Higher Education

Gen Z-ers Turn Away from “Me” and Choose “We” Across the Carolinas

By Katie Brown
Faith in the Vaccine ambassadors. Photo courtesy of Bridge Builders Carolina

Faith in the Vaccine ambassadors. Photo courtesy of Bridge Builders Carolina

Cameron Robinson is no stranger to commitment and hard work.  

In the spring of 2021, a senior at Livingstone College, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Salisbury, North Carolina, Robinson is majoring in business administration, is a member of both the men’s basketball and track teams, and already has secured his spot in a graduate MBA program.  

Outside of the classroom, you can find him at car shows, hanging out with friends, and skimming social media. Perhaps more surprisingly, however – for someone of his oft classified self-obsessed generation – Cameron also spends a significant amount of his time in homeless shelters and church parking lots, discussing misinformation and vaccine equity with some of North Carolina’s most underserved and vulnerable residents.  

Cameron is a member of Livingstone’s “Faith in the Vaccine” student ambassador team, led by professor Dr. Da’Tarvia Parrish. This campus team is part of a larger network spearheaded by Interfaith America and regional partner, Bridge Builders Carolinas, that works to bring resources, education, and bridges of understanding to pockets of our country that need it most. 

This ever-growing network is powered by young people, typically students on undergraduate campuses that have an interest in public health, interfaith cooperation, public service, and communication. The goal of their work is to build toward a more pluralistic and inclusive society, leveraging critical thinking, listening, and empathy to overcome differences and drive positive societal change. 

Today, the focus of the Livingstone team and the 17 other campuses doing similar work has continued to be around debunking misinformation and providing equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in underserved and vulnerable populations across the Carolinas. This approach has been greatly successful in terms of reaching and building bridges across difference, particularly when it has come to vaccine-hesitant and/or resistant individuals.  

Why? The answer – while complex – lies at the intersection of youth, faith, drive, and hope. 

COVID-19 and Vulnerable Populations in the Carolinas 

At the onset and throughout the early phases of COVID, the future did not look so bright in places like Salisbury or the Carolinas at large, particularly when examining data around the Black community. 

Black individuals hold a significantly greater proportion of both North and South Carolina’s populations (22.2% and 27%, respectively), compared to the national Black population figure of 12.6%. 

As happened nationally, the Black population in the Carolinas also suffered tremendous loss and fallout from COVID-19. The Black community in North Carolina still has the highest case incidence per 100,000 residents, and 33% of all COVID deaths in South Carolina have happened to Black residents.  

Yet, even amidst this loss and tragedy, vaccination rates of Black Carolinians have lagged that of other races. Only 48% of the Black population in North Carolina has been fully vaccinated, and the figure is even lower for those who have received a booster. Many point to this reality being a result of lower trust levels and misinformation vulnerability. Vaccination in Black and Latinx populations have been successful over the last year, though, and point to a great success in outreach efforts. 

New research from Tufts University, “The Misinformation Maelstrom,” studies indicators that lead to misinformation vulnerability across our country. They found that areas with higher median age and a lower educational attainment level are two important factors in predicting susceptibility to consuming, spreading, and sharing misinformation.  

When examining the Carolinas, both states find themselves in the bottom half of U.S. rankings in these indicator measures.  

As the Carolinas and its most underserved communities grappled with these low vaccination rates, high death tolls, and information inequity last summer and fall, Interfaith America and Bridge Builders Carolinas initiated a joint approach with their teams – particularly including HBCU campuses – centered on Gen Z ambassadors, communications training, and relationship building. 

Their hope? Leverage and train young people like Cameron to be new types of leaders: empathetic, open-minded listeners that can put polarization aside and meet people where they are to walk alongside them in their journeys.

Cameron’s Generation: The Power of Gen Z 

More individuals than ever before make up Gen Z (those born between 1995-2007), with the eldest among them like Cameron – young adults coming of age, graduating from college, and entering the workforce. While often criticized for being self-centered, image-obsessed, and unable to compromise, there is still no doubt that this generation wields significant influence in our communities and across our country.  

The first generation to fully embrace the power that social media platforms give to individuals, Gen Z is finding its voice quickly and loudly. Nearly 40% of influencers are from Gen Z  and 98% of U.S. Gen Z-ers own a smartphone.

What’s more, this generation is more diverse than any other, with growth coming particularly from Black and Latinx populations. Well over half (55%) of the Black population was under the age of 37 as of 2018, with 31% alone falling into up-and-coming Gen Z. 

Before early 2020, Gen Z was well-positioned to inherit a thriving economy and a period of global rest. However, the COVID-19 pandemic, a national racial reckoning, and recent global violence have dramatically shifted the course for this generation as they age into adulthood and all that comes with it.  

With these factors painting the backdrop, many older generations – and researchers – have begun to consider what the future of our country and communities will look like with this seemingly new breed at the helm.  

The good news? According to Cameron, the outlook is not as grim as one might think.  

“This time in my life is stressful and uncertain, but I still don’t think we’re at our lowest point. I believe if I can maintain a strategic mindset and make the most of opportunities given to me, we can still forge a good path forward.”

Cameron’s perspective signals hope, even amidst this unprecedented moment in time and ongoing repercussions from all our country has experienced these past two years. What’s even more positive is that these themes go beyond Cameron and his peers at Livingstone as they echo recent national attitudinal research on Gen Z.  

Six in 10 Gen Z-ers of color believe that they will be better off than previous generations, and nearly 40% say they will prioritize being involved in community service during their higher education years (UCLA Higher Education Institute, 2017), a figure that has grown 118% since the 1990s.  

