Prevention Profiles: Take Five - Dr. Sally Linowski (UMass Amherst)



Audio file

This month's episode features Dr. Sally Linowski from the University of Massachussets Amherst. Linowski, an Associate Dean of Students, as well as an adjunct assistant professor at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, talks about the challenges in building and maintaining a relationship between the campus and the community, the easiest and hardest parts of strategic planning, and more.

Rich Lucey: Hi.
This is Rich Lucey with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Community Outreach and Prevention Support Section and welcome to our next episode of Prevention Profiles, Take 5.
This is our podcast that we run monthly off of our website,, in which I get to interview people at the federal, national, state and local levels, talking about current and emerging issues as they relate to preventing drug abuse among college students.
I’m excited today, because my guest is Sally Linowski, who is a friend and colleague of mine for many years.
Sally is the Associate Dean of Students for Off-Campus Student Life and Community Engagement at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
Sally has a PhD in public health from UMass Amherst and as Associate Dean, Sally leads off-campus student life, providing support, programming, resources, trainings and social events for campus community members who live in area neighborhoods.
Sally also creates opportunities for community outreach, fosters student engagement in the community and maintains relationships with town officials, landlords, residents and university staff.
And so with that, Sally, welcome to the podcast.

Dr. Sally Linowski: Thanks. It’s great to be here, Rich.

Lucey: We’re really glad to have you.
So as you know, we center the podcast around five questions.
And so we’re going to jump right into our first.
Your primary area of responsibility is around campus and community relations or town/gown relationships, as some like to call it, which is a longstanding issue and one worth continuing to focus on.
 What do you see as one of the biggest challenges in building and maintaining a positive relationship between the campus and community?
Linowski:  That’s a great question.
And as I thought about this, I think one of the greatest things that can get in the way is lacking a clear direction or focus.
So a coalition may lack a sense of vision, goals or desired outcome.
And because of that, they lose focus on why they are together and can end up going through the motions.
On the flip side of that, there can sometimes be a failure to plan, act or to do either, where groups can become so focused on studying issues or trying to analyze problems, that they end up doing little action or they rush to act, where they haven’t studied anything and there’s an attempt to just create a solution and implement it quickly.

Lucey: So it’s almost like being paralyzed, if you will, by the planning process? So there’s so much planning going on, but never really actually doing anything.

Linowski: Exactly, exactly.
So there’s planning, planning, planning, planning, but a sort of a failure to launch or a failure to actually take some action.
So that can often get in the way of maintaining the positive relationship, because people are coming together, trying to do the work, but nothing is really happening.

Lucey: So, so, to take an offshoot question off of that, how do you kick start them into action?
Is it something as simple as, you know, just a kind of cold water in the face, if you will, to say, all right, enough of the planning; we got to do something now?
Linowski: Yeah.
I think one of the, one of the things that’s really essential for good coalition building is having strong and inspired leadership.
So having a strong leader, who has the ability to motivate the group, who can guide through a strategic planning process and break things down into incremental steps.
So really having a plan full approach to the work, so that at each meeting or at each gathering, you’re like, here’s what, here’s what we’ve accomplished thus far; here’s what we’re striving for in this meeting and then keeping it, keeping things working in an incremental way towards achieving the long-term goal.
Because we must remember that prevention is really a long-term process.
And it will take ultimately sometimes eight to ten years to really see meaningful change in policy and commitment and behavior in our communities.
And so that breaking things down into manageable steps, looking at data and assessing your outcomes along the way, can help you monitor your progress, so that you can actually keep track of it in real time.
Lucey: That’s excellent advice and a great reminder that prevention is a long-term process.
It’s not something that happens overnight and it’s nice to hear you say, to help the coalition is to break your action items down into manageable steps, so you actually can see change in these like win/win situations.
So thanks for offering that up.
I’m going to move onto our second question.
So over the years, I’ve noticed that whenever there’s a negative incident involving a large student gathering in the community, for instance, and we’re right in the throes of it now, March Madness, you know, following a basketball tournament, whether it’s a win or a loss, during homecoming or in conjunction with a holiday, like Saint Patrick’s Day, which I certainly know you’ve had significant experience with there at UMass Amherst.
There tends to be a lot of finger-pointing between the campus and the community in terms of like a blame game.
How do you get past that?
To put relationships back on track?
Linowski: Well, I think really, you know, at the end of the day, it’s important that we all remember that it’s a shared responsibility.
These problems are largely community problems that affect not only the campus and the community, the students, its neighbors, its law enforcement.
The impacts are many.
So the solution really, and responsibility rests with many of us.
So strength in numbers goes a long way.
I think when we think about how do we sort of keep relationships back on track, if there has been a negative incident, is taking a deep breath, really, honestly.
When the group comes together, taking a deep breath.
Sometimes you have to lick your wounds and grieve a little and go, gee, you know, we did the best we could and what went wrong.
When we start with what went wrong in sort of an honest and strength-based appraisal of the work that we’ve done, we go back to our data, we go back to our strategies and we look for where there may have been some gaps.
And in fact, something that has been a critical incident on our campus, often other communities have experienced as well.
So sometimes we can reach out to them and say, hey, we just had this happen.
It sort of took us by surprise; can you help us?
What did you learn?
How did you manage this, this event or this incident in your community?
What advice might you have for us?
So sometimes you go back to the drawing board, you take the pieces apart and often what it is, is it’s a slight modification of the approach that you had.
In the worst case scenario, it took you completely by surprise and you weren’t prepared at all.
In that case, then you summon your resources together, you look at the problem, you try to assess what the root causes were and where can you meaningful intercept some of the problems along the way.
It takes space, it takes patience, avoiding generalizations, you know, such as, well, students always do this or the neighbors don’t understand that or the police were too Draconian, you know, too drastic in their response or the police didn’t do enough.
Just stepping back from blame game and really understanding what happened and looking at the science to help us look at what are some effective event-specific prevention techniques that we can employ the next time around.

