Advocates are working together with school and community educators to advance the inclusiveness and effectiveness of youth sexual health education through an anti-oppressive approach and the use of peer-led learning. ReproCollab is partnering with and providing support to these community-based efforts to ensure young people have medically accurate information that equips them to make informed decisions about a healthy sexual life and family planning that fits their life and aspirations.
“We have begun to address the absence of youth voice in sexual health education by intentionally engaging young people in the development of the forthcoming 2022 State of Adolescent Sexual Health (SASH) report in order to better understand the lived experiences of adolescent sexual health from young people and with greater knowledge of the systems of oppression that impact sexual health.” said Adrienne Gomez, Senior Program Manager for the Trailhead Institute’s Youth Sexual Health program.
With funding support from the ReproCollab, Trailhead launched an initiative to reimagine the 2022 SASH report using an anti-oppressive framework, beginning with the convening of a Youth Sexual Health Program Board comprised of young people and adults whose identities have been made marginalized by systems of oppression.
Under the vision and leadership of this board, the SASH is evolving with a focus on centering youth voices, uplifting pleasure-based sexual health education and emphasizing nontraditional forms of data like storytelling to shape the future of youth sexual health education in Colorado.
As leaders of Colorado’s WISE initiative (Working to Institutionalize Sex Education), Trailhead recognizes that helping schools and community-based organizations move toward the use of a comprehensive curriculum and an evolving approach is a long-term undertaking. Another big task is ensuring access. Colorado is not among the 39 states that mandate some form of sex education programming (Planned Parenthood).State law leaves it up to each Colorado school district whether to teach sex ed and the state does not track the districts that do or don’t teach it. The districts that do choose to teach sex ed are required to use a curriculum that is comprehensive and medically accurate. Trailhead Institute is working together with a number of school districts, as well as community-based youth-serving organizations, to create effective and sustainable approaches to providing sexual health education. The goal, says Gomez, is to make the programming both comprehensive and liberatory – a framework lead by sexual health advocates from BIPOC communities wherein young people are active agents in their own learning – and to ensure educators are well qualified.
Gomez points to peer-to-peer education as a successful approach for teaching youth about sexual health topics with programs such as AUL Denver’s peer sex educators and the Colorado Health Network’s #unfiltered youth program as two prime models of liberatory sex education. Colorado Health Network’s Sexpert School peer education program teaches teens how to host lessons on sexual health and become champions in their community.
Diverse cohorts of young people between the ages of 15 and 24 are recruited for the program. Selected applicants receive training through online, interactive courses, followed by in-person, in-depth facilitation training. The trained peer-leaders then recruit youth participants and facilitate up to three peer trainings. The whole process takes about three months and sexperts receive a $500 stipend.
Leila Jones participated in the first-ever Sexpert School cohort during her junior year at Denver Center for International Studies high school. Now a rising junior at Loyola University New Orleans, Leila said, “When I was in middle and high school, the prime-time for receiving any sort of sex ed, I did not have that kind of help and heard so many conflicting or incorrect rumors about sex from my own peers.”
“I also discovered that the participants had begun telling their own friends what they had learned in the course,” Leila said. “This showed me that they were spreading positive, comprehensive, well-researched information about sex, rather than just spreading further misinformation or harmful rumors. It was like dominoes falling from my peer-led session out into a larger community of young people.”
Over the past three months, two groups of middle and high school Latina youth and many of their caregivers met one evening a week to participate in the SOMOS pilot program. SOMOS aims to increase understanding about sexual and reproductive health, while strengthening the ability of youth and caregivers to connect in healthy conversation, as well as inspire Latinas to advocate for themselves.
SOMOS, “we are” in Spanish, was created through a human-centered design process supported by the Caring for Colorado and the Colorado Health Foundation. The design process involved more than 300 interviews with young Latinas and caregivers in Pueblo and Adams counties, exploring their life goals, and the supports they have, and then exploring the topics of sexuality, intimate relationships, and contraception.
Cohorts of 30 participants in Adams County and 31 in Pueblo – about equal parts of middle schoolers, high school students, and caregivers – recently celebrated completion of the SOMOS program with graduation ceremonies. “We held class for SOMOS in Pueblo every Friday evening. The girls prioritized SOMOS, working out their schedules around the class. Can you imagine teens devoting their Friday nights to a class about reproductive health,” exclaimed Brenda Figueroa, who facilitated the SOMOS program in Pueblo.
“One class fell on the same night as the high school prom. We had girls show up in their prom dresses, their hair all done up and in high heels. They went out to dinner before class and then went to the dance after the class.” They were devoted, says Figueroa, because it’s not your usual program. “Knowing that they made the program, through the human-centered design process, meant the program content was what our youth specifically said they needed and wanted to know more about.”
