Utilizing Youth Voice to Inform Local Health Planning in Austin

Author: Camille H. Anoll
Date Posted: September 8, 2019

In 2018–19, 20 high school students identified the assets of and health needs for their Del Valle community, which directly informed the priorities set in the 2019 Austin/Travis County Community Health Improvement Plan. Supported by eight local organizations and agencies, the students conducted this research in a participatory project, the Youth-Led Community Health Learning Initiative (YLCHLI). The youth coinvestigators used innovative research techniques to identify assets and needs that impact residents’ health, explore priority areas for the community, and advocate for needed change

Members of the YLCHLI Local Organization Advisory Board


In 2011, Austin and Travis County launched their first Community Health Assessment and Community Health Improvement Plan (CHA-CHIP), a four-year study to identify priority health issues in the region and mobilize to action. The CHA-CHIP found there was a need to delve into the health of specific communities within the county—of which Del Valle was one. Del Valle is an unincorporated community in southeastern Travis County, outside of Austin, so the school district is the defining government entity of the community, of which 84 percent are Hispanic and 84 percent are economically disadvantaged. Eight organizations—which included local nonprofit organizations, public health departments, and the Del Valle High School—came together to create a powerful partnership, the YLCHLI, to empower local youth and to better understand the Del Valle community and the health priorities of its members.

As a part of the initiative, Children’s Optimal Health, an NNIP Partner, contributed to the design of the youth-engaged research project, facilitated the connection with Del Valle High School, and provided guidance to implement the program in the school curriculum in a manner appropriate for the Del Valle context.

Learning through Research

In spring 2019, staff from SAFE’s Expect Respect Program and the UTHealth School of Public Health-Austin—Dell Center for Healthy Living began working directly with the youth. The programming used a health equity lens, introducing students to the structural and social determinants of health. The students used a participatory mapping method to collaboratively define their community—identifying assets and establishing residents’ needs and the changes necessary in their environment. Through a data gallery walk, youth coinvestigators identified the individual and environmental factors that affect the health of the community. Students learned how they can advocate for positive change in these areas through Participatory Learning and Action activities, exploring how to leverage research findings and community strengths in advocacy.

After exploring components of their community that challenge residents’ health, the students leveraged a “Dotmocracy” approach—an activity where all participants use dots to vote—to identify their top health priorities: physical activity, healthy eating, mental health, and access to health services. The youth coinvestigators explored these priority areas through PhotoVoice, providing imagery and stories of the residents’ experiences with these challenges. With PhotoVoice they asked:

  • Why is this health priority a problem in your community?
  • What in your community could prevent this health priority?
  • What are ways we can promote this health priority in your community?


Beyond the work with the Del Valle community, a second youth cohort was launched in the Montopolis area of Austin in summer 2019 with SAFE’s summer youth employment program.

Creating an Impact

To date, the youth coinvestigators have shared their findings via four community forums with local stakeholders, decisionmakers, and policymakers. These presentations included hosting a Youth Leader PhotoVoice Gallery at their high school for community leaders and reporting out their findings to the Children’s Optimal Health Board and the steering committee of the Austin/Travis County Community Health Improvement Plan. The local stakeholders have embraced the research conducted by the Del Valle High School students. The project’s findings have informed the region’s health planning efforts, including the 2019 Austin/Travis County Community Health Improvement Plan.

Students reported benefiting a lot from the experience. They had the chance to define their community for the broader public and tell the stories of its residents. They learned about local health considerations and health care access issues and felt empowered to take action in their community. They influenced the local government’s perceptions of the community’s needs and the government’s health plan for the region. The project also introduced students to data science and health advocacy, affecting some students’ future career interests.

Carrying on the Research

Children’s Optimal Health has continued to elevate the findings of the Del Valle High School youth coinvestigators through a StoryMapping project, launched September 2019. The project combines data, maps, mixed media, student work, and community stories to provide an overview of the project and continue the discussion around health equity for this community.

Youth Impact in Austin
The Youth-led Community Health Learning Initiative identified four priority health areas for their community and explored the topics through PhotoVoice. Their findings, some highlighted below, went on to inform the Community Health Improvement Plan in their community. 
“There aren’t much resources for us to actually get out and do things that are active, although we do have a lot of open land, that isn’t always a reason for us to go outside.” “Mental health issues like depression are a problem because it can make us feel different from others, like we are upside down and we don’t fit in with society.” “Obtaining health care is far away from our community…our community does have plenty of space for a health care facility...but the issue is there's no change being done.”

Acknowledgements from the YLCHI

The YLCHLI would like to thank the Del Valle community for partnering with the YLCHLI, with a special thanks to the youth coinvestigators from Del Valle High School (spring 2019) for their stellar partnership and community health service with the YLCHLI. The YLCHLI would also like to recognize the excellent collaboration and support provided by Mr. Norris Sebastian, Tashara Mitchell, Ms. Amanda Cortez, and Mr. Miguel Delgado-Ochoa from the Del Valle Independent School District.

Funding for the YLCHLI was made possible by a community health grant from the City of Austin/Austin Public Health.

Many people contributed to YLCHLI’s success. For a complete list of team members and acknowledgements, see the Children’s Optimal Health StoryMapping page.

This story was written by Camille Anoll at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents and interviews with students and the Del Valle community.  Children's Optimal Health is the Austin partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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