Lucey: I love the idea of, you know, just take a deep breath and you know, like you said, sometimes you just have to lick your wounds and you grieve a bit.
And it’s almost like own it; just own the fact that something happened and … on both sides, figure out who has to own the areas of responsibility.
But the bottom line is that there’s a shared responsibility.

Linowski:  Right, exactly.

Lucey: I appreciate that.
So I’ll move onto our third question.
So several years ago at a conference, you and a few other colleagues from around the country presented a panel discussion.
I remember attending it.
I also remember it was standing room only.
And the focus of the session was on each of your panelists’ epic fails in prevention programming and what you learned from them.
How important is it to look at epic fails or efforts that don’t quite work out the way we hoped they would?
Linowski: Oh, this is a great, great question, too, Rich.
And I think, you know, sort of going back to the idea of failure, I think sometimes the fear of failure can lead us to inaction, where we miss an opportunity or there’s a tendency maybe to avoid something in our coalition, that could be seen as a controversial issue.
And so failure is inevitable.
To be human is to fail, right?
And so research studies, when you look at them, they’re designed to test the hypothesis for cause and effect.
And as preventionists, we often look for, well, what does the research tell us will be effective in reducing underage drinking, and we study it.
But there are also studies that say actually, this didn’t work.
So it’s important to know what doesn’t work, to talk to practitioners who maybe tried different strategies.
And oftentimes we don’t talk about what doesn’t work.
You go to a conference and people are presenting their successes, right?
So I think when we did our session on epic failures, people were sort of like, oh; other people have failed?
And they’re going to talk about it?
So talking about your failures and sharing your failures can help other coalitions and prevention folks avoid ineffective techniques and wasting valuable resources.
If I have a chance, I’d like to give just an example of a failure from our coalition, which ended up really helping us redirect our strategy.
And that was, we have an edge neighborhood, adjacent to our campus, where there were problems with large groups of students leaving the residence halls and wandering down the residential streets, in search of parties, making noise and disrupting the neighbors, leaving litter and there were a lot of concerns among the residents of that neighborhood, of quality of life.
So our coalition looked at the issue and our approach that we wanted to take was to redirect students to a different way.
Have them not walk down those streets.
They could still go where they were going, but we would have them walk on the campus streets.
So we planned and planned and we had an idea of putting up some road signs, having the food truck with discount coupons for free food and meeting the students with lots of volunteers to say, hey, would it be OK if you walked this way, instead of through the neighborhood?
And what we found was the students were lovely.
They were appreciative, they said hi, they said, oh, we don’t really need any food.
Thanks, we’re on our way out.
And they kept walking exactly the way they wanted to go.
And in part, that’s because their patterns were set.
That was a walking route and there was value for them in being on that street.
The street was wide, it was poorly lit, the sidewalks were not really passable, so you could walk in the street, without worrying about being hit by a car and there was value in being in the parade, where other students could see you.
So it had social value.
So we stepped back and said, well, we’re not going to make them walk a different way, and we can’t.
It’s a public street.
So what we decided to do instead was engage students in a street-intercept approach and to keep the message simple.
And it is being visible on the weekend nights, having students greeting other students saying, you know, hey, guys.
You’re entering a residential neighborhood, have a good time tonight, but please keep your voices down.
So talking with the students as they went out, as a cue to action, to remind them that they were entering a little bit more of a quiet zone.
Four years later, we’ve made, we’re working on making some neighborhood improvements, to change the built environment.
So that includes improving the street lighting, removing trees and shrubbery that blocked the sidewalks, fixing the sidewalks, so people can actually walk on them.
Improving the street, the street markings, so that stop signs are clearly marked and that people will stay in their lane.
We’ve engaged the landlords in some of the property improvement.
So you might say, walk this way in the beginning was a failure, because we didn’t redirect the traffic.
But in the end, it was a success, because the students are still walking on that street, but we don’t have the same level of noise and neighborhood complaint.
So I think our failures really can help us refine our strategies and be more effective in the long-run.

