Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
January 4, 2024
Kent MacLennan | Rise Above Colorado
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
I’m Kent MacLennan and I’m the founding executive director for Rise Above Colorado, which originally started as the Colorado Meth Project. Rise Above’s mission is to empower youth to make healthy connections, decisions, and change. We do that in the context of working around substance misuse and focusing on measurable ways that we can look at how youth are ultimately not using drugs and alcohol. Then with that data, we help them have the tools and the knowledge to make healthy choices for themselves.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I didn’t really have any exposure to substance misuse or addiction in my past, which perhaps is unusual for how folks stumble into different work. My background and passion is education. I’m a former high school teacher, I taught high school social studies in Jefferson County and I’ve worked in higher ed for a while. That path of education with kids has always been an important thing, and how youth can inspire us. That’s the piece that led me to this organization. Before the start of this organization, I was working in Canada, where my wife is from. My mentor, Linda Childers from the Daniels Fund, recruited me to come back to start the organization, to bring this concept called the Meth Project to Colorado. For me, it was education out of the box, outside of the classroom. How do we give youth the tools to be successful and be positive contributors in their communities? That’s what drew me here. A lot of my background was around fundraising, so getting the chance to start an organization from the ground up was really exciting. To be able to put my stamp on the way an organization looks and feels has always been something I felt really strongly about.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I really believe in the power of youth to make change. I think that’s one of the biggest things that is critical. They can make the world a better place. I’m passionate about education and giving youth the tools to be contributing members of society, ones who want to fill the world with positive change. From my days teaching high school social studies to interacting with our Teen Action Council, that positive force that youth can be is super important to me. I have three kids of my own who range from 13 to 21. I want to give them the tools to be positive contributors to society and do it in healthy ways, in ways that help them grow and be the best versions of themselves that they can be. That’s what I want to see from my own kids, but also what my hope is generally for young people.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
It’s a challenge as a substance use prevention organization. Ultimately, we’re trying to prove a negative. We’re trying to prove something that doesn’t happen. There is a challenge in that. We have always focused on providing measurable data to help us understand what’s happening with young people, and what our role might be in those impacts. Since we started in 2009 with our public campaign for the Meth Project and continued as we rebranded and broadened our focus into Rise Above Colorado, we have done surveys every two years of Colorado young people to understand the set of attitudes and behaviors behind substance use, mental health, and that broader behavioral health context. We look at that data, we look at what our reach has been with the youth who know Rise Above and our campaigns like our current “Fill Your World with Good” campaign.
We also measure how we have impacted local communities. We rely on local community partners who work with us to extend the reach of our messaging. We use social media as a real vehicle for how we communicate with youth directly. We also amplify that through partnerships with local boots on the ground and folks who are interacting with young people regularly, whether that’s through schools, local public health agencies, or after-school programs like Boys and Girls Clubs. We want to see from the folks we’re working with on a more regular basis how we are having an impact and if we’re able to show impact in those communities where we’re digging a little deeper.
In terms of actual results, we look back to our Meth Project days and the messaging campaign that was all over the airwaves from 2009 through 2011. We saw some significant changes in meth use; it’s down 80% from where it was back in 2008 when we first started the organization. We were pleased to be part of the trends that were changing the dynamics around teen meth use in Colorado.
Similarly, in our work in Rise Above Colorado, we’ve looked at substance prevention a little more broadly, but not just substance-specific content. Even in our last survey in 2022, we saw data that showed in the communities where we have been working, that cohort of community partners showed a greater perception of risk of using marijuana or vaping products compared to the rest of the state average. That’s a really important indicator of future use. The higher the perception of risk, the less likely someone is to use it in the future. Doing measurements like that and being committed to data-driven content and campaigns and evidence-based approaches to substance use prevention is the way we’ve tried to model our work.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
As a parent, I’m passionate about seeing my kids be the best versions of themselves they can be and wanting that for larger communities. Yet recognizing that, in so many cases, the youth who don’t have some of the same opportunities, and those they’re in difficult situations that raise their levels of risk factors. We want to be able to give them tools to make positive successful choices for their future. The hardest thing is not always knowing, and not always seeing the results of that. Again, proving that something doesn’t happen isn’t always the easiest, but we want to be in that space to provide those tools in a meaningful way.
