Helping youth stay safe through education, engagement, and support

When I came on board at Mazzoni earlier this year I had no idea that I would be given the opportunity to enhance the way that youth in schools all over Philadelphia learn about healthy sexuality. Our educational workshop series, “How to Love,” is inspired by the reality that students don’t have a standard setting to receive accurate and applicable information regarding Healthy Relationships, Reproduction and Birth Control, Gender and Sexual Identity, among many other topics.  Providing young people with a safe space to discuss these topics with their peers is both exciting and rewarding.  
I was reminded of just how important this work is when I saw that the news this month that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has published the first nationally representative study of lesbian, gay, and bisexual high school students in the U.S.  The results are sobering, and indicate that lesbian, gay, and bisexual students experience substantially higher levels of physical and sexual violence and bullying than other students.
(Note: this survey did not include the option for students to identify as transgender, but the CDC and other federal agencies are developing a way to reliably count transgender teenagers in future surveys, possibly starting next year).  
Among the CDC’s findings were that LGB youth were more than three times more likely to report being raped than their heterosexual peers; more than twice as likely to experience physical dating violence; and twice as likely to be bullied at school or online.  
Clearly all these things are health concerns in and of themselves – and they also place LGB youth at significant risk of suicide, depression, addiction, poor academic performance, and other serious consequences.  Forty percent of LGB students said they had seriously considered suicide, and nearly one in three had actually attempted it within a year of completing the survey.  Many of these students reported skipping school because they didn’t feel safe, and at least a third who responded reported being bullied on school property.
These findings are a call to action for all of us to protect the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. All young people need to be able to access accurate information about sexuality and sexual health - but for LGBTQ young people the need is particularly acute, given what we know about the challenges they face.  
That’s why I believe so strongly in the work I do in the Philadelphia Public School district, as part of Mazzoni Center’s How to Love program.  Every week I go into different schools and present workshops that explore a specific aspect of relationships and healthy sexuality. Often it starts by exploring the relationship we have to ourselves, which is so fundamental to how we engage with others.
The workshops include: Healthy Relationships, where we talk about self-esteem, respect, communication, safety and how to build healthy relationships; Knowing Your Body & Anatomy, where students learn basic reproductive and sexual anatomy; Reproduction & Birth Control, where we review myths/facts about pregnancy, and focus on reducing the risks of teen pregnancy with a mini-presentation on forms of birth control options and how they work; HIV/AIDS 101, which covers HIV transmission, reducing the risk of transmission and HIV/AIDS-phobia.
There’s also STIs Safer Sex, where we review the signs and symptoms of sexually transmitted infections, and talk about sexual decision-making, safer sex methods, and debunking popular myths; Gender & Sexual Identity, where we explore stereotypes and bias around sexual and gender identity; How to be More than a Bystander, where students learn about the different types of bullying and its impact on self-esteem, as well as best practices to support each other in preventing and addressing bullying; Self Esteem, where we talk about the importance of having a positive self-image, reasons why self-esteem can fluctuate between high and low, and healthy ways to empower ourselves.
Recently I’ve developed some newer workshops, including Consent, where we review the laws around consent and engage in interactive activities that underscore the importance of understanding and establishing physical boundaries for students and their peers. Body Positivity gives students a platform to discuss how the media shapes a lot of body images and perceptions of beauty, to learn about eating disorders and gain some tools to maintain a positive self-image.  In Sex & Tech we explore various social media platforms and discuss the risks of sexting and cyberbullying, as well as what healthy online interaction looks like. 
The name How to Love carries a lot of possible meanings to me - because we all learn how to love from someone in our lives and it’s a unique experience. One of my favorite ice-breaker activities with students is called “agree/disagree,” in which they move to one side of the room based on their response to a series of statements, such as: oral sex isn’t real sex; jealousy shows that you love someone; I don’t trust anyone until they give me a reason to, and so on.  
Each time I facilitate this activity, the results are unpredictable.  People believe things based on their own personal experiences, and you can’t tell someone else what to believe. 
This has been a humbling job, and it has helped me to be even more open-minded than I ever imagined.  I’m learning to appreciate other people’s experiences and their truths.
One of the best things about the curriculum that I facilitate is that is so malleable and can be adjusted based on the needs of a particular setting.  And I always welcome feedback or suggestions from teachers, families and youth regarding our curriculum.  
I think students appreciate the fact that there’s no pressure to be right, no grades, no deadlines, and no shame in these workshop sessions. I recognize that all students have an individual perception of themselves that may vary from that of their classmates, which is an essential part of growing up.  I am so grateful to be a part of their learning process. 
To learn more about our educational workshops and how to schedule them at your school, you can contact me anytime at 215-563-0652 x 259 or via email.  
As we head into another school year, please remind yourselves of the importance of acknowledging the individuality of our youth; we have a responsibility to the future movers and shakers of our society and a duty to give them our best—whether that’s accurate information on new discoveries in personal health, methods for making safer sex choices, or simply allowing them to take up space in conversations pertaining to their own values and desires. They deserve that and so much more!
This post originally appeared in our "On Being Well" column in the August 25 edition of the Philadelphia Gay News.

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