Large majorities of this generation also classify themselves as confident, open-minded, interested in social media content that helps others, and driven to learn new skills.  

When facing the question of how to overcome national challenges and the great divides that we’ve seen in the wake of recent elections, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, Interfaith America and Bridge Builders invested in Gen Z as a key to finding the answer. With the influence, confidence, and hope of these young people in tow, “Faith in the Vaccine” efforts were launched across the Carolinas. 

At the Intersection of Gen Z and COVID-19: Interfaith America’s “Faith in the Vaccine” Initiative 

The initial wave of Interfaith America and Bridge Builders’ collaborative “Faith in the Vaccine” ambassador program began in one of the densest populations across the Carolinas: Charlotte.  

Dr. Suzanne Watts Henderson’s Bridge Builders team quickly recruited nearly 50 Gen Z ambassadors from prominent campuses like HBCU, Johnson C. Smith University, Davidson College, and Queens University. In partnership with Interfaith America, they provided intensive student ambassador training around listening, communication, COVID-19 science, racial disparities, and public health challenges in the Carolinas.  

At the height of the pandemic, these ambassadors and their leaders were able to educate and vaccinate close to 300 individuals in underserved pockets of Charlotte, reaching countless others along the way.  

Buoyed by the success of the first wave, Interfaith America approached The Duke Endowment in late 2021 for additional funding which has since expanded their efforts significantly. Eighteen new college and university campus teams are now at work across the Carolinas, including Cameron and his Livingstone ambassador peers. 

Livingstone’s team leader Dr. Da’Tarvia Parrish, speaks of her team’s work – and of Gen Z – with the highest regard: 

“We are all here sharing in a human experience together. I feel it’s best to shape, train, and sow seeds into our future generations so they can recognize the significance of communal living and make sound choices to continue to grow, serve, and lead. I count it a joyous blessing to be able to work with young people as they share in my experience, and I share in theirs.”

This spring, the Livingstone team hosted a vaccine education event and clinic at a local homeless shelter in Salisbury, North Carolina as part of their work.  

Cameron reflected: “It was a real eye opener. People of all ages – even people like me – showed up because they needed help and information. It helped me to see how many resources and opportunities I have that older generations didn’t necessarily get.”  

While Cameron exudes wisdom beyond his years, many are wary that his Gen Z peers aren’t as communicatively mature and wonder how these cohorts of ambassadors are getting through to such large swaths of Carolinians, particularly on issues rife with difference, polarization, and political undertones. 

Various studies suggest that peer ambassadorship is an effective communication tactic for increasing vaccination rates at large, however, there is one additional ingredient that makes up the “special sauce” of Interfaith America and Bridge Builders’ approach: faith.  

Faith-based Outreach Moves the Needle on Vaccinations 

Interfaith cooperation has long been at the core of Interfaith America’s mission and work. A less divided future cannot be realized without more pluralistic and inclusive communities, and at the heart of moving toward that reality are young people like Cameron, the next generation of leaders and citizens.  

Through more traditional lenses, Gen Z is seen as the least religious generation, particularly when it comes to identifying with a particular religious tradition or house of worship. However, a recent study from Springtide Research points to the fact that Gen Z is in fact keeping the faith, albeit differently, with 78% agreeing with the statement, “I am at least slightly spiritual.” 

In addition, 46% of Gen Z-ers said that they began a new spiritual or faith-based practice during the uncertainty and isolation the COVID-19 pandemic created (Packard and Kuile, 2021).  

Other data sources point to Gen Z very much looking for a greater purpose or a higher power, however, they often look for it in others, placing value and importance on community over traditional . 

This spirituality and community-based outlook, combined with Gen Z’s ability to influence and communicate in fresh ways have built a strong foundation for the “Faith in the Vaccine” initiative. 

Research from PRRI also shows the effectiveness of faith-based approaches when communicating with vaccine-hesitant individuals. Four in ten vaccine-hesitant Americans who attend religious services just a few times a year say one or more faith-based approaches would make them more likely to get vaccinated.  

The unique combination of interfaith dialogue, listening, and youthful energy that the “Faith in the Vaccine” initiative promotes, has proven successful not only for increased vaccination rates across the Carolinas but also for community-building and self-evolution for each Gen Z-er involved.  

The Best Outcome? Investing in Tomorrow’s Leaders   

While the Carolinas and their underserved residents have undoubtedly benefited from Interfaith America and Bridge Builders’ efforts, the purpose of this work looks toward a higher calling than raising COVID-19 vaccination rates alone: a deep, unwavering investment in young people like Cameron Robinson.  

Dr. Parrish of Livingstone says it best:

“I must say, through our work I haven’t found many people with “faith” in the vaccine itself. Instead, people have faith in others. I learned a while ago that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.  This is especially true when working with young people. When they learn you are investing in them they invest in themselves much more. My relationship with these young ambassadors has been mutually rewarding. Our bonds are stronger, our laughs louder, and conversations more meaningful.” 

Taking the time to truly understand and engage with this often-misunderstood generation has brought about a fresh wave of hope in Salisbury, where the Livingstone team continues to have a positive impact, and in 17 other pockets of the Carolinas where current “Faith in the Vaccine” campus teams exist.  

As Cameron and his peer ambassadors look toward their futures, it is clear that their experiences in this program have solidified their commitment to driving continued positive change in their communities and beyond, a powerful and hopeful outcome for our country, and for their generation.  

Katie Brown is the former Marketing & Communications Manager at Bridge Builders Carolinas.