Associate Professor Jacqueline Lanier and a group of Illinois State students successfully lobbied the Normal Town Council in 2018 to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco products to 21. The Tobacco 21 movement combined two of Lanier’s passions: civic engagement and health promotion.
Lanier has interwoven service learning into her teaching and research since she joined the Department of Health Sciences in 2013. Her efforts to promote healthy lifestyles and policies were recognized with the 2015 Mclean County Public Health Award.
Last year, Lanier was appointed the new faculty co-leader of Illinois State’s American Democracy Project (ADP). The national initiative seeks to increase civic engagement among college students.
In the following Q&A, Lanier talks about her plans for the ADP and her career-long involvement in community engagement and health promotion. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
How have you made community engagement a part of your teaching?
I came here in 2013 as an assistant professor in the health education and health education promotion program. Before that I was at the McLean County Health Department. So community engagement was a big piece of that, and I always enjoyed working with students.
When I came here, I reframed pretty much every class that I taught to have some civic engagement or service learning component. I think students, especially within our major, which is community health, learn best by going out into the community, getting engaged. Then on the flip side, it is also a win for the organization because they get help and assistance with meeting a need that maybe they wouldn’t have time for without the students.
What was your role within the County Health Department?
I was a health promotion specialist. I did community engagement work around tobacco prevention and control and organizing the community health needs assessment process that brought a lot of partners together to understand the needs of the community. I also did teen pregnancy prevention, smoking cessation counseling, grant writing, coalition building. I did a whole gamut of things, working with a lot of community partners on various community-based health issues.
You helped form the Wellness Coalition as well, right?
We established the McLean County Wellness Coalition in 2009. And that was a way to bring together all sorts of partners around healthy eating, active living, but specifically around policy and systems change. We’re all doing great work but when we incorporate policy or system changes, we know that those changes will continue to last and be sustainable.
Are you involved with the ADP now?
I’ve admired ADP’s work from afar as I got established at ISU. Then an opening came up that I saw for the new faculty co-chair. And when I read the description, I was like, “This is the work that I love”—all things to help students get engaged civically, from understanding their voting rights to getting out in the community and helping them work with community partners. So I interviewed and got the position. I’m excited about the work ahead.
Is there any initiative you’d like to start through ADP?
One thing that we’re looking at is assessing what the American Democracy Project has done in the past. There are major initiatives around Constitution Day, voter engagement, helping faculty and students to be civically engaged. But one thing that we’re finding is that we don’t have the complete plan around voter engagement, and especially going into 2020, which is a big election year, what we’re going to work on is looking at that Voter Friendly Campus designation (from NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education). This is a designation that campuses can get by putting together an organized plan on voter engagement, which we don’t have currently. So that’s one of our initiatives that I hope to work on.
What experience do you have in politics?
Most of my political work is probably specific to certain issues like Tobacco 21 and Smoke-Free Bloomington-Normal, which was something I was engaged in to make public places smoke-free. So it’s usually issue specific and involves reaching out to legislators, local council members around specific policy issues. I’ve always, in my classes, encouraged students to vote and be an informed voter. I think I’m learning a lot about the process and even the partners and the engagement that’s happening on campus.
Let’s talk about Tobacco 21. How did that campaign come together? And was this an outgrowth of one of your classes?
For a long time, I have partnered with the American Heart Association on different initiatives, professionally because it’s an interest of mine, and personally, because both of my parents died of heart disease related to tobacco. But this campaign started in my health needs assessment class in the spring of 2018. I place students in groups of three or four to work with a community partner on a specific assessment project. I reach out to my partner and ask them what they need.
The Health Department came back and said, “Well, we would really like to understand more about Tobacco 21. There is interest in the community. We know that there’s movement to create this policy locally or statewide, but what does McLean County think?” I had a group of students work with the Health Department to assess interest around Tobacco 21 and learn more about it. So that was that spring, and then I had a few students like, “We really love this work. Can we do more?” I had one student go and work with the Tobacco 21 national coalition that summer. And I said, “There are things happening at the state. If that doesn’t get passed at the state, I think we have an opportunity locally to act if we want to.”
So that fall, I taught a public health leadership class, part of that class is health policy. I brought in the American Heart Association to talk about Tobacco 21 and the issues around that. And I posed to the class that we have an opportunity if you’re interested to work on Tobacco 21 locally to learn about it and advocate for it to our local council members. So I told them they didn’t have to do this—not everyone agrees with that policy. But I told them that if it was something they’re interested in, let’s do it. The majority of the class signed on to do it.
We formed our coalition. And then we had committees around political engagement, social media marketing, education. Within those committees, the students worked with me and the American Heart Association to advocate to the Town of Normal and the City of Bloomington. They attended council meetings and met individually with council members. And the town was very receptive; there wasn’t a lot of resistance. And that almost never happens. I worked on Smoke-Free Bloomington-Normal for years and years and years. Luckily, their advocacy worked.
What was the City of Bloomington’s reaction?
We had conversations with them. We went to a meeting and presented the same information. I think they were worried about backlash from retailers and people. So they wanted to hold off for now. There were some that were interested. And they also saw the state was headed in that direction. And the state did pass (Tobacco 21 legislation), as of July 1.
Another project you’ve worked on is the Food Access and Rescue Summit. Can you talk about that?
This project was a collaboration through the McLean County Wellness Coalition. We saw that there was an alarming rate—about 14 percent—of county residents who were food insecure, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for an active, healthy life.
So we saw this happening, and it was a concern. And we saw all sorts of different efforts happening around McLean County. For example, I coordinated the Veggie Oasis, which rescued food from the Downtown Bloomington Farmers’ Market and provided that food to the west side, which is considered a food desert. We saw community gardens and other food rescue efforts, but none of these players were talking. So we decided to do a summit and bring everybody together to talk about what the issues are and how we can better coordinate the system.
In 2017 the County Wellness Coalition and a few other partners brought all those players together. We got 70 people to participate in the summit. There were ISU folks, faith-based groups, grocery stores, the Midwest Food Bank, and organizations that work with populations that are food insecure. The goal was to compile this information on what our priorities are, how we work best together, and then put that back out to the group. I know conversations continue to happen.
Here, we came back that next fall and talked about whether we understood food insecurity at ISU. So we worked with the Family and Consumer Sciences Department and a graduate student to do a study around food insecurity issues. At the same time, the School Street Food Pantry was starting to develop. So myself and Kerri Calvert, in Health Promotion and Wellness, became consultants within that food pantry for students. Now Kerri is the chair of the pantry, and I’m on the board.
Are there any other projects you would like to mention?
There is one other cool thing worth mentioning. Dr. Julie Schumacher and I plan to lead eight to 10 students on a trip to Kenya in May 2020, exploring nutrition and wellness in this region. We received a $5,000 interdisciplinary grant from the Study Abroad office to help support students to go and hope to partner with the Midwest Food Bank and their affiliate in Kenya, Kapu Africa.