Lucey: That’s an excellent example and especially around reframing a quote, unquote “failure”, if you will.
And as you said, it ended up being sort of what you wanted in the first place, maybe not exactly what you were looking for, but it got to the same result.

Linowski: Correct.

Lucey: And so, you know, that’s just an excellent example of how we can learn from quote, unquote, “mistakes” or “failures” or what have you.
Moving onto our fourth question.
So you and I have co-presented workshops on the importance of strategic planning in drug abuse prevention.
So what do you consider the easiest and the hardest parts of strategic planning?
Linowski:  Well, as I thought about this, I think the easiest part of strategic planning is probably finding the tools and resources to guide the process.
If you go online, within ten minutes, if you know what you’re searching for, you can find amazing and credible resources to help you with strategic planning.
So we have the SAMHSA Strategic Prevention Framework, the Center for Applied Prevention Technology has resources available.
The Kellogg Foundation, Community Toolbox Resource.
There’s guides, checklists, activities, sample goals and objectives.
And everything is sort of there for the user.
The hardest part is actually doing it.
So the tools are there, but the hardest part, I think, is organizing the people, bringing the right people to the table, collecting and looking at your data, assessing your community readiness, selecting the strategies, evaluation.
I guess that’s all of it, right?
Lucey:  Yeah, yeah.

Linowski: That’s really the hardest part.
But honestly, you know, making a one, two and three-year plan is probably one of the most sage pieces of advice that I’ve gotten from other, other practitioners.
And what I think makes it easier, through your planning process, is really being realistic about what can be accomplished with the available resources, the political climate and the time that you have.
Considering the conceptual fit.
So there can be a tendency sometimes to research by Google.
Oh, let’s look and see what other campuses are doing to address problematic tailgating at their football games.
And you Google, and you find an article and then you try to do it.
So you really have to understand, does something fit conceptually and practically within your community.
I also think one of the harder parts that folks can sometimes avoid is, they’ll find an evidence-based strategy and decide, well, this isn’t exactly what we’re going to do, so we’re going to modify it.
We’re going to take basics and do a little bit of basics, but we’re going to tweak it.
What we know is that evidence-based strategies have to be implemented with fidelity, the theory and the practice.
If you change it, you have an obligation to evaluate it, to make sure that your modification is still resulting in the intended effect.

Because for the same reason, you can end up wasting time and money on an ineffective approach, that then will sort of demoralize and destabilize your efforts.

Lucey: I love the notion of the easiest part is going online to find the resources.
Because in essence, that work’s been done for you.

Linowski: It has, yes.

Lucey: But the hard part is actually doing the work.

Linowski: Right, exactly.

Lucey:  So I just love those two ends of the spectrum, because it is not an easy process, but some of the work has been laid out for you and you just have to figure out what the work’s going to be and then actually doing it.

Linowski: Yeah.
And sometimes, you know, I’ve heard of campuses where they have a brilliant prevention person, strategic planner person, maybe even a consultant, write their strategic plan.
And they’ll present it to the group.
And it’s not the group’s work and the group doesn’t understand.
The prevention approach doesn’t understand the science behind it and it ends up being a to-do list, right?
That folks haven’t bought into.

Lucey: Well, we’re going to wrap up the podcast with our final question.
And so, what words of encouragement around campus and community relations can you give to this podcast’s listeners, who are working to prevent drug abuse among college students?
Linowski: Ah, a great one.
You know, I mentioned earlier that being in prevention means that you’re always working towards a long-term change and improvement in your community.
And that sometimes change is happening and we don’t recognize it, because it can sort of be at a snail’s pace.
So in terms of maintaining your momentum and being encouraged, I think avoiding self-blame, so when things don’t really go the way we intended, either relationships fall apart, resources dry up, you don’t get that grant.
Avoid the tendency to blame, blame yourself or blame your group.
I think that’s really important.
Adopting a realistic perspective on the possibilities for change.
A new President, a new campus President or a new police chief may come into the role, who’s not as open to the approach that your coalition had in the past.
And sometimes you have to just step back and say, well, not now.
Now is not the time; we’ll put that on the back burner and we’ll pursue some of our other goals and objectives.
I think seeking social support, finding mentorship; there’s a tremendous community of prevention folks and coalitions, who are all in the same boat.
And so reaching out to one another, going to professional conferences, networking, reading.
I think listening to these podcasts.
Anything you can do to keep yourself inspired and fresh on the field is important.
And you know, in the words of AA, you know, accept the things you cannot change, change the things you can and have the wisdom to know the difference.
So just always being realistic with yourself and never giving up hope.

Lucey: That’s excellent advice to end on, Sally.
Thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.
It’s always a pleasure to hear your insights on the work that we do.
Linowski: It’s great to talk to you, Rich.
And I look forward to seeing you soon.

Lucey: You as well.
And thank you to our listeners for joining us today.
Take care and have a great day.

Linowski: OK, thank you.