When Danielle Griffith's college business class was asked to pick a topic for a public-service campaign last semester, the choice was simple.

"Everybody in class just pinpointed it down to suicide. Every single student, that's the one they chose," she said. 

Griffith and the rest of Ahmed Al-Asfour's Introduction to Business class at Oglala Lakota College collaborated with media professionals from the Black Hills chapter of the American Advertising Federation to fight the epidemic of youth suicide on the reservation by asking one question: "What does hope look like to you?"

The OLC class handed out 200 disposable cameras to students in grade schools and middle schools in three reservation communities and asked them to think about hope, define it and photograph it.

The result was 2,000 photographs, the best of which became the Lakota Voice Project, a grassroots anti-suicide campaign that looks for answers in the same place where the problem is most acute: the children of the Pine Ridge Reservation. 

The teenage suicide rate on the Pine Ridge Reservation is 150 percent higher than the national average. Children as young as 6 have reportedly tried to take their own lives. In 2009, the president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe declared a suicide state of emergency, and that emergency still exists today.

Griffith, 24, had two friends that committed suicide when she was a teenager. "Oh, yeah, for sure. Everybody usually knows more than one person that it happened to," she says.

But instead of documenting that despair, the Lakota Voice Project chose to battle teen suicide with images of hope: a youthful smile, a basketball arcing toward a hoop, a beautiful sunset, a green landscape, a beloved grandparent.

The most powerful of those photographs will appear on billboards, social media sites and a special website, each with the caption, "What hope looks like to. ..." followed by a call to action: the suicide helpline 605-867-HOPE. Public-service announcements are also running on radio and television, and campaign posters and billboards are dispersed throughout the reservation. 

Griffith is impressed by the final results, but she says the most effective arm of the campaign will be the way it spreads through Facebook and social media. "That will be key to getting the word out," she says.

Some of photographs will be on display at the Dahl Arts Center from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, along with presentations on the importance of suicide prevention and awareness on the reservation. The exhibit will be on display through Dec. 31.

The Lakota Voice Project has an authenticity that many other suicide prevention campaigns lack, says Karissa Eifert, an AAF member and organizer of the Dahl exhibit. Those ads are created by outsiders who never truly understand the audience. This one gives voice to Lakota children themselves, she says.

"Even if it's just photos from the disposable cameras, we'll be showing the world a point of view that's never been seen before," Eifert says. "And they did such a great job with the images. You could see the thought they put into them."

Each year, the AAF chooses a local non-profit to be the beneficiary of a public service campaign. This year, the group made the suicide prevention PSAs a mentorship opportunity for OLC students, as well. "This was also a way to work alongside students and give them some real world experience," she said.

Plans are for the exhibit to travel around South Dakota, or further, in the coming year.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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