Inaugural Tobacco Youth Summit Educates Students on the Power of Advocacy

Friday April 5, 2024

To help empower youth against tobacco use and the importance of advocacy, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools (KCSOS), Kern County Public Health, and the Blue Zones Project teamed up with student members of SWAT (Students Working Against Tobacco) for the inaugural Elevate and Empower: Youth Against Commercial Tobacco summit held today at California State University, Bakersfield.

Coinciding with SWAT’s “Take Down Tobacco” Day of Advocacy, the summit presented a packed agenda to empower and educate approximately 75 students from various middle schools and high schools in Kern County. Students received training on how to find their purpose, the dangers of tobacco use from Kern County Public Health, and information on how they can get involved with SWAT. Organizers also created a mock city council stimulation to conclude the summit, which was designed to bolster leadership and problem-solving skills in a safe and inclusive space for attendees. 

According to Elizabeth Velasco, a prevention specialist with KCSOS and SWAT advisor, many city leaders, including Bakersfield City Manager Christian Clegg, Chief of Staff for 5th District Board Supervisor Leticia Perez Christian Romo, and Local Government Affairs Representative for PG&E Nicole Villaruz, attended to help guide students through the city meeting process. Despite many students having never spoken at a public meeting, Velasco was excited to see how these activities help to give students enough confidence to speak up about topics they care about. 

“Many don’t realize the power they possess. They have a voice, they just need to discover how to use it effectively,” she stated. “We’re hopeful that this event marks the beginning of many more summits, aiming to enlist students as SWAT members and enabling them to guide their peers towards leadership and advocacy in their communities.”

The use of ZYN, a smokeless nicotine pouch, has been increasing in popularity with youth over the past year.

When it comes to combating tobacco use on campuses across Kern County, SWAT members emphasize it doesn’t just include traditional smoking and vaping but also the emerging trend of using smokeless tobacco products like ZYN Nicotine Pouches. Recent data show that 5.8 percent of high school students in the United States reported current use of smokeless tobacco products. Moreover, the CDC has highlighted that over 2 million U.S. middle and high school students reported using e-cigarettes in 2021, with a significant portion drawn to flavored products that appeal to younger users.

These statistics paint a concerning picture of tobacco and nicotine use among teens, further emphasizing the importance of the summit’s advocacy and education efforts. 

Velasco also highlighted the critical role of community partners like Kern County Public Health and Blue Zones in helping to shape the event and more importantly, equipping SWAT students with essential advocacy skills prior to the event. These students then had the opportunity to apply and showcase these skills by leading various workshops at the summit.

Jovanna Burgess, a senior at Stockdale High School.

Jovanna Burgess, a senior at Stockdale High School, is the current chair of SWAT. In addition to leading some energizing icebreakers at the beginning of the summit, Burgess spoke with students on why combating tobacco use was important to her.

“Growing up, I noticed how prevalent vapes were, especially when I got to middle school. Kids were just flaunting them everywhere,” said Burgess. “Flash forward, I have two little brothers now, so if I dealt with it in middle school, imagine how much more of an impact it’s going to have on them. That’s why I joined SWAT.”

Crystal Burgess, a project facilitator with KCSOS’s student wellness department, is also heavily involved with SWAT and says gathering students for this summit also provides essential youth advocacy education and highlights the synergistic relationship between adults and students in effecting social change.

“By crafting an environment for collaboration, learning, and leadership, the summit has laid the foundation for a continuing tradition of activism and empowerment in a way that shows students that adults do value their input,” said Burgess. “For us, youth activism goes beyond merely raising awareness; it’s about cultivating leaders ready to face tomorrow’s challenges.”

Students are encouraged to contact SWAT executive members at swatusergroup@kern.org to learn more about SWAT or to get involved.


By Jennifer Bryan

By Jennifer Bryan

Jennifer Bryan joined Kern County Superintendent of Schools in 2021 as a Communications Specialist. As a creative and motivated marketing communications specialist, she has a special knack for storytelling and content creation. Born and raised in Kern County, Jennifer has worked in major industries within the region such as agriculture and oil and gas before she made the transition to education.