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'It's through education, it's through deep listening' | University students working with faith communities to spread vaccine information

The "Faith and Vaccine Initiative" relies on university students to spread accurate information about the vaccine.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As COVID-19 vaccination rates drop, Charlotte leaders are looking for new ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy

The city is working with faith communities and local organizations to boost vaccine confidence through a new initiative.

It's called the "Faith and Vaccine Initiative," which relies on university students to spread accurate information about the vaccine. Students will be working with nonprofit leaders to determine the best approaches for their communities. 

It's designed as a collaboration between Bridge Builders Charlotte and Chicago-based Interfaith Youth Core. The program mobilizes a regional network of campus-community partnerships to share reliable resources about the vaccine in communities where concerns about the vaccine and issues of access persist. 

Working with faith communities and trusted nonprofit organizations, student ambassadors trained as messengers, educators, and community organizers will plan and implement initiatives. These could include personal conversations, public presentations, social media, campaigns, canvassing, and other activities tailored to the community’s context.

"It comes out of the recognition that we've come probably as far as we can, with a short of top-down encouragement to get vaccination, we still have strong pockets of hesitancy," Bridge Builders Charlotte founder and director Suzanne Watts Henderson said. 

Henderson believes people are getting vaccinated at lower rates because of less access in some communities and for some, a hesitancy to trust the institutions that have created the shot. 

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"None of us really make a choice in our lives, if we're being told to do it by someone we don't trust," Henderson said. 

Right now, teams from CPCC, Davidson, Johnson C. Smith, Queens, and Wingate include more than 40 students who have been equipped as Faith in the Vaccine Ambassadors through the Interfaith Youth Core research-based training program. 

Typically, student ambassadors come from or have ties to communities where vaccine hesitancy is high.

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"We had many students who went through the training not fully committed to being vaccinated, and as they learned about the science and importance of the vaccine, they were easily convinced," Henderson said. 

Henderson says it's about so much more than getting shots in arms, it's also about creating new trust. 

"It's through education, it's through deep listening and assuming that if someone is hesitant, there are probably some pretty good reasons for that," Henderson said. "So often we leave religion out of public discourse and civic spaces and when we do that we miss both the inspiration and the social capital that is leveraged through faith communities."

The initiative is made possible by a donation from the Duke Endowment. The goal is to get as many people vaccinated by July 4, but Henderson says they will be doing this work into the fall. 

Contact Lexi Wilson at lwilson@wcnc.com and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.