My (Not-So) Secret Life in Tobacco Prevention

C Now - Jeff We Can Yesterday, a new-ish colleague and I were having a conversation. You know, the good, old-fashioned get-to-know-you conversations that people tend to have. One of the topics that came up - and which surprised my new colleague - was my background in tobacco prevention.

Granted, it happened in St. Louis (rather than Chicago), but in looking back, I realize that working in tobacco prevention was not only one of the more challenging - and rewarding - jobs I ever had, but that it helped shape my approach to community organizing, mobilizing, and advocacy. (And makes a great opportunity to join my fellow Chicago Now bloggers in a Blogapalooz-hour effort)

Flash back thirteen years: I had left Salvation Army, who had taken over my contract from the Greater St. Louis Treatment Network. (It's no longer in existence) Having worked with homeless shelters to assess residents for chemical dependency issues, I wanted to change - I wanted to work in prevention (a life-long goal), but I also wanted to work in policy.

In short, I wanted to make a greater impact.

So after six months of unemployment, I was hired by the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse in St. Louis. They knew my professional goals, and not only assigned me to various community groups....but also put me in charge of tobacco vendor education.

(Yes, there will be a lot of talk about Missouri....but it will pertain to Chicago. I promise).

So every year, in February, several centers throughout the state received a data set of tobacco vendors combining data sets for two departments. Our job was to clean up the data, visit vendors, and provide training and consultation for violators. This was part Missouri's efforts to reduce tobacco sales to minors, or "reduce Synar rates." This helped the state retain money, NCADA gain resources, and more importantly, make sure that kids did not get access to tobacco.

But besides that, I was also involved with several policy-oriented efforts, helping push smoke-free ordinances in many areas. For a time, I even chaired the Tobacco Free Missouri Coalition. And every moment of it was fun...and hard work. Tobacco prevention work is not for the weak of heart.

For two months, it was a thirty-minute drive to the office at 7:00 am. Fueled by caffeine, I would cull the initial data set, develop assignments for staff, and organize freebies. (In fact, I actually found some old incentives to integrate: To-Do pads, state-mandated signage, and pens. Lots of pens). By 9:00 am, when everyone else arrived ready to start their day, I was in full gear. This was on top of other tasks: working with thirteen different coalitions (ranging from north St. Louis to far, rural Missouri), other volunteer tasks, and dealing with typical office politics.

But it was also a great period in which I learned how community organizing and mobilization works on a grassroots level. When the opportunity came to work in College Hill - one of the more higher-profile neighborhoods in north St.Louis - I volunteered. There's no better way to learn about local politics and civics than working with city alderman and mayors. I needed to get organized - much like my tax attorney father and bookkeeper mother, January through April became my busy time. Every moment I spent working felt like a new opportunity to learn. Every day, I found myself working through an immense task that brought people together...queuing Maxwell Smart...

But in time, I needed to move on....and ended up leaving to join another related position. In time, I had to leave that position to come back to Chicago. In those early months of my return, I tried to find a position related to my past tobacco prevention work...but Chicago's success in smoke-free advocacy, plus the way public health funding is structured in Illinois, made it rather difficult...and I ended up shifting my professional focus, getting involved in Netsquared Chicago and other like-minded organizations to keep my hand in the game.

But even with Netsquared Chicago, I still retained the lessons I learned in tobacco prevention: working hard to stay organized, understanding the politics involved, and remembering that any kind of community organizing involves some common good.

It was the hardest I've ever worked...but it was a job that I truly loved. And which I miss.

(And yes, if the opportunity to work in tobacco prevention ever arose, I would seriously consider it)

Your thoughts? Please feel free to let us know in the comments below or via our Facebook page. (Also, we realized tobacco and smoking can be a very touchy subject - we will moderate comments to make sure everyone has a chance to express their views. If you want to reach me directly, check out our About Me page or use this "Contact Me" form.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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