The SOMOS curriculum included learnings and discussions about communication, reproductive anatomy, mechanics of sex, contraceptives, LGBTQ+ and gender identities, boundaries, consent, self-autonomy, and more.
“It’s easy for people to think SOMOS is simply sex ed, but it’s so much more than that. We are giving people the knowledge and tools to use for important life decisions,” said Brenda Acosta, who facilitated the SOMOS program in Adams County. For example, Acosta said, “We talked about communications throughout the program. After practicing what we had talked about, one mom in my SOMOS class said, ‘Now when my daughter or son wants to talk, I stop and take the time to really listen. This makes the kids want to talk more, to say more. I feel awesome about it and can tell this approach is making a difference.’ We’re seeing SOMOS help to reduce barriers between youth and adults and create family unity.”
“We also saw community building,” Figueroa says. “These individuals came in to SOMOS and didn’t know each other. They built relationships – the girls exchanged phone numbers and snapchat, said “hi” to each other in school and started hanging out. They were able to express themselves in this setting in ways that they can’t in other places and all of them created community and friendships.”
Facilitators, community advisors, and SOMOS participants are providing feedback to evaluators following completion of the SOMOS pilot. Both Brenda Acosta and Brenda Figueroa say their communities are hungry for more SOMOS programming. “Everyone who took part in SOMOS talked about it with their extended families and friends, and many of the moms said they would love for their sons to be able to participate and to engage dads,” said Acosta. “I honestly believe that this is a necessity not only in the Latino community but in the broader society.”
“We are providing middle and high school students with the opportunity to learn important information that may not be offered through school or within their families, like consent for sex, setting boundaries with partners, and contraception. This information and the tools we provide help young Latinas to make good decisions for their health, their bodies and their well-being,” said Figueroa. “This is making a difference in their lives right now, and we hope they will be empowered to advocate for policies that support reproductive rights for all people.”
We are deeply disappointed in today’s Supreme Court ruling that significantly chips away at the rights and protections guaranteed by Roe v. Wade. As one of about half of the states in the U.S. that have protected the right to abortion care, now is the time to further advance reproductive equity in Colorado and, in the process, provide a beacon of hope beyond our state.
Colorado is fortunate to have advocates and policy leaders committed to this goal. Building on more than 12 years of intensive efforts in Colorado to safeguard and increase access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, the most recent accomplishment was passage of the Reproductive Health Equity Act. With a coalition led by COLOR and Cobalt, and the leadership of Sen. Julie Gonzales, Rep. Meg Froelich and Rep. Daneya Esgar, this timely law affirms and protects the right of all Coloradans to reproductive health services, including abortion care.
This ruling by our country’s highest court is a significant, but not unexpected, setback. It underscores the critical importance of our continuing, shared commitment to create policy, programs and services that make it possible for all people in Colorado – no matter their race, income, background or beliefs – to have access to basic health care and human rights, including abortion care. ReproCollab is dedicated to further advancing efforts to achieve reproductive equity in Colorado. We look forward to working together with communities to ensure our state is a place a state where all people have the power to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive autonomy.
Following our introduction of ReproCollab, we want to also introduce our Kitchen Table. This advisory committee will inform and guide ReproCollab strategies and associated grant funding to advance reproductive equity in Colorado.
The initial members of the Kitchen Table bring diverse perspectives and professional expertise on the myriad of conditions that impact sexual and reproductive autonomy. Each is skilled in listening to and acting on the values and realities of Colorado’s diverse communities, particularly young people of color, low-income families, and people in rural communities. With the Kitchen Table, our aim is to shift the power dynamic so that people who have faced historical and persistent barriers to reproductive health and rights can access the information and services they need, and have the right to make decisions about their bodies, sexuality, relationships, and futures. This includes whether and when to use contraception, start a family, or continue a pregnancy.
Over the coming months, we will continue to grow the number of Kitchen Table members, working to further diversify areas of expertise and ensure representation of communities statewide.
With this expertise and community-informed guidance, ReproCollab will provide leadership, advocacy, and funding support for community-based efforts across Colorado to achieve reproductive equity through policy, practice, and programs. We look forward to sharing more as our work progresses and we welcome your input, insights, and feedback always.
ReproCollab is an initiative of Caring for Colorado, with funding support provided by Caring for Colorado and the Colorado Health Foundation.
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Ensuring access to unbiased information about contraceptive options and the ability to be provided their contraceptive method of choice, without delay or cost barriers, is critical to supporting families in deciding if, when, and under what circumstances they have a child.