop the adult allies that were completely lacking in my own young life. When the Golden Haven project was funded by the Blue Shield of California Foundation, it was the first grant proposal I had successfully competed for. Due to the insight, dedication and passion of our partners at the Haven Women’s Center, this project survived the loss of our original healthcare partner and became the Healthy Haven project that connected healthcare providers and domestic violence advocates to create a sustainable system to prevent, screen for, and address ARA in Stanislaus County.

That seed project blossomed into a greater partnership that led to an opportunity to work with multiple partner organizations in Stanislaus, Merced and Alameda counties through the Healthy Relationships and Economic Pathways (H-REP) program. This project has been so meaningful to me because we are able to serve youth in so many different circumstances; by working in traditional high schools we get vast coverage, reaching large amounts of students, but we also provide specialized programming that enables us to impact homeless youth, young parents, and incarcerated youth. At one point I also identified with each of these labels. Although I was only incarcerated for one week in my adolescence, I was homeless for six months, and the feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness are extreme, overwhelming and memorable in both circumstances. Many homeless youth are invisible and feel that not one person in the world cares about their wellbeing, while incarcerated youth are hyper-visible, but those around them only seem to care to control them, not to protect or listen to them. Through the H-REP program, there are adults in the lives of these young people who genuinely care about them and are able to express it.

Yet another vulnerable and marginalized population that my team and I have had the opportunity to work with are commercially sexually exploited youth. Through the Youth Empowerment Health-The More You Know (YEH project), we were able to partner with Dr. Aisha Mays and MISSSEY to explore the health information needs of girls in this community, and then follow their lead as they invited us into their realities through a beautiful, creative, and emotional PhotoVoice project guided by Stephanie Ratcliff.

My personal connection to youth and adolescence doesn’t start and end with traumatic memories, though. I also remember when I myself was in high school I was so curious about the world, the one opportunity I had to engage in original research was invigorating. I see this same curiosity and mental nimbleness in the adolescent researchers I had the pleasure to train and work alongside with in both the Marketing of E-cigarettes Towards Adolescents Study (META-Oak) and the Young Mothers’ Research (YMR) studies. Be on the look out for upcoming articles about these studies too, co-authored by youth co-researchers! I am so excited that our findings about the ways that tobacco and e-cigarette products are marketed toward adolescents and the social and structural factors impacting breastfeeding among young mothers will soon be disseminated to scientific and practice communities, hopefully in the Sage Open Journal and the Journal of Human Lactation. Continuing this journey of youth-partnered and co-led research, we were so fortunate to receive funding from PCORI to develop and implement Project PARTNER (Partnering with Adolescents to Ready The Newest Engaged Researchers). PARTNER was the first project to allow us to actually connect youth and adult allies from distinct communities in the Bay Area and the Central Valley. We saw that there were very different but yet quite parallel needs and strengths in each of these unique regions, and given that they are so economically influential on each other it made good sense to us to work to connect them in other ways. This project demonstrated that young people and adult allies can form bonds as a community while engaging in the labor of identifying, naming and prioritizing community health issues. 

People often, and young people especially, are dissatisfied with conducting the research and leaving it there. "Why investigate a problem if you can’t do anything about it?" they ask. The Community Health Equity Academy (CHEA) is a program that will do just that. Within Castlemont High School, CHEA is training and preparing students to be not just the next public health leaders, but leaders in many fields that will improve the social determinants of health.  This is beautiful to me, as a person who was not engaged during high school, I only learned about public health when I was about to finish college. I was an anthropology major, and when I participated in a field school I was dismayed to learn that academic anthropologists would rather preserve a taboo against latrines in order to study it than help to install latrines when the community was asking for them. My mentor, Dr. Sven Steinmo, told me that there was a field where I could both do research and respond to the needs and wishes of a community, and it was called public health. Only then did I start in the direction that led me to my own career in public health. Through CHEA, young people will know about this field much sooner, and the field will grow in leaps and bounds as people like the astounding members of CHEA’s Youth Advisory Council join it. I’m confident CHEA will continue to thrive and hope that CAHC’s partnership with CHEA will remain intact after my absence.

Towards the end of my time at CAHC I’ve been fortunate to learn about another avenue for change-making: policy advocacy. Thanks to the Alameda County Public Health Department, CAHC was able to support the training and development of our META-Oak researchers in local advocacy through the Tobacco Control Policy Leadership Institute (TCPLI.) Participating in this program has been a wonderful opportunity to move from research to action as we supported local policies to restrict advertising and sales of flavored tobacco, including menthol. Lastly, I got to learn more about statewide advocacy through participation in the Women’s Policy Institute, where my team created a policy to protect students’ rights to nurse or pump milk for their children while on community college and state university campuses. Please show your love for student parents and support AB2785!

By referring back to my own struggles and hopes in adolescence it seems that perhaps I think many youth are similar to me. While I experienced similar challenges and remember the particular strengths of that time of my life, I understand that youth today are living in a very different context. Similarly, while I am confident that the CAHC team and its new leader will continue the work that I have begun with the same values we established together as a team, I also am excited to see the new directions that the new team will take CAHC into. I have blindspots, there are things I could have done differently and I know that the new team will build upon my successes while learning from my mistakes.

I am ever-so-grateful to my team members past and present, my partners and partner organizations, PHI and our funders for supporting the impactful work we were fortunate to complete and engage in. I feel so much gratitude for the youth who have made our programs come alive through their participation, their passion, their questioning and their dedication to creating healthy communities.

My heart is in this work, as I go in new directions and labor in new places, I remain excited about novel ideas and new opportunities. Please feel free to reach out to me at AMarieChopel@gmail.com if you would like to keep in touch or inform me of a new development.

Thank you for your partnership, your work and your dedication to the wellness of California’s youth!

Alison