Emory Report

 September 22, 1997

 Volume 50, No. 5

Project Excellence gives
youth an alternative to drugs

A team of Emory researchers is helping Atlanta kids improve their self-esteem and stay off drugs while conducting a valuable research project on the effectiveness of cultural heritage in effecting behavioral change.

Through Project Excellence, a two-year-old initiative currently funded by the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, 11- to 15-year-olds in six Atlanta public housing projects participate in after-school programs designed to help in different ways.

Ken Resnicow, an associate professor in the School of Public Health, modeled Project Excellence after a very similar program he was involved with in Harlem while working for the American Health Foundation and Columbia University. In New York, African-american participants were exposed to heritage-centered program to increase their cultural self-esteem and, in turn, help them stay off drugs. In Atlanta, the project takes a different approach.

"It's a rather rigorous research study," Resnicow said. The Atlanta kids are divided into three groups: the Afrocentric group learns about their heritage and focuses on African-American influences, including visiting historically black colleges and universities; the traditional group may receive some black history and culture but mostly is involved in racially and ethnically diverse programs, including visits to multiracial schools; and the control group receives a nutrition education program.

"We use the analogy of taking a group of kids who on a questionnaire identify themselves as Christians and then using Catholicism as a motivation for them to use condoms or not have sex or not use drugs," Resnicow explained. "That may be very culturally insensitive because you may be getting deeper into a culture than they want to be. The same goes for Afrocentrism-we don't know how receptive kids really will be to it."

While Resnicow will have to wait for the study's post-test to determine how receptive the kids are to Project Excellence, Atlanta parents and public housing officials are expressing their support right now. CSAP's funding for the project will end early next year, but the Atlanta Housing Authority has expressed serious interest in writing in the program as a subcontractor for providing a drug-elimination program in a proposal to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. And parents in the six Atlanta housing developments-Grady, Harris, Thomasville, Bowen, University and McDaniel-Glenn homes, all in Atlanta-are very supportive.

"I think one of the greatest things we've brought to the community is consistency," said Mahseeyahu Ben Selassie, program director for the project. "We're always there, five days a week. They can depend on us. We've basically set up a safe house within the community that the kids can come to and [relax], have fun, be around their friends and still be in an environment where they're safe and protected."

Project Excellence employs a staff of some 70 people, five of whom are at Emory handling administrative and research duties. Volunteers from the Atlanta University Center work with the kids, and some Emory public health students are getting full-time work in the field.

"They're getting hands-on experience in terms of applying the principles of public health in a drug-prevention program," Selassie said.

-Michael Terrazas

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