Catching Up with the ME. Project
Now in its fifth year, and with funding from the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs, Innovation Next is a unique accelerator program aimed at redefining adolescent sexual health through a focus on technology-enabled ideas to ensure that young people have the information and access to services they need. Fourth Cohort team, ME. Project (formerly My Mind Matters) discusses their work so far and what they hope the future holds.
How did you first hear about Innovation Next and how did you form your team?
I first heard about Innovation Next through a flyer sent to me by a friend of friend. We were thrilled about the prospect and formed our team based on expertise. The original team consisted of Chris (a youth engagement director), Mackenzie (a communications specialist), and Hope (training director). It has since morphed into an almost entirely different team. Justin (a youth engagement director), Alexis (a psychology major by training and a youth engagement specialist), and Hope (a training director/executive director) are now at the helm of the project.
What was your team's original idea for Innovation Next?
The original project was a Choose Your Own Adventure Game that addressed mental, sexual, and reproductive health (M+SRH). We are glad the youth had a better idea in mind. The one consistent piece across time was our emphasis on rural youth in Mississippi and focusing on the topics of M+SRH!
Did your idea change once you began the Innovation Next design process?
Yes, completely! After talking to young people, we realized they simply wanted representation and to see real Mississippi youth and experiences they encounter daily. They needed resources, but more than just receiving the resources, they needed to see young people engaging with the resources. They wanted storytelling, animations, real-world applicability, and of course, to see their lives and their struggles problem-solved in a way that could fit their context.
What does your project look like now?
The project has changed so much as we have iterated on our ideas. In fact, it even looks different than what we planned two months ago. Our goal is to remain relevant. Today, the project still addresses M+SRH for rural youth in Mississippi using several social media platforms. Our goal is to provide resources and the real-life stories of youth in ways that help youth problem-solve issues within their daily lives. We use Bitmojis that represent actual rural youth in Mississippi, bright colors to appeal to our demographic, culturally relevant content and language, video "takeovers" of places where youth congregate, and storytelling and illustrations to ensure youth get access to vetted, high-quality M+SRH resources.
How did Innovation Next cause you to think outside of the box?
Innovation Next gave us permission and room to try and fail repeatedly! Through our failures, we were ultimately able to gain success. It helped us give voices to rural youth and repackage sensitive information in ways that are culturally relevant and easily digestible. The topics of M+SRH are particularly taboo within the state of Mississippi and the South overall. Because of Innovation Next, we were able to create a dual presence that emphasizes a social media strategy as well as an on-the-ground strategy to bring high-quality, vetted resources to even the most remote communities.
Furthermore, because of Innovation Next, we were able to bring M+SRH information to the forefront by creating conversations in public spaces in innovative ways (e.g., discussions at the state fair), mixing difficult discussions with humor (lots of humor!), and making youth not only beneficiaries of the project but also content creators and designers. Approaches in Mississippi to M+SRH are minimal (at best) and costly (far worse). Therefore, Innovation Next helped us make these resources and assets accessible to youth in rural spaces in Mississippi.
What is your biggest takeaway from Innovation Next?
Our biggest take away from Innovation Next is the ability to take risks in our work. That privilege isn't always afforded to nonprofits or new professionals. Similarly, we at Teen Health Mississippi have simply become enamored with the design process. Because of our time spent with IDEO and the staff of Power to Decide, we have changed the way we approach our work with youth across the state of Mississippi!
What future goals do you all have for this program?
We have so many goals! First and foremost, sustainability is our ultimate goal. Secondly and similarly, we would love to replicate the ME. Project in other states. We hope to offer technical assistance to organizations, cities, and nations interested in creating ME.-like programming within their communities. Furthermore, we hope to expand our work to include a training guide for adults to support teens around the topics of M+SRH.