By Jennifer Crain
Shambricia Spencer has been educating teens about sexuality, prevention, and decision-making for over a decade, ever since she was a teenager herself.
As a high school student in Thurston County in the 1990s, Spencer was chosen as a member of Planned Parenthood’s Teen Council, a group of student leaders ages 15-19. The award-winning program trains youth as peer sexuality educators, focusing issues such as relationships, diversity, and risk reduction. Founded in Thurston County in 1988, the movement has grown to include 23 chapters nationwide.
Spencer, now a co-facilitator of the group with Tim McLeod, guides weekly meetings where they tackle tough, important subjects: the importance of replacing rape culture with a culture of consent, gender roles and stereotypes, harassment, and dating violence, to name a few.
Sound depressing? Far from it. The Teen Council is committed to communication, openness, and problem solving. Members can define and recognize damaging social norms, such as “micro aggressions”: tiny acts of violence against a person who is disenfranchised or different from the mainstream. They acknowledge the facts of life unblushingly and meet uncomfortable – and frightening – realities with solution-oriented optimism.
In-depth training, community building, discussion, and skill-based work prepares Council members to be community presenters on a variety of subjects. In addition to a four-day seminar (“CPR for Relationships!”), they provide workshops on a wide range of topics including drug and alcohol risk reduction, abstinence and delaying sex, bullying and harassment, and human sexuality. This year there are 18 members from six area high schools. In 2013, over 4,000 students at 20 schools in the area attended one of the group’s programs.
Some parents worry that talking about sex openly with teens will result in a higher rate of sexual activity. In fact, studies report that teens who felt a sense of open communication with a parent about sex were more likely to delay sex. And those who had an open conversation about birth control in the past year were more likely to take steps to stay safe, such as wearing a condom.
But not all kids get the support and information they need at home: only 74% of parents are talking to their kids about how to say no to sex. And even though the vast majority of us (94 percent of parents) believe we are influential in whether or not our child uses condoms or other forms of birth control, only 60 percent of us are actually talking with our kids about it.
Teen Council presentations attempt to get the conversation going by helping teens figure out how to talk to their parents. (One pamphlet states, “Your parents might be relieved if you bring it up first!”). They educate using interactive methods, such as skits and other exercises. Spencer and McLeod note that there’s no editorializing: Teen Council members don’t share their own values and are trained using a protocol that encourages respect for the values of all participants. The focus is to provide medically accurate information. Every presentation concludes with an anonymous question-and-answer session.
Shambricia Spencer says in addition to being an effective public education tool, the training they receive through the program helps Teen Council members learn more about themselves.
“I think a lot of times youth feel like they don’t have much power,” she says. “Teen Council is a place where the youth are the leaders. And they come to realize some of the power and the potential they have to make change by doing things like going to be a keynote at a conference full of adults. Or going to lobby their legislators. Or standing in front of a classroom and being sort of the expert about consent or bullying or harassment.”
“Youth experts” may sound counterintuitive but Spencer and McLeod see it every day.
Mason Bennett-Ponsford, for example, gave a keynote student address at the Adolescent Sexuality Conference over Spring Break. The speech received a standing ovation.
Bennett-Ponsford, a Teen Council member and senior at North Thurston High School, spoke about the deep challenges for people in the queer community (persons who identify outside gender or sexuality norms). “There’s a lot beyond bullying – problems with anxiety, depression, and suicide within the community. A lot of issues with housing. A lot of issues with being able to access resources, support yourself, get a job, go to school. These are issues that affect everyone but it’s so much more an issue within the queer community.”
Being a peer educator gives students like Bennett-Ponsford opportunities to become activists for important issues like these, as well as helping them hone skills and grow as leaders. And it starts by helping their peers engage in a different way.
“I value peer education so much. It’s kind of like horizontal education,” Bennett-Ponsford says, noting that Teen Council programs have a different tone than traditional workshops. “Peer education involves a student-to-student connection, so they can learn. So they can have an idea how to keep themselves safe, an idea of how to be respectful to everyone around them.”
Spencer and McLeod are accepting applications now for next year’s Teen Council. Applications are due May 2.
They look for applicants who are willing to devote the time and who have an interest in service.
“We look for people who are passionate,” Spencer says, “for students who want to be leaders in the community.”
For more information about Teen Council, visit this site. All photos courtesy Planned Parenthood.