Our messaging is intended to push back a little bit at what the perceived norms are around substance use. A lot of what we do debunks the “everybody’s doing it” mentality. That’s true with both youth and adults; far more youth and adults think that youth are using than actually are. We’re committed to using data to share the story that the vast majority of youth haven’t used substances in the past 30 days. We should be celebrating that. We don’t want to stigmatize those who are using, but we also want to think if we use data like that, then young people who might be using have the opportunity to be on the other side of that. If we help give them some of the tools to realize that most of their peers aren’t using, or if your peer group is using, then hopefully give them some of that positive peer pressure that most aren’t using. While we’re not in the business of helping people with treatment and recovery, those resources are out there and people can find the help they need to be able to turn that around and be on the other side of the data point that most youth aren’t using.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
It’s continuing to see progress that youth are being set up for the future. How we engage young people can look so many different ways, so having youth realize and find their passions is important. We want to be a vehicle for celebrating some of those passions. We ask youth to upload content of activities that help them, or via our Fill Your World With Good campaign. We want them to think about the things that are helping them make healthy choices. To the extent that we continue to find more avenues for doing that, and ways to engage with youth across the state, it’s something that we’re excited about.
Something else in our vision for the future is to dig in at individual schools and maybe make that impact and change the culture. If we do that, we can create a model to build off of, if we’re able to take the resources and things that we offer to a deeper level in a school community. Ultimately, can we change that misperception and dynamic about how many youth are actually using as a result? Part of our long-term vision is really seeing that change.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
There’s a misperception that exists that most youth are using. It’s sometimes reinforced by adults who have that misperception, but we’re most concerned about it in the youth space, and understanding how to change that narrative. For the last six years or so we’ve been taking this evidence-based approach around social norming – we call it positive community norms. It’s an idea created out of the Montana Institute. The idea is if we can reduce the number of youth who misperceive how many of their peers are using, if we close that gap then over time fewer youth are going to use. How do we do that? It’s the challenge that we’ve tried to overcome in Colorado. We want to do that on a large scale and reach as many youth as we can. That’s why social media communications have been so important to allow us to have that kind of reach. We’re also trying to explore how we go deeper with that in local communities.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
There’s the importance of connecting with youth. That means we all have a role to play in that. There’s an importance of dialogue with young people in your lives, to be able to open up lines of communication to hear what youth are experiencing, what they’re feeling, so they feel like they’re not alone. For young people who have trusted adults to talk to – whether that’s a parent or guardian, or whether that’s a coach, a community member, or extended family – it’s a really important protective factor for us to have success and to emphasize some of these things that we’ve talked about.
It’s a role that we all can play as adults. Substances will come and go, we’re obviously focused a lot right now on things like fentanyl, and the risks that exist with with overdoses. We all have a role to play in a crisis like that, where we can all learn how to spot an overdose and be trained with Narcan. We want to empower youth and adults to be part of that. Having adults think about how they can connect with and be supportive of youth is the best thing I could emphasize that we can do to support our young people.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
I will quote one of my favorite TV shows of recent time, “Ted Lasso” and his sign above the door that says “Believe.” I think that speaks to an individual, but it speaks to our collective power of belief in the goodness of people and of young people in particular. And it’s to celebrate the positive things that youth are involved in.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Share information and be part of young people’s lives. For the young people you’re connected with, how do you engage and be an active participant, whether as a parent or as a trusted adult? That’s a way for people to further our broader mission. There are certainly ways to connect with our work if people are interested in helping us make deeper connections in schools and school districts. That is how they can give back to help us establish more of our roots in certain communities. This work requires diverse financial support to exist, so we welcome support from individuals and corporations to be part of this effort with us. In 2024 we’re going to be launching a new programmatic effort to engage youth using the arts. We’re going to need folks to help us engage in that effort if you’re passionate about young people. It’s not always the thing that people want to throw their hands up for because there’s still a stigma associated with substance use and addiction. We’re trying to change that narrative, but we welcome more folks who can be part of that solution and believe in the positive power of young people.
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